Entrenched in French

Posted in Uncategorized on July 4, 2008 by uchideshi

It’s 3:30 AM, and instead of sleeping, I’m trying out different ways of folding shirts.

In the morning I leave for Paris. I’ll spend a week or two there, see some cool friends, walk around, take photos, sit in cafes and just generally be awesomely pretentious. After all, it’s Paris we’re talking about here.

However, I’m thinking of doing a little language experiment with my French. It will consist of the following:

I will listen to the conversations around me. I will buy a French newspaper every day and read it in a café. Pretentiously. I will, in general, really try to understand the French which will surround me every day. I’ll also try using it a bit, though I’d like to focus on the input more than on the output.

Also, I haven’t, and will not, read any French grammar book of any kind since highschool (3 years ago). I think I’m armed with enough stuff to be able to make progress simply by being exposed to French.

My arsenal is:

Complete fluency in English, which gives me lots of vocab.

10 years of French in highschool. I’ve said repeatedly that even after a decade my French is very basic, but all those years have engrained some core spelling and grammar rules, and also a simple vocabulary, so I think these things will slowly rise to the surface and help me as I’m getting more and more French input

A basic knowledge of Spanish, which I’ve studied for 4 or 5 months. However, I’m finding connections in the vocabulary, so I’m listing it as useful.

A relaxed attitude. This is not a marathon, chore or whatever. I’m simply gonna try enriching my time in Paris by trying to understand all that French around me.

3-4 hours of Michel Thomas’ French course. I think it’s a very cool method, as it makes you repeat a small number words over and over again, combining them in different ways, all the while slowly expanding your vocabulary.

Some articles I’ll dig up in the morning in French, possibly from Wikipedia, and possibly pretentiously about language theory. I’ll read them in the bus to Paris.

So, let’s see what happens after 1-2 weeks. To make a comparison, I’ve recorded myself talking some random stuff in my poor French, and I’ve also written a few lines. I have a pretty good idea how sucky this is, but I don’t really want to go into details about what’s correct and what’s not. I simply want to see what my output will be like when I come back and compare it to this output.

Maintenant je suis a ma chambre. Je dois dormir, mais je ne peux pas, parce’que je dois finir la preparation pour mes vacanses a Paris. Je ne sais pas de quoi je veux parler. Peut etre, je peux parler de fromage. Omlete du fromage. J’ai aime voir Dexter’s Laboratory quand j’ etais un enfant.

Je vais dormir maintenant. Bon nuit!


learning Japan instead of Japanese

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on June 19, 2008 by uchideshi

NOTE: This was supposed to be my theory about (individual) language learning, but I realized I’m still missing some info before I can define all of its aspects. I decided to spend a bit more time looking for some information from my past, trying to find as much English output as possible from when I was a kid. I think that what I’m looking for here is somewhere between what Khatzumoto is talking about in his blog and what I’ve been thinking about lately, but I can’t tell for sure. In any case, this post is not complete, but a lot of the thoughts which will go into the final theory are there.

What I’m beginning to believe more and more strongly in is the thought that possibly the biggest problem, the one that is the source of so many other problems, in language learning is the fact that we call the whole thing language learning.

But it is language learning, you say. You’re learning a language, or acquiring it, or getting used to it or whatever you wanna call it. What’s the big deal?

Well, the big deal is the fact that by choosing to learn a language, you run the risk of focusing on it in such a way that you might be extremely diminishing, and sometimes downright excluding, the context in which it is used. Some people who have gone beyond the grammar-worshiping idiocy that is today’s norm will tell you that if you want to learn a language, you should read as much as you can, listen to as much music as possible, watch movies etc. all in the target language. And while this is loads better than the usual method and can, when taken to extremes, bring amazing results, I think a lot of people will still be missing the following point – by looking at language as the goal of their learning, they are unable to see language as, well, a goal, a part of a whole and a means to achieve something else in it, all rolled into one.

Say wha’? Let me explain. When you’re using a language, you’re using it in a context. When shopping, when chatting, hanging out with friends, watching an action movie… The language is defined by the situation, or context, in which it is used. Context also defines, say, the “feel” of each and every word: is it a word which only kids use, is it slang, slangish but ok to use in certain not-so-formal situations, poetic… A lot of humour is based on words and phrases used out of context in which you’re expected to find them – think of deadpan, for example, or Monty Python.

But it goes beyond just words. For instance, to me and my friends the very idea of a fantasy (or any sort of really epic) movie in Serbian is weird, and even a bit silly. You see, the first one I know of was made some 2 years ago. Previously, the only fantasy stuff we’ve seen and listened to is dubbed, fantasy cartoons like He-Man, and since they’re dubbed cartoons like He-Man, they’re done in those corny, exaggerated for-kids voices. We’re simply not used to hearing serious, epic dialogue in Serbian, and even thinking about it inevitably reminds us of the corny He-Man dialogue.

Context is not just something which helps you learn a language. It is, in fact, the other way around –language is a part of context. Language is something which helps you learn, understand and feel the context. It is a big part, maybe a critical part even, but it is not the whole and primary thing. Taking this to the next level, context is a part of a culture, in its broadest definition – music, art, literature, news, stereotypes, values… everything that is defined in some way in a society and that defines the society itself.

Thus, what I think we should be doing is not learning a language but learning a culture.

My mind is slippery at this point, but I strongly feel that there is something in this idea. Think about it – can you really know a language, really feel a language and the nuisances of so many words and expressions, without also feeling at least a part of the culture it belongs to, without hearing it and using it in numerous different contexts? Just take an example of eating: Your imagination will conjure up very different scenes when you hear “Wanna get some grub?” or “Wanna grab something to eat?” and when you hear “Would you like to join me for dinner tonight?’’ or “Would Madam grant me the pleasure of dining with me this evening?”. All of these contexts are intertwined, influencing one another, defined by the differences between them, and together they form the big fuzzy cloud of associations in your head that is your English Reality.

Yet, someone somewhere decided that the way language should be taught in schools is through heavy focus on grammar and the occasional attempt at uttering a sentence or two. That is sort of like learning football by reading a manual on how the leg should kick the ball, then kicking the ball a few hundred times with kicks 15a and 13c and referring to the manual between every kick, all the while failing to get an actual feel for how the ball should be kicked depending on the circumstances, and, more importantly, forgetting that you’re not alone with the ball. There’s your team, there’s the opposing team, there’s the field and there’s a purpose to why you’re on that field.

So, this is what I think you should do if you want to understand the French lang… No, you see, habits, they’re evil, they make you say and do and think things you don’t want to. Let’s try again.

There is the Reality – a physical area where you have people(s) who have their culture and language and everyday lives in which these things happen, influence one another etc.

There are the Parts – all the things which make up the Reality. They can be a word, a phrase, a verse, a song, a love scene from a movie, a good cop/bad cop interrogation scene from a movie, the whole movie, a genre of movies, a pub, a fancy restaurant… you can go as general (music) or as specific (a verse from Blowin’ in the Wind) as you want, you will always be looking at a Part of a Reality.

Now, language is a HUGE Part of a Reality. It is what helps us understand a lot of things and communicate a lot of our thoughts, feelings and desires. However, it is still a Part. There are numerous other ways to communicate ideas: signals, colours, non-verbal gestures, actions, grunts, noises… Otherwise, mimes would be out of business. All these things make up the humongous Part called communication in a certain Reality. However, by focusing too much on learning the language, on its written and oral form, as one normally does (remember, it’s called language learning) you are in a way saying that it is only language that you need to learn in order to understand another Reality, subconsciously stating that cultures are only differentiated by their languages. You are, in fact, wrenching language out of the Reality and saying that it can stand on its own. But it cannot.

Think for a moment why you want to study, say, Japanese. Isn’t one of the most common reasons to understand some aspect of the Japanese culture, like Japanese movies, cartoons or music? Or say you want to be able to talk with Japanese people, because they are just so cool. But what’s the reason why they are so cool? Because they are so mysterious and unusual and different from you? You mean they have different values and views from you? And how do you think you are going to learn about those values and views without learning about the culture, the Reality in which they are expressed and which has shaped them? Or let’s say your reason is “I just like the way Japanese sounds”, that’s not an uncommon one. Well then, isn’t it enough to learn random Japanese phrases or even Japanese gibberish and just enjoy saying them out loud, or just listening to Japanese without trying to understand it? No, I guess you want more than just that, you want to understand. Well, what do you want to understand?

I think it all sooner or later comes back to the desire to understand a Reality. Even if you were firmly set on just the Japanese language itself, you would have to read nothing less than an essay describing how to say I or You depending on who, how old or where you are. So, you really have no choice but to embrace the new Reality, and by truly embracing it the language will come with it. It was more or less like that for me and my English.

Ever since I’ve started thinking about languages more and how to learn them, I was somehow always coming back to the question of how I learned English. I want my other languages to be as good as my English, but for that I first need to know how I achieved this level of English. It was no good just trying to remember – ever since I was a small kid it has been a part of my life; I can barely remember a time when I didn’t know English. After talking with my parents and thinking it through I think a large part of it has finally made sense.

Based on what I’ve written so far, you could say that I know how to use English quite well, but I should tell you two things. First I did not reach fluency in English in the classroom. My parents did enroll me in an English class when I was 11 (at the same time the English classes in my primary school started), but I know that I was already speaking English at the time – the classes at the course were in English and I don’t remember ever having a problem with talking in English; they were simply two 90 minutes segments of my week which were completely in English. Besides, the purpose of the classes was preparation for the ESOL English exams, which meant you already had to know really good English.

Second, my longest stay in an English-speaking country was one month in America when I was 16, but having been to an international public speaking competition the previous year in London, you could conclude that I already knew English quite well.

And how did I learn English well enough to pass the CPE at 16 years old with a very good mark, which puts me at a level of “an educated native speaker of English”? Was I a whiz for languages? Not really, because I learned French in school for 2 years more than English and had good private French teachers (people tell me this is a sign of prestige in Western countries, but a private teacher is a normal thing here), but my French is so rudimentary, it has been visibly overshadowed by just 4 months of learning Spanish. Did I try really hard with English? Nope. The only time I remember not understanding English is when I was like 7 or so, trying to understand the Peanuts comics and asking my parents to translate the words I didn’t know. After that, I more or less stopped asking them, and until a few years ago I never once looked up a definition in a dictionary.

So how did I do it? How did my English reach this level without any real conscious effort on my part (apart from when I was 6 or 7, but even then it never felt like work and you could almost say the same for my native language for that age)?

Easy. Ever since I was a kid I have been subconsciously making my English Reality.

Throughout my childhood I had an unhealthy obsession with Peanuts comics and I’ve looked at them, and eventually read them, literally hundreds of times (my parents had a collection of some 60 Peanuts books, the small soft-cover ones, all in English). I’ve spent countless hours watched Cartoon Network with two friends with whom I more or less grew up (who incidentally also speak English on my level). I’ve had a computer since I was 6 and I spent even more time playing games on it than I did watching TV. I’ve read and reread dozens, if not hundreds of books in English (e.g. over 30 of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels, when I last counted, and most of them I’ve read at least 3 or 4 times), seen countless movies, commercials, cartoons, all in English. When the internet came, I couldn’t get enough of it, and guess in which language the surfing was done. Also, and I think this is very important, I talked with the two friends in English so often (I have no idea why – we loved to reproduce dialogue from the cartoons, but we also just talked in English a lot) that I distinctly remember my mom telling me, when I was 11 or 12, that I should speak in Serbian more often. Nobody corrected us, nobody told us how to speak English; we just did it. Today, our conversations regularly and effortlessly switch between English and Serbian, usually in mid-sentence, depending on what we want to say. Yes, we do get funny looks on the street sometimes when we talk like Pinky and the Brain, but it would feel strange not to do it. It’s the most normal thing for us. It is our Reality.

Incidentally, when my mom was telling me about what I read in English when I was a kid, she also remarked: “But you never touched the French comics. You loved Asterix in Serbian, so we got you some Asterix comics in French, but you never grew fond of them.” Well, I guess that explains my disastrous French.

But let’s leave memory lane before I go all mushy-mushy and see how we can use this theory in practice. I’ve sort of grouped my thoughts into several bold statements. They are also italicized. Har har.

Open yourself fully to your new Reality.

Whatever the reason for choosing your new Reality, you should broaden your interest in it as much as possible. That shouldn’t be that hard, because everything will be at least slightly different – the language, the values, the popular culture, the high culture, kitsch, music, clothes, stereotypes… Everything is up for contemplation, investigation, scrutiny and plain old enjoyment.

What this should mean is that nothing should be off-limits in your Reality building. Everything is interesting, everything is important, because every new Part makes your target Reality richer. While this means that you will also be exposed to some stuff considered trash by most of the population, you should nevertheless expose yourself to it without feeling bad about yourself. After all, you are coming from a different Reality, with different ideas of what is good, bad, tasteful or horrible, and you cannot still have a clear view of where that Part fits in the great scheme of Taste. Yes, watching cartoons might on one hand be considered childish, but you’re a child in your new Reality and you’re allowed to watch them! Aren’t cartoons, by the way, an excellent example of simple stories that present in a very clear way the values, ideas and often the basic sense of humour of a certain society? So, embrace them, and when you outgrow them, discard them as childish if you wish, or keep a soft spot for some of them, like some of us do (Saaabeeeer Riiideeeer!). Anyways, only with time, when you are exposed to enough Parts, will you slowly (and more and more subconsciously, I guess) start to form your own sense of taste, what you like and what you don’t, and this sense will always be growing, changing, evolving and expanding, as does your sense of taste in your base Reality.

– You are not studying. You are accustoming yourself.

You can have the best logical reasoning, the highest IQ ever, but is that what will make you the best sharpshooter, the fastest runner or the most agile aikido practitioner? Do you approach learning these things by studying about them? No. You do them. Over and over again. There might be a manual with the rules, but like with the football metaphor, that can be the starting point and/or the occasional point of reference, but not the destination or something to constantly cling to.

The same is true for when creating a Reality: You don’t want to simply study about it. You want to get “accustomed” to it. You want the Reality to become normal to you, familiar to you; you want to be able to understand it without overthinking it, but still be able to overthink it if necessary. You don’t have the time to always remind yourself about categorical data about what you’re seeing; you’re not Robocop. When you understand a joke from Simpsons, you understand it instantly, without having to write a treatise to yourself, analyzing why you actually understood it. You could write it if you wanted to, but it is not necessary to understand the joke. The same should be one day true for your target Reality.

– Relax. Be prepared not to understand.

Immersion in a new Reality can be overwhelming. “Everything is different, I don’t understand what’s going on, there’s just so much goddamn stuff out there!” Yes, and remember, as I said, in your new Reality you’re a child accustoming to its new surroundings. A smart one that will learn really fast, but that doesn’t change the fact that everything is different and new. So, relax and just let yourself float and sort of get lost in it. Look at things over and over again, see the connections between them, think about them but don’t overrationalize it. Remember, you are not studying, you are adapting yourself to a new Reality, getting good at getting it, so to say. Out of the chaos of all the new impressions, the ways people say the same word in different situations, how they react and laugh and cry, patterns will slowly but surely emerge.

Parts are like onions.

Layered like onions, before you give me the eyebrow-raising look. For example, when I heard the song Blame Canada, from the South Park movie, I distinctly remember not understanding why my parents were laughing at the “Blame Canada” verse or the “They’re not a real country anyway” one. I could understand the words themselves, but I didn’t understand the context. A couple of years later I saw it again, and I understood it and laughed, as I was then aware of how some Americans perceive Canada and “taking” responsibility. I was 13 when I saw the movie the first time, so it was normal that I couldn’t have understood the true meaning of the song, but, and here’s the important part, that didn’t stop me from enjoying the movie. Reading Pratchett is sort of like that – I am again and again rereading some of the Discworld novels and noticing lots of details I missed the previous time, but once when I found a website that has a list of references, I was thoroughly baffled by the amount references to literature, poetry and popular British culture that I’ve never read or heard of. This only makes every new reread all the more fun.

Oh, and while we’re on the subject of rereading and repetition in general…

Be prepared to repeat. A lot.

This is directly connected to the studying/accustoming point. Again, can you learn basketball without practising? No. And if you wanna be a pro, you’re gonna have to shoot hoops till you can’t feel your arms. And don’t tell me about stuff like talent – without going in my personal view on the subject, let’s just say that I can’t think of one person who was a master of something and who achieved mastery without an enormous amount of time and effort invested in it. Accustoming yourself to a Reality is no different; it doesn’t take the muscle-straining type of effort, but it does take A LOT of time and, well, the effort to make that time happen.

– Find an obsession in your new Reality

I remember when I was looking for interesting Japanese music, and I found some pretty cool stuff. I enjoyed it, but not in that throwing-underwear-at-the-stage fanatical kind of way. I was consciously trying to remember the lyrics, and I did remember a few verses, but nothing much. Then I heard 僕ら (bokura) by 小田和正 (Oda Kazumasa), and I was completely mesmerized by the song. I didn’t care about remembering it, I just wanted to listen to it all goddamn day long. After like the 80th time, I realized I was singing along to most of the song, and I didn’t even try to remember the lyrics. I didn’t understand even half of them, but I didn’t care – the song was just that cool to me. I would listen to it over and over and over again and, of course, understanding slowly began to happen.

Now you can guess that I’m looking for more stuff by Oda, and you’d be right, but what I’m also looking for is awesome stuff in general. Remember, I was obsessed with Peanuts. My parents had serious problems keeping me away from the computer. I would happily watch Cartoon Network with my friends for countless hours, even if at one point we knew by heart practically every word of everything on air. Well, it’s time for you and me to reawaken that child-like fascination and obsession with things. If there’s a type of music in your target Reality that’s similar to what you love, then look for songs and bands which are awesome. Every Reality has its own unique and beautiful Parts. Search them out and open up to them; there’s a fine chance you’ll go mad about them.

Remember, you are acquiring a Reality and its Parts, not just a language

I’ve talked a lot about this one, but there’s another reason why I think learning Parts is better than learning just the language – you are constantly making progress, with lots of small, but visible successes, and thus additional motivation. Saying to yourself that you’re learning a language makes it sort of difficult to gauge your progress. However, learning how to understand these 3 books, those 30 songs and that one cool movie means that you can track your progress in each and every one of those Parts, both in your understanding of the language and of the cultural context of those Parts. You can even make a list of all the stuff you understand, which should also motivate you to want to add to it just that one more song.

And here I stopped writing. As I said, I realized I still have some thinking to do and I have to dig up some of my output from the past. I have yet to decide how early you can switch completely to building a Reality using only its own Parts (i.e. using only books, movies, music etc. in that language), what are the exact methods of learning to understand Parts, and some other details (like the role of grammar in the learning process 🙂 ). I am currently focused on the experimental workshop and some other stuff, so a revision of this theory will have to wait a few weeks, before I define it’s first version and do some intensive beta testing during the summer. You are, of course, encouraged to give your comments and suggestions.

A different kind of language learning classroom

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , on June 17, 2008 by uchideshi

I’ve mentioned several times how bad language education (in primary and high schools, but often the faculties too) in Serbia is, how after 10 years of second language study the vast majority of students, after finishing high-school, gets no further than a set of several basic sentences and a mediocre vocabulary which they can’t put to any real use.

I think one of the biggest reasons for this failure is in the method of teaching, which treats language as, say, physics:

You all sit at your desk. You get an explanation how some part of reality works and a formula how to find the right information which is missing in a certain situation. Then you open your workbook and get problems which you must solve. After repeating this a few dozen times, you move on to a new area with a new formula, which might or might not incorporate the previously learned formula. Repeat year after year, and forget after graduating.

This also says a lot about how physics are being taught (in Serbian schools at least), but that’s a story for another time. What is important here to notice is the complete absence of, well, common sense, when it comes to devising the right environment for learning a language.

There are places where common sense is used, though: sports. What the vast majority of people will tell you is that the best way to learn sports is to do them. Practice, and lots of it, is indispensible. At no point is a typical school-like class mentioned – you might sit at a desk and discuss a particular attack strategy with your coach, but you still have to test them out in the real world, or it’s all just empty talk. (I am not a sports expert, so correct me if I’m wrong).

Yet, when the topic is language, the answer on how language is taught is bound to be: “You learn it in a classroom”. Language, a tool which enables you to become a fully functioning member of a different society in all of its aspects, is learned in the classroom. Yeah right. Tell me, what would you say if I told you: “Basketball is best learned in the classroom”?

The language teacher will now jump and say “Yes well, what else can you do, if you can’t take the student to the country itself?”. Well, I would say, bring the country to the student.

Imagine a classroom, but with the chairs and desks thrown out. The background is a picture of a busy marketplace, courtesy of the projector. There are sounds of people laughing, shouting and bargaining, recorded at an actual marketplace. Several boxes with apples, bananas and other fruit surround a desk which represents a stall. One teacher is the seller, the other a buyer. They chat for a minute or two, going through the usual: “Hey neighbour, how’re the kids?” routine. The buyer would like to try the apples before buying them, to see if they’re fresh, and the seller cuts him a slice. After tasting it and complementing on the sweetness, he takes two kilos, and a kilo of bananas and oranges, pays, and they say their goodbyes. The students who are all standing around the teachers watch this whole scene repeated one or two times, and then they act as the buyer and/or seller.

The things which you practice in your target language in this small simulation are:

How to have a short everyday conversation, with the various essential Hellos and Goodbyes and typical “How’s life?” questions

How to buy things

How to count and do basic mathematics (you have to calculate the price of the fruit)

How to cut fruit 😉

And this is just one situation. Off the top of my head, you could do a simulation of shopping at a mall, hanging out in a bar, ordering food at a restaurant, passing through the airport customs, having an argument with your parents about not letting you stay out late, competing in a game show, flirting with a guy/girl in a club… The number of possible situations is huge.

Here are some of the reasons why I believe this sort of language class would drastically improve the speed and quality of language learning:

It simulates true situations. You are practicing how to do things which are normal occurrences in the country whose language you’re learning and which you’ll need to do in order to be able to function in it. You go through these simulations so many times, you inevitably become very accustomed and comfortable with doing various things in another language.

It captivates all the senses, and both your creative and rational brain powers. You are moving around, acting, hearing sounds, smelling things, trying food – all of your senses are involved, and studies have repeatedly proven that when that is the case, we remember things a lot better.

It is done in a relaxed atmosphere. There will inevitably be smiles and, gasp, laughter when acting in these situations, and in general everyone will be a lot more relaxed than in a typical classroom. This doesn’t mean that learning is not happening – in fact it is even more efficient, as the nervousness, or as some call it the affective filter, is drastically reduced, if not outright removed.

You are acquiring new skills. Simulations of real-life situations are just one part of this classroom. There can be debates, where you learn how to state and defend your opinion, presentations where you learn how to communicate your idea effectively; cooking/origami/sewing/whatever classes, in which the primary objective is to acquire a skill – the language is a tool which you use to learn that skill, and in the process you also practice the language itself. Also, in every simulation, activity etc. you participate, you are also practising to perform in front of a group, and thus slowly breaking one of the most common fears out there.

People of different levels can all participate and improve. In every simulation the students will practice according to their own level. In the marketplace simulation, the beginners are practicing their Hellos and Goodbyes and how to buy a kilo of apples, and the advanced students are haggling over the prices of the fruit and complaining how everything is a lot more expensive these days. Also, when a teacher has decided that a student is advanced enough, he can give the student an opportunity to also be a teacher – to run another fruit stall, which instantly doubles the amount of practice for all the other students, and gives additional practice (and a sense of responsibility) to the student-teacher.

The costs are vastly outweighed by both the short and long-term benefits. I still haven’t planned out this workshop in details (did I mention I will do it from October at my faculty? I will do it from October at my faculty.), but this is my rationale: A lot of the things which you need for the simulations are one-time purchases and efforts – bar stools, fake money, backgrounds to be projected, sounds… Once you acquire them, you use them over and over again. Stuff like fruit and other things which have to be resupplied are cheap. In any case, I feel that the money will be well spent, as the progress of students will be much faster than in a typical classroom (and if not, hey, it was worth trying).

When it comes to the whole expense thing, some will probably say that having two teachers instead of just one is a double expense both in fees and human resources, but it is only so in the first year. As soon as the first year passes, several students who are now second year and can participate in the first year classes as teachers, thus giving even more opportunities for practice to the new first year students and they themselves are practicing the language and how to teach it. Everyone wins.

This aspect is oversimplified and improvised, as it is not my primary goal now to sketch out in detail how this system could be applied on a larger scale, as I haven’t tested it out yet. However, as mentioned previously, I will have the opportunity to test it on my faculty, from October. Until then, I have to plan this out. This is where you guys come in.

This whole idea was in the beginning just a vague picture in my head of what a language class would look like. Talking with a friend over a drink, I mentioned it, and his excitement over it and the ensuing discussion is what actually persuaded me to try to make it a reality ASAP. I talked with a few more friends that evening and got some more ideas and suggestions from them, bunched it up with my own thoughts, and the next day I excitedly presented it to the Dean’s advisor. She loved it and I got the room and the support to make it happen.

In the space of 18 hours my idea went from a vague wish to hard reality, and it wouldn’t have happened without my friends – certainly not so soon. The ideas and suggestions which they gave me are great, and it is clear to me that the more people speak their mind about this workshop, the better it will eventually be.

So, here are my brainstormed thoughts so far on how this workshop should look like. Feel free to contribute to any and all parts of it – every idea will be thoroughly examined.

The Simulated Reality English Workshop (working title)

Working language: English

Duration of workshop: one year, two 90 min classes per week.

Participants: around 30-40 first year students of any language except English (the reason for this, and for the two 90 min classes, is that I would like to compare their progress to that of students who are attending a normal class of English as a secondary language)

Number of teachers: two. Less than two, and you can’t do the simulations. More than two is at the moment a bit overkill.

Level of participants: mixed. The workshop work method is such that students participate mostly within their comfort zone, with small excursions out of it (see Stephen Krashen’s theory, especially the part on Input and i+1).

Simulations: Numerous. Anything from a post office, bar or marketplace to police station, customs, game-show and funeral. Anything which can be reasonably simulated in a medium-sized room and is in some way relevant to learning English.

Materials used: Numerous, depending on the current simulation. For example, for the marketplace, the essential equipment is fresh fruit, a couple of boxes, price tags and paper money, a picture and a sound recording of a marketplace. Everything additional is optional, but much appreciated if it adds to the overall effect. While brainstorming there is no money limit – dream big, and later on we’ll adjust it to reality.

Additional activities: A lot of them will probably be advanced, i.e. they will happen after, say, 3 or 4 months of simulations, and will require at least basic previous preparation from students. Things such as debates (from simple “fruit is better than chocolate because…” for beginners to “immigration in Britain should/shouldn’t be more regulated because…” for advanced students), acting out scenes from movies etc.

Also, activities where you learn to do something new, like origami (yes, I have a need to always mention it. No, I don’t know why.), drawing, knitting, making basic (British or other) meals… The language of instruction is always English, of course, so you’re practising it along the way.

Random notes:

FUN – Everything should be fun. There are enough complicated things in life, let’s at least try to make learning a pleasurable activity. Again, this doesn’t mean results aren’t being achieved. The motto of this whole endeavour should be along the lines of: “We don’t take ourselves seriously, but we take what we do very seriously”.

Writing – I’m still thinking of how, if at all, it should be included. Writing is a skill, you have to learn it in your own language, not to mention in another one. Apart from making the students take notes and write out presentation plans in English for certain simulations, at the moment I’m not sure how much we can and if at all we should incorporate it. As for spelling, well, one part would be integrated in the simulations (e.g. names of fruit written out on tags in the marketplace sim), another could be additional reading… In any case, this requires a lot of thought, and I think a significant part of the solution is integrating as many written words as possible into the simulations, while making it still interesting (e.g. imagine a scene in court, with lots of tags on everything/everybody, Judge, Attorney, Jury member, Defendant… and they have small cards with Objection and Sustained which they show when they are acting it out)

Reading – Students should read outside of class as much as possible, but that is simply common sense when learning a new language. As part of the classroom, apart from what was mentioned in the Writing part, I’m still thinking about what should be done.

Testing – I’m not still sure about this one. I think there shouldn’t at any point be a pressure on the students to learn language for a test, at least the traditional grammatical sort of test. Of course, feel free to disagree with me.

I do think an essential part of this whole thing is a test on the beginning of the workshop and a year later, at the very end. It will be a special test, its form will not be announced, and it will be done by both the students of this workshop and a number of students who are attending a regular English-as-second-language class in our faculty. This will be an excellent marker of progress of both groups of students after a year of learning English.

I’m also thinking of maybe making small forms for students to evaluate every step of the classroom, their own feelings on their progress etc. The more data we get, the better.

That’s it for now. Feel free to discuss every aspect of what I’ve mentioned so far, either in the comment section, or by email ( sagefromrage at gee-male dot com). Also, if you know of something similar already (being) done somewhere else, please tell me. If a lot of suggestions come in, I’ll make a mailing list or something, depending on what seems like the best solution to make the discussion as productive as possible. Please write as little or as much as you wish. As I said, the more ideas and suggestions you give, the better this whole thing will turn out in the end.

The battle plan, phase one

Posted in Uncategorized on May 3, 2008 by uchideshi

As I previously said, I want to find a theory on how to acquire (and teach, but that’s not in focus right now) languages easily and effectively, and I want it to be adaptable to different environments – learning alone, 1:1 with a teacher, in a small group or in a big one or any other combination. As the only predictable thing about life is that it’s usually unpredictable, I’m guessing most people will not learn a foreign language in just one of the mentioned environments: you might start out on your own, find a teacher after a few months, join a group that’s learning the language a year later, stay with them for some time, ‘till it breaks up for this or that reason, or you simply decide to go back to studying on your own because you hate people – anything can happen, and thus the theory should have enough flexible, practical tools which will help you no matter where you find yourself.

With this in mind, I want to:

  1. Choose the methods and techniques I’m going to use for languages I want to learn
  2. Devise a method to monitor my progress on a regular basis
  3. Assess my proficiency and learning history in the languages I’m currently learning
  4. After a certain period (6, 12 or more months) I would assess the techniques used and improve the language learning theory

Correct me (pleeeease) if I’m wrong, but most people with language learning success stories can usually tell you only the general outline of how they learned a language, without really going into details. A few kinder souls will go to great lengths to share their learning methods systematically, motivate you and caution you how to deal with issues like burn out – Khatzumoto being the most extremely positive and positively extreme example, of those I’ve found (and a very honorable mention goes to the Antimoon guys and Tae Kim). However, I believe that one thing which is really lacking is a regular, at-least-basically systematic progress report of a learner’s journey from a total beginner to a fluent speaker of a foreign language.

This is the format I sort of had in mind:

– Daily reports: these would be simple enough that they can be filled out in 5 minutes, but would contain enough data which can be used long-term to study the learning progress. One type of questions I had in mind would be along the lines of “How many hours did you spend learning _______ language?” with spaces for listening, reading, speaking, total etc. and an approximate number should be put. This immediately raises the issue of measuring that time, and I’m still tinkering with ideas how to make it accurate enough to be useful, without making it deter the learning process itself, so your ideas here would be really helpful. Also, there should be a tick-the-box list for the methods I’ve used during that day (did I use only monolingual dictionaries or look up translations in bilingual ones, watched movies with or without subtitles, did some SRSing, talked with a native etc.) and a small space for reflections in narrative form, such as “Today I felt really motivated”, “I didn’t really feel like listening to the news”, “I was frustrated for not understanding the movie” “I confused the cashier by spontaneously saying a Thank you in the language when I was shopping” etc. Again, they should be very brief, with only the stronger impressions of the day noted in the narrative.

– Weekly or bi-weekly reports: They should be a bit more narrative. They should sum up my thoughts and feelings on the previous one or two weeks and answer some of these questions: How motivated I was, what I felt was the most useful technique, my (feeling of) progress in understanding certain news excerpts/dialogue from movies etc.

– Monthly assessment: I want to show my progress in the language I’m learning by using the language itself, in a very concrete way. My task would be something relatively simple, but which still offers an opportunity to be creative, such as “Write in 300 words what you did and thought about yesterday“. I would not be allowed to use dictionaries, spellchecking or similar – it will be written by hand and then scanned and maybe also transcribed. Also, while I will of course put some effort into it, I don’t want it to be a herculean endeavor, with half an hour spent pondering whether the spelling of a certain word is correct, because that would mean I’m focusing way more on the form of the form, so to speak, rather than just on form and content, as I would in my native language.

The purpose of this essay is to faithfully represent my current level of skill in my target language. It will be full of mistakes, of course, but hey, that’s part of language learning and, I guess, ego taming. I believe it’s very important to step up and say “Look, look how much I suck! Look at that awful choice of vocabulary, that impossible sentence structure, the unbelievable number of spelling mistakes for those so obviously simple words. Such sucking has not been on shameless public display since ‘N SYNC broke up. Yes, I know that there is many a gnashing of teeth and wincing of native speakers at the sentences on display here, in all their ‘orrible incorrectness and I just don’t care, for you see, I am completely aware of my suckiness. However: while I consciously accept and embrace this fact that I am currently full of the Suck, I know that I am also in the progress of expunging it. I will become better and you will see me becoming better, day in and day out. As time goes by I will remove the major bits of Suck and will slowly prune all the smidgens that remain. Maybe during all this time I will be supporting and be supported by many other people on a similar road of getting rid of their own language sucking, sharing our experiences and ideas. Or maybe I’ll be all alone, with just one or two friends wishing me good luck. Whatever it turns out to be, I will, in the end, prevail.”

Yes, ok, I got a bit carried away. However, I think I did touch on an important issue, which is that of attitude. In language learning, a lot of people are constantly in a special form of fear, particularly in the beginning stages, which is the fear of making a mistake, of seeming stupid. This is in direct opposition with the fact that it is pretty much inevitable to make mistakes when learning a foreign language or, in fact, learning pretty much anything. Embracing this fact, especially by showing your current level, in all its incorrect glory, for all to see, is probably the critical step in neutralizing that fear.

The advantages of these reports are, I believe, manifold. First of all, they help you get into the no-fear state of mind which is so important for (language) learning. Second, they give you very tangible evidence of your constant progress; imagine looking back at the first report some 2 years later and smiling not at how bad you were then, as that was inevitable, but how much you’ve progressed from then. Practically every month when you write a report, you can glance quickly at your previous one and see a small, but noticeable improvement. Thirdly, the data which you compile will give you (and everyone else) extremely useful information on what learning techniques work good and which don’t, what gave you the most trouble in learning that language, how did your motivation levels change depending on your progress and other circumstances, all of which will go into improving the language learning theory (for some reason I refrain from calling it my language learning theory. I dunno, I guess it sounds a bit selfish to me, as devising it has been influenced by a lot of people and it will involve a lot more people).

I will spend the next couple of weeks defining the monitoring system and the techniques I will apply to my language learning. During this period all of your input is much appreciated and extremely needed – comment, disprove, make fun of my thoughts if you wish, just please be as constructive as possible.

Randomly listed are the things that need some thinking:

– The progress reports: their form, is measuring time spent with the language necessary, if yes, how precise should it be and how to make it as precise as possible without hindering the learning process itself, is the daily/weekly-bi-weekly/monthly format good, what questions should be inside, should the monthly assessment be also in oral form… I think a good question to ask yourself is “What would I want to know 2 or 3 or more years from now about how I learned my secondary language?” and go from there.

– The techniques: anything that you can think of – reading books, watching movies, listening to music/movies/news on your mp3, to name some of the basic ones for solo learning, but do write about 1:1 and group learning techniques too. Go as esoteric as you want, just give a reason why you think it’s a good technique.

– The outlook: maybe your techniques are part of a language learning philosophy. Tell me about that philosophy. I’m currently defining mine and will post it in the following days (you can find a hint in the Dragons and Justice post), but I would very much love to hear your thoughts on this issue. How do you see and approach your language learning?

– Previous experiences: Tell me how good you are in your second language and how you learned it. Obviously, if your second language is English (or Serbian) you don’t have to explicitly tell me how good you are, I’ll conclude from the way you write (again, I am not an expert and I’m not here to judge you in a teacherly way or anything or feel smug because my English is maybe better, and in any case after having read way too many comments on Youtube for my own good, you can’t possibly surprise me with anything worse than what’s there)

Also, here is my should-have-already-read list of topics I want to read about in the next week or so. Since ordering books over the internet is quite an endeavor in Serbia, I’ll have to settle for good ole internet for finding this information, which is cool anyway, as I couldn’t possibly read all the required books in any short period of time. Let’s say that I want to get a general overview of these fields and draw some inspiration from wherever I find it: how babies learn languages, bilingualism, multilingualism, language learning theories, language learning progress monitoring (yeah, I’m feeling lucky, I know), pronunciation acquisition theories, how polyglots learn and how their brain works, famous language learners, why the today’s prevalent grammar-lovin’ theory is so bloody prevalent… I’ll google these topics, but I’ll be very grateful for any good link you might know of.

So, that’s it I guess. Once again, comment or write (sagefromrage at gmail dot you know) to me with any and all suggestions, questions or ideas you might have, and I’ll be more than happy to reply.

The What to the How

Posted in Uncategorized on April 26, 2008 by uchideshi

We’re all looking for a purpose for our life. A purpose which will guide us, make us happy when we are true to it, reprimand us when we are not, and give a simple, straight answer every morning, especially on those sluggish ones, to the question of “Why should I get out of bed today?”

I didn’t have a clear purpose for a long time. Several times I thought I found it, but inevitably I would slip back into what the vast majority of people are – people being pushed around by life, instead of pushing in the direction of their choice. And because I spend an unhealthy amount of time thinking about my purpose, I easily become unhappy once I see I’m not doing things because I see how they clearly fit into some bigger Make Things Better (MTB) scheme, but rather ‘cause of circumstances making me do them. You can imagine that this often makes me quite unhappy.

However, for the first time in years, I am, I believe, on the verge of defining my purpose. This is because I am finally merging the two important things in my life: MTB and languages.

Ever since high school I’ve had this urge to help people, to improve the status quo. When I see a problem, my first reaction is not “How do I avoid it?”, but rather “How do I fix it?”. While I believe such an attitude is extremely important and very lacking in today’s societies at large, it can only take you so far when you’re not certain where it is that you want to go. Yes, MTBing is cool, but what does the B look like? What is it a part of?

On the other hand, in the past 5 months or so my motivation to learn languages has been on a strong rise. In January I even postponed my exams in order to spend one month doing nothing but studying Japanese and Spanish. This was also the first time in a long time that I had a clear motivation to improve myself in something.

You see, a lot of the things I’ve been doing in my life in the past 2 or 3 years have been in line with the MTB philosophy and, even better, have given me skills and experience good enough to land me an excellent job practically whenever I want, even while still being a student, which is very atypical for a young person in Serbia. However, all of these things still haven’t given me a clear purpose, a goal to strive for, whether it’s for the next 10, 20 or 40 years, or a whole lifetime. Because of this, all the skills I’ve gained over time are great for my CV, but are not integrated within me in a meaningful way.

So, this newfound motivation for languages was a much needed breath of fresh air for me. Furthermore, besides learning them, I’ve realized through some work I did that I also really enjoy teaching them. However, while I can see myself standing in front of a class teaching languages using a method of my own, I know that this was not anywhere near the maximum I wanted to give in this area.

So, I had the following things to work with: a strong and still growing love for languages, the awareness that the current generally accepted method of language teaching is abysmally inefficient, a lot of ideas about how languages should be taught and learned, a desire to teach, and a strong desire to MTB.

In retrospect, I can only laugh at my inability to connect the glaringly obvious dots.

I want to find a method for easy, effective and fun acquisition of foreign languages. I want this method to be approved by the scientific community at large and to become commonplace in classrooms around the world.

This is the one thing I can now clearly call my purpose, or maybe more precisely my mission. It stems from my basic, firm beliefs that the world can and should be a wonderful place and that people have the capacity to make it even better than any one of us can dare to imagine. I cannot explain the reason behind these beliefs in a few simple words, but I do know that I draw all my strength from them.

As for my mission, well, I know I am not the only one doing this and I know I am not able to achieve it on my own. However, I know that I can contribute to it and that I dearly want to do it. I will still do other things which are important to me but might not fall under this purpose, for they need a purpose of their own, but I now know what my primary focus for a long time will be.

The important thing here is that this mission and its definition puts practically all the things I do, whether small or big, in perspective, simply by asking myself the following question: “How can this help me in making my mission a reality?”. For instance, now I know why I want a PhD in linguistics. It’s not because I want to, say, become intimately familiar with the nuisances of the phonetic characteristics of Anglo-Saxon simply because I’ve got the hots for long extinct vowels. Rather, I’ll learn the fiddly little bastards because they might be a requirement for getting a PhD in linguistics, and the reason I want a PhD in linguistics is to get not only useful knowledge, but also recognition from the scientific community when I present my theory. I won’t be just some guy with what might be a good idea. I’ll be a guy with an excellent idea and a PhD to back it up. Anything else concerning the said knowledge of phonetics, including enjoying it, is nothing less than a lovely bonus.

So, that’s it. I’ve got nothing to add. Time to get back to work.

On a final note though, I failed that Japanese exam. However, when my good friend asked me how it went, I sent him the following message:

I’ve lost the battle, but I’ve finally found my war.

Why dragons and justice are good for your English

Posted in Uncategorized on April 13, 2008 by uchideshi

Secondary language teaching and acquisition, although arguably one of the most important things that should be done properly in the world today, are the ones being done in quite possibly the most wrong, inefficient way ever.

You might imagine things are not any better here in Serbia, and you’d be right. I won’t go into much detail; I’d rather simply give you the sum of my experience: I do not know of one person, nor someone who knows of someone else, who, after 10 years of learning a secondary language in our primary and secondary school (French, Russian or German, depending on the class/school), is able to confidently carry out a decent conversation in that language, a decent conversation being one about favorite movies, how to get to the theater etc. Not one.

Things are even worse-off for those studying Japanese, both here and practically anywhere else in the world (though we have some problems you really wouldn’t even dream of. Just trust me on that one), because the very things which should make Japanese easy and fun to study are, in a way, being used against it.

As you know, Japanese, being from a far away ,,mystical” country, is thought of as also being very “mystical”. “They have thousands of those signs that all look the same”, “They have too many levels of politeness”, “the roots of all the words are completely different from our language” are only some of the common complaints that paint a picture of Japanese as being something us mere 外人can begin to comprehend only after, it seems, years and years of painful study. One of the ideas being spread around by my friggin professors is that Japanese actually takes four times the time to learn than what a “normal” language would (whatever that is).


But we’re pretending to be scientific here, so let’s see, on the other hand, what the situation is like with English in Serbia. From my personal experience, I have noticed that there is a significant number of young people here that can speak English on a decent level OR, at the very least, on a level higher than that of the other three mentioned languages, even though we learn English for 8 years, as opposed to 10 for F/G/R. Why?

Movies. Music. MTV. Cartoon Network. PC games. All in English.

In one word, exposure.

If you’re ever in Belgrade and you go to a club for people who love RPG games, you’ll be quite impressed by their competence in English. Most of them have never been to an English-speaking country, much less lived in one. However, they speak good English, and with confidence. Why?

Because all the game rulebooks are in English.

Well, that’s the short answer, but you probably see now where this is going. Apart from all the exposure to the things I’ve just mentioned, they had a very strong motivation to know English – they wanted to play RPG games. This has made them look at English as not an obstacle or Something We Must Learn At Great Pains, but simply a part of the whole RPG package. Wanna play RPG games in Serbia? You gotta learn English to understand the rules.

But you’re not only learning the rules, you’re reading about magical worlds and universes dreamed up by someone else in which you play by those rules; all in English. All of a sudden, you’re interested in Fantasy and Sci-Fi books, and although there are translations available, since you’ve been able to go through all those rulebooks, why not read the books in their original language, the way they were meant to be read? And why not listen to some power metal while you’re at it, which is mostly in English and which has so many cool songs about dragons, chivalry, love and so many simply goddamn cool stuff?

Nobody I personally know who’s been doing these and similar things and is competent in English (and I can name 10 such people right off the bat) has ever complained that English is difficult or that they’ve learned English in a class. Heck, it’s not even something brought up for discussion. Knowing English has for years been, simply put, a part of our everyday reality.

All of this brings me to one conclusion:

A language is not properly and easily acquired because you just want to learn that language. A language is properly and easily acquired because you want to do or experience something in that language.

Sounds obvious, but is it? I think this is one of the things that everyone is most confused about. Those who have trouble with learning a new language (i.e. almost everyone) think that they are not making progress in that language because they are not learning enough grammar rules or doing enough grammar practice or going through the textbook dialogues enough times. Even people who are vaguely aware of the notions I’ve previously discussed seem to subconsciously quickly slip into the “gimme grammar and vocabulary lists” mode (which is probably also because of the general opinion that that’s how you should learn a language). In my opinion, they are all making the following mistake:

They perceive their language learning as a goal, and not as the means to achieve another goal.

I would like to now bring up another important issue, which is the so called difference in difficulty between various foreign languages, and this is especially important when taking into account the power of the myth of Japanese being an extremely difficult language.

English is the second most spoken language in the world and I think I can safely say that it’s way ahead of Mandarin when it comes to the diversity of nations where it is widely spoken. However, in Spain, for example, people generally have a very, very limited, often practically non-existing, knowledge of English. Why?

The simple answer would be: All the movies are dubbed.

However, I digress; we’re here to talk about why so many different people know how to speak it, not why some people don’t. Well, following up on my previous thoughts, I would say that it is because of their massive exposure to English. However, before you call me Captain Obvious, here’s the second part of my idea: Being consistently exposed to so much English and knowing that so many people all over the world speak it gives the people who are learning English an additional boost – a confident, relaxed attitude towards it. Basically, it also makes them believe that English is easy and logical, or at least that it isn’t all that difficult. After all, how can something you hear every day not sooner or later become familiar? However, for some reason you can always hear so many discussions about French being more difficult than Spanish and, of course, Japanese being impossible to learn etc. So, all of a sudden, some languages are, for some reason, easier or more difficult than others.

Here we come to the crux of the matter:

Every language is easy. Every language is logical. However, it is only logical from its own point of view.

Languages from the same language family are thought of as being easier to learn, but I would say that a way bigger part of what makes that thought, from one point of view, true is the confidence that arises from knowing that there are similar patterns and word roots in the languages. This confidence sometimes becomes a part of the “general public opinion” of that language, which then becomes so strong that it overcomes other illogical parts of that language which would otherwise scare a learner, and of which there are, as we say in Serbian, a little million. Even when looking at minuscule similarities, confidence is found in the fact that on some level they are similarities.

This is why, when you stumble upon “me gusta” in Spanish, you are more likely to think about it like this:

Oh, I know that one, it means “I like” something. Like in that song from Manu Chao, “Me gustas tu”. Oh wait, so “I like you” is “me gustas tu”, but “I like the book” is “Me gusta el libro”. So, I guess gusta and gustas is sort of like a verb or something, like saying something pleases me instead of saying I like something. Anyways, “me gusta el libro” means “I like the book”.

Rather than thinking about it like this:

“Hmmm, let’s see, me gusta el libro. So, “el libro” is “the book”. “Me gusta” is a verb, probably. Let’s google it.

5 minutes of Google and verb tables later

Ok, so gustar is an –ar verb, which means that it’s third person singular is –a. However, the verb means to like, to please, to enjoy,to appreciate, to taste, to sample, which kind of confuses me. If I am correct, the “me” in “me gusta el libre” is the direct object pronoun, which would logically mean that the book likes me. How can a book like me? Let’s google it again.

Ok, so that’s the literal translation, the less literal translation would be “I like the book”. But that makes no sense, why do they use the first person direct object pronoun, instead of how we do it, which is “I like the book”? Damn, Spanish is hard.

You’re probably rolling your eyes and thinking “who would learn something so simple in that way?” Well, most people, actually. At least, I think I can safely say that most people learn Japanese that way.

Most of the basic concepts people talk about and think about every day are pretty much the same all over the world – liking things, not liking things, wanting to do this or that, comparing these two things, people etc. However, the way people think and talk about those concepts differs from language to language. Of course, there are lots of nuisances and a number of things which can only be expressed in this or that language, but that’s the very thing which should make that language more fascinating to learn, rather than more difficult.

There are so many things which are “strange” in English that you could make a list to dissuade even the most passionate classroom grammar-muncher. You talk about a pack of dogs, but wait a sec, a school of fish or a murder of crows (please convince me that you knew half of these)? Or the huge difference in meaning between the innumerous seemingly similar phrasal verbs, such as to put, to put up, to put up with etc.? These things are nigh impossible to learn if you’re learning them as a list, as part of a class, where today’s lesson is “phrasal verbs” and the only time you’ll see them again is on the final test. However, to you and me and everyone else who actually uses English every day, the differences are obvious. If you’d want to confuse them, you’d have try to do it on purpose, because you know which phrasal verb means what.

Ok, so phrasal verbs might not be the sexiest of things one can think about (though there’s that one,“to put down”, mhmmmmm, mmhhh), but you and I still know them. Why do you know them? Well, you’ve seen them and used them hundreds of thousands of times. Why do I, whose English is a secondary language, know them? For the very same reason you do.

So, instead of freaking out from every difference in a language we’re learning, a different attitude should be had. Instead of being confused and frightened by the differences, let’s embrace them. “What, in Japanese they don’t say I miss you, they more or less say I want to meet up with you? Sweet!”. “They have different ways of saying you or me, depending on the social context and the nuisance they want to add to it? Awesome!”, “They have a writing system with thousands of characters which are all made from a group of basic parts? Radical!”

It’s right time that we sum up this talk with a reiteration of the three main ideas I’ve talked about:

  • A language is not properly and easily acquired because you just want to learn that language. A language is properly and easily acquired because you want to do or experience something in that language.

  • The reason why those people who are not succeeding in learning a language even though they are struggling for years with it is because they perceive their language learning as a goal, and not as the means to achieve another goal.

  • Every language is easy. Every language is logical. However, it is only logical from its own point of view.

You might be asking, and rightfully so, where is all of this taking us. Well, let’s say that this is a part of my quest to set up some ground rules for how to easily and successfully acquire a new language. But that’s just a part of it. I’ve gots me some plans, and I’ve wanted to do the whole Big Picture thing first and show you where I want to take this little endeavor of mine, but to tell you the truth, I’m still not really sure where this thing can and should go. So, I’ll simply let my inspiration guide my writing and we’ll see what happens.

To conclude this (not so) little talk, the three main ideas I’ve laid out here can, should and will be further changed and improved, based on the discussions which will hopefully develop around them. I’ll have two, maybe three more essays like this one at most, and then when I feel that we’ve covered all the ground that should be covered and that we’ve spent enough time discussing it all, we’ll take this thing to the next, practical level.

So, though it should be obvious, I’ll state it here clearly: I’m very looking forward to your comments! The more people contribute, the better the final form of this project will be. Feel free to argue, suggest, shoot down and simply play around with the ideas I’ve talked about.

Damn you, Tolstoy

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on April 10, 2008 by uchideshi

I am 12 hours away from my Japanese exam. My very boring, very hideously out-of-touch-with-reality and, of course, very very very important Japanese exam. One would be expected at this time to be found making his hand painstakingly spill out hundreds of kanji and fervently parroting the numerous grammar rules, not starting a blog about, er… stuff. However, I couldn’t now pick up the grammar book even if every rule in it were with example sentences from Death Note and Brianna loves Jenna. Yes, it’s that bad.

Because I am. Fucking. Pissed.

Writing about all the reasons why I’m pissed at the moment would not only take too much of both your time and mine, it would make me even more angry, so I’ll just give you the latest one:

The afore-mentioned grammar book is in fact a bad photocopy of an English-Japanese grammar book that accompanies an at least 2 decade old textbook where the sole interesting thing is my imagination’s relentless urge to see the vast suppressed homo-erotic potential in Tanaka-san’s and Kobayashi-san’s undying love for merry picnics in the woods and goddamn taking pictures of goddamn Mt. Fuji every goddamn fucking day, like there’s nothing else to do in Japan ever.

I’ve ignored the scandalous fact that it’s in English, and not in Serbian, since mine is good enough, but that is not the case with most of the students. I’m not even touching the question of the quality of the content, or the complete lack of it. No, the thing that made me so angry I actually started a blog about it is the fact that it’s a bad photocopy.

They couldn’t have bothered with making a good, modern, Serbian-Japanese grammar, and we couldn’t have bothered with complaining enough to make a difference, because, barring the final years of the 90s, that would be too un-Serbian-like. But, they could have at least sold us a photocopy where the pages are not so fucking faded because some idiot couldn’t have fucking bothered checking the photocopy ink supply, so that you can now hardly, if at all, discern the kanji and only dream of reading the furigana.

On the sunnier side of things, I must say that although I still feel like a novice, I am very happy with my current progress in Japanese because, thanks to reading the thinking of some great people on the web and doing some of my own, I’ve devised a good method to actually learn that supposedly scary, alien thing. I’ve wanted to share my thoughts with the rest of You Out There and see what you think, and maybe we can all become a bit wiser without previously being angry.

So, here we are. This is the place where I’ll post my thoughts and ideas on learning Japanese, language learning in general, learning in general, life (in general, of course) and so on and so off. I have some ideas about how this thing could work and where I’d like to take it, but I’ll leave them on the stove a bit more ’till they’re ready for serving.

Until then, I’ll give you one quote that, were i the sort of person who makes Top-5 lists of everything relevant in their life, would be on the top of my list. And my prove-that-while-it’s-so-goddamn- true-it’s-not-true-for-me list. And my forehead, etched with a rusty nail in reverse, so that I can see… you get the idea.

It seldom happens that a man changes his life through his habitual reasoning. No matter how fully he may sense the new plans and aims revealed to him by reason, he continues to plod along in old paths until his life becomes frustrating and unbearable – he finally makes the change only when his usual life can no longer be tolerated.

Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy