Recently I went to a fundraising dinner for Green Card Voices, a group that records oral histories of immigrants in the US. I love the way that they humanize immigrant experiences from numerous points of view.
During the program, they put us through an exercise that I have suggested for people to try for a long time that will help us understand immigrants through learning languages. We can do it!
I subvert. I do not tend to like what authority says, simply out of prejudice. I can’t help but question it. Is the authority trying to manipulate me, to make me act in some way? I sometimes wonder if the authority has looked at all the angles. Could these ends be attained in a better way? I wonder if the authority has examined its moral responsibility. Is it a good end they seek? Authority seeks its own ends in its own way, marginalizing those who don’t see things their way.
Forget the powerful. Those on the margins have better, more creative, more compassionate ways of approaching problems. As human beings, they have their problems, of course. Folks like me–insider, comfortable, respected, able-bodied–need to listen to those who are pushed to the side to gain the wisdom that we lack by ourselves.
Automatically questioning the assumptions of authority, can make me cynical. At the same time, this doubt often aligns me with those who are marginalized, since they tend to work according to a different set of presuppositions than the powerful on the inside.
The marginalized have taught me a lot, especially that opening myself will teach me that I don’t have all the answers. I wish that authority figures knew what I know about what was happening on the margins. If we listened more to those on the margins, we would act more morally and connect more deeply with people different from us.
An eye for the subtle
What do you do when you hear someone speaking English (or any other language) with an accent? In the USA, these people are in the margins, and I know that I have a learning opportunity before me. If I’ve got the time, I tend to ask what other languages the other person speaks. This week, I got to have some cool conversations as a result.
Recently at work, I was standing in line in the cafeteria, and I heard an accent in English. I asked if the gentleman spoke a language other than English, and he replied, “Yes–six or seven.” A man after my own heart!
I ventured a guess (in Dutch): “Bent U Nederlander?” (“Are you from the Netherlands?”)
I recruited him for our budding Dutch table at work, and so this week he and I had lunch together, where he taught me a lot. I learned about his job at the company, and about his previous careers that led him to the Middle East and an extended life in Southeast Asia. During our conversation, he admitted he doesn’t speak Dutch much these days, so it was a nice opportunity for him.
Since his native dialect is Flemish, he taught me some of the significant differences between standard Dutch and Flemish, and then some differences between dialects of Flemish. He also told me that the first time he heard Afrikaans, he was surprised how similar it sounded to Flemish. I had known that Afrikaans comes from Dutch, but I never reflected on what variety of Dutch it came from. Dutch is much more varied than I had previously imagined.
We bonded around the idea that life can lead you a lot of different places, and that no job guarantees a particular job path. If we’re open, we can learn how to do a lot of things. Each job teaches skills that we bring to our next job. When we’re open and curious, we can find ourselves on surprising adventures. In addition, I learned that significant differences lie in places most people don’t care to look, even between East and West Belgium.
The world is right here
Then later this week I traveled for short trip to New York City. NYC is a language adventure waiting to happen, but with a short window, I had to keep my ears open.
I struck at my first opportunity. At the rental car desk, I saw that the agent had an unusual last name.
He hesitated here, surely knowing that I wouldn’t have any way to follow what came next. “Ashanti is the main one. My home language is Sehwi. But Sehwi is a small language, from out in the country.”
I said the name of his home language a couple times. It includes a consonant in the middle, where you blow with puckered lips, nearly like a whistle. The exotic consonant felt luxurious in my mouth.
The reulting conversation offered me the opportunity to learn about the current state of this significant West African country. China has been investing there for a while, so we got bring up the question of a potential new colonialism by China in Africa. The nature of colonialism is that countries come in to take what you have and profit from it, without connecting with you and your community. Economic powers do not consider or love to learn from the human strength and wisdom that the multitude of African cultures have to offer. We both hoped for a good future for Ghana and her people.
I encountered other stops on my NYC language journey. At the event I got to speak a little Arabic and hear some different views on politics and history in the US and in the Middle East. On the plane I saw a man studying Talmud in Hebrew and Aramaic. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to stay at these stops–or NYC–as long as I would have liked.
Always open to learn
“When the student is ready, the teacher will come,” the proverb says. I tried to make myself ready this week, and I learned about history, culture, and human struggle. Some struggle leads to great results, some to worse, and some that are yet to be determined. We can learn from all of them.
This week, what are you planning to do that will open you to others who are different from you? I hope that you will learn from them, that their experience will change not only what you know, but also how you live your life. The narrative of life that we receive through the media focuses on making us happy in a short-term, narrow, and shallow way. It does not confront human struggle or weakness in ways that we actually live. Do you hear an accent in someone near you? That’s the sound of a different way of life. Plug in now!
A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa, and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say, “This is not just.” It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of South America and say, “This is not just.” The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just. —Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, “Beyond Vietnam”
On this blog I often speak about the reasons for learning languages, and I’ve mentioned before social justice as a motivation. Dr. King asserted in the above quote that arrogance can take the form of constantly teaching and not wanting to learn–and this is “not just.” As soon as we assume that our knowledge is superior to others, we betray a lack of justice. American attitudes, even among those who seek to help others, can betray some of this arrogance, even if subconscious. The activity of learning languages can help counteract American cultural arrogance and encourage justice.
King forces an uneasy comparison because he equates this arrogance to that of those who extract the riches of the developing world and those who align themselves with unjust rulers in other countries. Arrogance lies at the basis of all of them. Taking advantage of others, condoning injustice, and unwillingness to learn from others imply that my needs are most important, relationships offer convenience, and my knowledge suffices.
This arrogance can take subtle forms. When I was in high school, one of my main interests was to “help people.” I wanted to use what I had to help people do things differently, to allow them to improve their lives. It took many years to see the arrogance in that desire. I needed to learn to do things differently; I needed others to help my improve my life.
How did I learn? I went overseas, learned languages, and lived a different life from the inside-out. I had to force myself into a new paradigm, and I came out with clearer insight into a life well-lived. My friends in other countries taught me about a better way to live.
I learned compassion as a result, which melted my arrogance. My friends overseas–many of them vulnerable because of economic reasons–gave me a gift I can never repay. Out of gratitude to them, I now believe in giving voice to those who are hurting or being taken for granted. After living as a foreigner, I believe in fighting so that the voice of outsiders can be heard and we as a society can learn from them. They challenge what we perceive as our needs, how we form our relationships, and how limited our knowledge is.
We need to create a greater demand for language teachers, classes, and other methods. This dignifies the knowledge possessed by those who speak other languages, and treats them with more dignity. Approaching them with a need and desire to learn brings more justice into our thinking.
Learning a language for the revolution
Learning languages can inaugurate this revolution of values in us. When you learn another language, you combat your own arrogance. You fight against the idea that with your language you know all you need to know. Many of us understand this point, but only passively. We can still go the next step and actively acknowledge our need to expand our ability to hear other voices and learn the language of those voices.
All the readers of this blog understand English, and the majority of you are native speakers. We have a moral imperative to learn another language and to challenge our arrogance. To open ourselves to learning, we can become children again in our thinking–and nothing makes you feel more like a little kid than learning a foreign language. Then you will be better able to identify with the humble and the outcast rather than with those who have nothing to learn.
With the right teacher, you can learn languages quickly and with seemingly little effort. In my last post, I discussed how language learning progresses best outside the classroom. Yet some of my best, quickest, most pleasant progress in learning languages took place in classes with fantastic teachers. Others learners and teachers I know experienced the same. From my anecdotal evidence, awesome teachers do not focus on grammar but use immersion to emphasize that students listen to and read real speech, and that they talk a lot in the language.
Classes have to focus on communication, not perfection
In my experience, bad classes get bogged down in extraneous details in two common ways. First, one spends most of one’s time on grammar and paradigms. I remember praying for sleep in my French class while we were learning the umpteenth irregular verb (voir, I think); staying conscious only produced pain. In Russian class, we spent literally weeks on declining nouns, and I memorized the same Modern Hebrew verb tables at least 5 times.
Second, teachers grade students according to a native speaker baseline. For French class, that’s one point off for each article gender missed. In German, that’s a point off for forgetting the final “n” for the masculine dative, and in Russian it’s missing full credit because you used the wrong variation on the irregular genitive plural.
I found that these minute details do not hinder communication when I saw that native speakers make the same mistakes. For example, French children miss genders all the time. When I was in Kiev, my friend corrected her 10-year old niece for using the incorrect genitive plural ending. My children went to Russian school weekly when they were 4-7 years old. When they used all sorts of funky verb endings, I mentioned it to their teacher, who simply shrugged–that’s normal for Russian kids, as well.
Native speakers have years to perfect the minutiae of grammar, while we had weeks. Yet the native speakers could naturally carry on a much better conversation than my classmates could. Their success came because they focused on natural input and forcing themselves to speak when they were little. (Any parent will tell you about the wonder when their baby started saying what they wanted rather than just cry.) My classes were focused on getting it right first, before we could actually communicate.
My awesome experiences: Constant speaking in class
As much as I talk about studying languages on one’s own, some awesome teachers taught me a lot quickly. When I lived in Kiev, I had an awesome teacher for Ukrainian, Lyudmila. She was short with big glasses and a high voice and the patience of a kindergarten teacher. Even though she spoke no languages other than Russian and Ukrainian, she taught Russian and Ukrainian successfully to Americans, Vietnamese, Chinese, Germans, and others. As a result, my entire lesson was in Ukrainian, and I was forced to speak Ukrainian the whole time. She proved infinitely patient with no sign of boredom. She could bring up a new word, and if I couldn’t understand it from context, she could bring up 10 more examples and contexts until I understood. I came from every lesson with a headache from thinking so hard, and a list of new words that I had learned. There were no tests. In the end, I learned to speak Ukrainian such that Ukrainians thought that I was born in Ukraine and emigrated to the US.
During the summer between 9th and 10th grades, I had an awesome teacher for German, Dr. Coates. It was a 3-week intensive course at an academic camp. Dr. Coates insisted on everyone speaking on a regular basis, which he accomplish old-school, through recitation. The first week we spent on pronunciation. In one common exercise, we had to stand up and recite the German alphabet and vowels/diphthongs “blitzschnell” during class. The next two weeks he forbade us from speaking English in class. Each week we learned a couple poems and songs, and we spent a fair amount of time reading and summarizing aloud in German. At the end of three weeks he had us perform in the camp talent show by acting out the classic 19th century poem, “Der Erlkönig” by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. For grammar, we only used the basic book(let) he wrote himself (no exercises). We only had a couple of quizzes/tests, but no final tally was made that I remember. To this day I can speak German with very little accent, and I can still recite a couple strophes of “Der Erlkönig.”
Others’ awesome experiences: No English and lots of native input
The MTC was closer to a total immersion experience. As of the first week, our classes of young volunteers were challenged to SYL – Speak Your Language (or speak nothing at all) – although they’d only had 76 ours of instruction. It got very quiet right about then. And our students got headaches! It is hard work to pry out the mother tongue (let’s say it’s English) and replace it with another (there are 52 language taught at the MTC).
We should recognize that 76 hours of instruction is a little more than one standard college semester of a basic language class. (In the universities I know, the first years of a language met about 5 hours per week for about 12-13 weeks.) I can only dream of no English spoken after that amount of time. The LDS missionaries I’ve met around the world speak local languages at a high level because of their focus on speaking with natives many hours per day.
Awesome classroom instruction also includes lots of native input. A commenter on my blog, mm172001, wrote this comment:
In the full immersion classes we were introduced to culture; ex in Spanish class in high school we would listen to Mexican radio stations and watch Spanish tv with no subtitles. In ASL our teacher would tell us stories about her weekend, when we only knew partial vocab and had to infer the rest to pick up signs.
As he described, they had to navigate through native input right away. Radio, TV, and story telling required them to work actively in the language from the beginning.
Switching off English and switching on the other language full blast offers a classroom experience in which students really learn quickly and effectively.
Awesome instruction comes from imitating a native environment
Active speaking and listening make awesome language learning possible. In my best experiences, conversation only in the foreign language and speaking the language through talking and recitation produced my best learning. For two others I mentioned, only allowing the language in class and encouraging students to engage in active listening produced awesome learning experiences. In conjunction with my point in my last post, the most important point is to speak constantly and grapple with native input all the time, whether inside or outside the classroom. Only classes based on communication exclusively in the target language will produce awesome results.
Perfectionism leads to shame because perfectionists can never live up to their own standards. Not trying and rationalising lack of action cause less pain than trying and failing. When people start learning languages they often think of their current level of their native language as the level they should be at. The task seems so daunting to many that they don’t start. Yet some still start. Naturally, after many months and years, they still do not reach the level of their native language.
Often they feel bad about not knowing a language fluently. They might feel lazy, they might feel stupid–in other words, they feel shame. In spite of earning a reputation for monolingualism, most Americans I know have learned another language in some capacity, whether Hebrew at synagogue or Spanish on “Sesame Street.” But they feel shame, they hate themselves because they’re bad at the language. Excuses begin.
I can help you. I think you probably know a little of a language, and that’s great. People often rationalise the reason why they don’t know more. I’ve included in this post three of the most common rationalisations I’ve heard–and cures for them. Enjoying what you know and taking yourself a little less seriously will help cure your language perfectionism.
I only know a little–not very much
“All I can say is ‘uno, dos, tres.'” “I can pronounce the words, but I don’t know what I’m saying.” “I learned a little in school, but that was a long time ago.” Phrases like these belie underlying shame for not being good enough at a language. The one who says it feels like they should know a language better, but just never got around to learning it better.
People seem to think that their “limited” exposure does not measure up to what it should be. Fluency or nothing seems to lie at the core. Since they can’t communicate everything they want in the language, they won’t bother. The language is to have conversations; without that ability, their language knowledge may as well not exist.
Language serves a lot of purposes besides full conversations, namely, to connect people. If I only know “¿Cómo estás?” then I can use it when I run into a Spanish-speaking person at work. (If the person answers in Spanish, refer to the next point, below.) If you say you can only read Hebrew or Arabic and not understand, look again–you probably understand a smattering of words that you can use. Two words are better than nothing. A friend of mine went to China with a coworker, and they only learned “hello” and “handsome man.” They broke the ice in a lot of situations by bringing smiles to people’s faces. A handful of words won’t carry a whole conversation, but can bring people together.
I can’t understand when people respond
I’ve heard the story many times: I really hunkered down and studied my language. I took classes, I bought Rosetta Stone, I listened to my language on-line. Finally, I got the chance to go to the country. When I took my Coke to the cashier, the lady spoke so fast that I couldn’t understand a single word. I asked her to repeat, so she said it louder, and I still didn’t get it. I smiled, showed her my money, and she picked out the right amount. Humiliated, I realized I am no good at languages and I will no longer try.
Language-learners resemble children in adult bodies. They look like adults, but you have to talk to them like they’re little kids. They can’t understand the simplest things! The tension is unavoidable. You know what you want to say, and you want to be respected like an adult. Now it sounds like the adult you’re talking to in your language is yelling at you, scolding you.
I think we can revel in this disconnect. Rather than feel the shame of a naughty child, we can laugh at the funny man-child (or woman-child) we have suddenly become. My friend told me about his friend–I’ll call him Jack–in France. Jack came to France to look for work, but his French was barely existent. He kept his chin up in this difficult reality. When he saw quizzical responses on people’s faces, when he couldn’t make out the answer to his request, he laughed. Because of Jack’s great attitude, he could have a whole boulangerie in stitches when he went to order a croissant; everyone had a good time. Rather than feel shame for his French, Jack drew attention to his inability to speak “well” and everyone loved him because of it.
I really want to get good at this language before I start another one
A long time ago I was on a message board with folks who love languages. One person was lamenting that she wanted to learn Russian and Greek, but she didn’t want to start yet because she wanted to get good at Spanish first.
The person held some unrealistic expectations that were holding her back. First, the point at which one is “good” at a language eludes us–if it actually exists. As a result, we are tempted to put off the starting point for Russian, Greek, etc, forever, since we can always convince ourselves that we are not yet “good” at Spanish. Second, the need to wait exposes our tendencies towards perfectionism. We need to be good first because people might think we’re no good at Spanish or we can’t finish what we’ve started. Maybe we’ll lose the little Spanish we gained once we start Russian, and then we’ll sound more dumb than we were!
My response was: embrace your inner debutante! Learn a little bit of Russian while you learn your Spanish. Find a Spanish textbook on how to learn Greek. Memorize “hello” and “good-bye” and “I love your language!” in Russian, and then go back to Spanish. Listen to Greek radio on-line while you memorize your Spanish words. No chef perfects beef before moving on to chicken–he does both. He doesn’t have to be the best at both, but he can still learn how to adapt. Learning is always good.
Perfection is not attainable
Perfectionism lies at the root of our language shame. We don’t speak enough, we don’t understand others, we shouldn’t start being imperfect at another language–all come from perfectionism. When we don’t attain that perfection, we feel guilty.
Laughter is the best medicine, and it can cure perfectionism. Trot out your three words of Spanish, smile when you don’t understand, and love learning a few phrases of a language you’re not focusing on right now. Any language you can learn will help you–and will help the one you are speaking to. When our attitude shifts away from our shame towards love and connection, speaking languages will continually bring us–and everyone around–delight.
It’s easy to get off track in one’s language learning (unless you’re one of the lucky few who gets paid to do so). Work projects become demanding, kids’ schedules take up time, and the spring cleaning needs to get done somehow. I found myself in this situation over the past couple months; I got off track. But languages always pull me back. Fortunately, I’ve thought for a long time about methods for learning languages, and a few of my favorite on-line language-lovers offer good advice that got me going again. The two pieces of advice that helped a lot: 1) work a little every day and 2) passive learning is important.
No shame in falling off the horse
I admit that I got out of the daily habit of setting aside time for my languages. This happens to everyone. I am not independently wealthy, so I spend a lot of time working. I do not work professionally with languages, so I have to find the time amidst my spare time. As we all know, spare time ebbs and flows; we have little control over how much we have. Many voices call out for our spare time, as well. Family, community, and relaxation all require some of our time–and that’s after coming home from work.
Nevertheless, I want back up on the language horse I fell off of. I needed to find a way to work on my languages amidst all these demands. So I recalled some great things I’ve learned from the web.
Aaron Myers at the Everyday Language Learner site constantly reminded me via his Twitter feed (@aarongmyers) to do something every day. I love the name of his blog because the double-meaning fits me perfectly. I need to learn languages “every day,” plus I’m a simple, garden-variety “everyday” language learner with cares, demands, and responsibilities like everyone else.
Finding 30 minutes to figure out what exercise I should do, though, was more than I could do. Learning every day was too much. So I was hardly learning anything. This was demoralizing and out-of-character for me. I had to learn how to do something every day, even if it was 5 minutes.
Passive learning jump-started my active learning
Passive learning allowed me to start up right away with little concentration and commitment, and then it led me easily–and unexpectedly–to more active study. Steve Kaufmann, who blogs and vlogs about language-learning, advocates passive language input, which will aid language-learning when one turns to more active methods. While I’m not beginning my language, I thought taking a passive-learning approach for now would help.
The BBC offers a one-hour daily news digest in Farsi, and I challenged myself this week to listen to the whole thing every day. It’s certainly over my head, but it’s well-produced and discussing topics I already know a little about. I listened a little in the morning while brushing my teeth, during my commute, and during some of my workouts. Though I didn’t make it all the way through every episode, and on a couple days I listened to the last few minutes while I was falling asleep at night, I still benefited. I was remembering words I thought I had forgotten and I looked up words occasionally. My mind turned again towards Farsi–exactly what I’d hoped for!
On Saturday, then, I started using the great learning app, Anki. This app soups up my old flash cards. It offers universal accessibility–platforms for PC (Windows and Linux), Android, and on-line–and keeps track of what words I know best. It also reminds me when it’s time to study. Creating new cards I find the hardest, but the application makes it easy to cut and paste from emails, articles, or Google Translate. I can also tag the source of my word. Thanks to Anki, I spent 10 minutes in bed this morning reviewing some words, in addition to the 25 minutes (so far today) of listening to the BBC. I’m back!
Quantity, not quality
Of course, the quality of your language-learning materials are important, but quantity got me back up into language-learning. Doing something–anything–every day not only helped my language knowledge but also my motivation. It’s easy to lose focus when life is busy, but 10 minutes that’s over your head is better than nothing.
Another thing I learned was that searching for quality input is important, but can’t stand in the way of practice. When I’m looking for material more than I’m praticing, I’ve lost my balance. I can tend to be a perfectionist, so I have to beware of this balance. “Just do it!” has to be my motto.
This coming week, I’m going to try more of the same. I’ll listen to the Persian BBC podcast as well as work my Anki cards as much as possible. We’ll see where I end up.
Are you languishing in your language-study? Did you fall off the horse? What’s one thing you can do–even for one day–in the next day or two to work on your language? Tweet this article and help spread the encouragement!