I have two favorite scenes from the Avengers movie. Here’s one:
… and then he goes from being a soft-spoken educated white man to a superhero who punches the monster in the face.
Here’s the whole scene:
I have two favorite scenes from the Avengers movie. Here’s one:
… and then he goes from being a soft-spoken educated white man to a superhero who punches the monster in the face.
Here’s the whole scene:
I didn’t learn to read until I was in graduate school. Because of Noam Chomsky.
Sure, I was in the highest reading group in first grade, and I certainly had to read books in high school and write essays about them. In college I was reading my textbooks and passing my classes and I thought I was doing pretty good.
But it wasn’t until my second year of gradschool that I actually learned how to put knowledge written on the page into my brain. Before that, I had been reading negligently.
My mama tells a story about how when I was very little, less than two years old. I used to guess long words by the first few letters, and then relative length of a word. So once when I was waiting in the car, I read a sign in the parking lot of the old Point Tavern in Tumwater and got scared. The sign seemed to read “CHILDREN TO GO” and I immediately asked my mama, “where’s dad, I want to go get him.” My mama, because she is hilarious, told me I couldn’t go in there, because Russians. The thought of Russians terrified me, what with their insane recursive dolls and their unnatural love of literature.
There were no actual Russians at the Point Tavern in the mid-1970s, they were just a boogyman token, meant to keep me out of the Point Tavern. A few minutes later, my dad came back to the car with a bag of fried chicken, and my mama told the story to my dad about how I had misread the CHICKEN TO GO sign.
Another time, in high school Honors English, Mrs. M had a test question based on READING, something she hadn’t gone over with us in class. The question was, what were peering at us in the night like red eyes in the Red Badge Of Courage? The answer, of course, was enemy campfires. Everybody had gotten it wrong except for April W. (and maybe Jonothan C.) April gave some ridiculous explanation for her correct answer; she said she remembered the image from her reading.
Teenagers are disgusted by things they don’t understand. Anyway, I wondered if remembering something you read was a learnable skill. For most of my life I had been reading everything and remembering nothing. I used to laugh when I’d get reading assignments, because I would do the reading, and understand nothing about what I had read until we discussed it in class. That’s how I scraped by.
Finally, I found myself in my second year of graduate school, in an advanced syntax seminar, reading Chomsky’s Minimalist program. Our prof asked each of us to lead a discussion on a chapter. This is a terrifying task to someone who has gotten through life without any retention. I needed to find a way to retain what I read.
So what I did was to fire up my Microsoft Word and set it to outline mode. I numbered each paragraph on a page with a pencil. Then I would read a paragraph from the Minimalist Program, and summarize each paragraph with a single sentence, carefully noting the chapter and paragraph number. Occasionally I’d have to add a second sentence to include more detail, but the premise was this: every paragraph has a point. My job is to paraphrase that point.
The process was tedious at first, but the effect on my comprehension was IMMEDIATE. When I got to seminar, I went from being the guy who was faking it to the guy who had understood the reading. My classmates would later tell me that I seemed thoughtful and well-prepared for each seminar; something I had never been accused of before.
Eventually, I got pretty fast at summarizing paragraphs that I had read. My mindset shifted; reading was no longer something I did with my eyes. I came to think of reading as something I did with my fingers on a keyboard. If I hadn’t outlined a passage I didn’t consider the passage as read.
At the time, I never had time to review my reading notes outline. I would type out the outline and then hit save and then never see it again I was always too slammed to find time to open them again. However, my retention had improved so much that I didn’t actually need to look at my notes a second time, and I was aware of this. Apparently processing the information a single time by summarizing each paragraph was enough to make it stay in my brain. I had finally learned the secret of retention, six years after April W.’s enemy campfires glowing red like eyes in the night.
Discussion questions. What the hell is the point of reading if you can’t retain? Also, why hadn’t anyone taught me to take reading notes before? Also am I a total freak show for needing to summarize and type in order to understand Chomskey?
Ask me later about how I learned to take notes.
One time, back in grad school, I was sitting in my office grading papers or something, and I got a phone call. I forget the name of the office the person was calling from now, but it was the office that oversaw the program that gave kids Detroit kids a shot at attending the University of Michigan.
These kids were mostly African American, and they qualified for the program because they didn’t have the financial means to afford college themselves, but they had succeeded as high school students. When they got to my Spanish class, they didn’t always mix with the mainstream students. I didn’t have time to get to know any of my students very well, but I tried to make a point to reach out to the kids in this program because I hated HATED seeing them drop out after a few months.
The program that they were in was supposed to offer them some academic support and some coaching, but since the program was run by idiots, it seemed their academic support consisted entirely of requirements imposed on them: what classes they had to take, what GPA they had to maintain, what kind of offenses they could be expelled for. That’s what I saw at least.
So I got this phone call in my office and the counselor–I guess that’s what we’d have to call her–called me up and wanted to ask me about some remarks I had written in the “remarks” section of the withdrawal form I had to sign for one of my students. I said, sure, I’d be happy to talk about what I wrote, what office are you in?
The counselor choked for a second, and then said, “Ok… yes… we’ll do this in person then,” and told me she was in some office in Angel Hall.
So I put on my baseball hat and walked five minutes to Angel Hall. Let’s “do this.”
This student of mine, I don’t remember her name now, but I remember she was bright and enthusiastic and quite beautiful. She had come to my office and shed a few tears about how stressed out she was, how she was taking eighteen credits and she wasn’t sleeping or eating properly. When I had talked to her before, I could see why she had been academically successful as a high school kid in Detroit; she had exactly one academic strategy, and it was brute force studying. They had her in a pre-med track, so besides Spanish she was taking a chemistry course, a writing course, and a couple classes to meet her full time requirement.
When I say “brute force studying,” I mean that I doubt she collaborated with a study group or went to her TAs or tutors to ask questions. She was the kind of student that isolated herself, read and reread until she understood, did her homework to the exclusion of her health. Big emphasis on drilling short term memory recall. It’s a very punishing, isolating way of studying.
Anyway, I had checked all the boxes and filled in all the information they requested, and in the “remarks” section I wrote that my student was over stressed, and that the program was pushing her too hard and giving her bad advice.
So when I got to the counselor’s office, I removed my hat and sat across from her on the other side of her desk, and first listened to her explain to me briefly what the program was about, and the requirements that their scholars must meet. Then she explained to me that she could see that I was frustrated with the situation, but that this particular student really didn’t have a difficult course load, it was a standard freshman slate… “The only difficult class in her schedule is Spanish,” she said, and I’m sure it was a boilerplate line that they use on instructors, like ‘the only difficult class in X’s schedule is [whateverclassyour’reteaching].’
I looked at her for a moment and wondered what to say. There were five things wrong with what she had just told me, but she seemed to be missing a big piece.
“Did she tell you,” I asked, “that she hasn’t been sleeping and that her hair is falling out?”
The counselor took a breath and held her eyeballs still so they wouldn’t roll. Very professional. She started to explain to me that all freshmen experience stress and repeated that the course load was nothing especially difficult.
Then I realized what the missing piece was. She didn’t know. The counselor didn’t know. I had to be the one to tell her. The counselor had never picked up on it. The student never told her. Then again, why would she?
“You know she’s five months pregnant, right?” I looked down at the desk to give the counselor some privacy, let her squirm with her shame a bit. No, actually the truth was that I really had nothing to say after that.
We took a moment, just a moment, and the counselor replied, hesitantly, “No, we did not know that.”
I assume that the matter had already been settled at that point, because the counselor didn’t review a file or write anything down. I imagined the student had already packed up and left campus. The counselor got right back on message and said, “still, we would appreciate it if you wouldn’t criticize the program, because generally the advice we give is good.”
I said, sure, ok, and left. As I walked out, I put my baseball cap back on and turned it forward. There are no heroes in this story.
So I’m taking the German class, and one of the things we do for our teacher ever week is to record an audio journal. I use Voice Recorder (FREE) to record on my the journal on my phone. It’s very easy to use, but I haven’t found a great way to edit audio on the iPhone or on the iPad. I suppose I’m a little picky, being a recovering podcaster and all. I am trying to find a way to assign audio homework to my students as well, without it being a pain in the neck to collect and grade.
This week I made the video above using Adobe Voice, which is a crazy easy way to narrate a slideshow. In terms of audio, it’s even easier than the voice recorder; you can’t edit the audio, but you can do multiple takes of smaller chunks of audio. Also, there is a good chance that your slideshow might actually be interesting to watch. It’s a thing right now to make student work that is shareable; the idea is that students try harder when they know that their audience is the whole internet.
The image to the left is a screenshot of me using the Google Translate app camera function on my German homework. I pointed my camera at some German sentences, and the app changed them to English right before my eyes like magic. Well, “English” is a strong word; the translations come out a little janky.
The funny thing about Google Translate is that people, and by people I mean students–they don’t want to believe that the final product is often janky. They see the sentence “At me in” and “They comes from Germany” and they think, oh yes, this is an awesome way to get my homework done faster. Then when a teacher like me confronts them and says “this is a machine translation,” they get all haughty and say they worked really hard, and how dare you accuse them, my daddy is a lawyer, meow meow meow…
(It’s the same when they get a native speaker to translate their homework for them; the native speakers throw in advanced grammar and idioms and the students try to pass it off as their own.)
It’s not even difficult to spot.
Finally, my German teacher Frau S showed be a paperback book called “Café in Berlin” from the “Learn German With Stories” series I was surprised, because I’ve already read this book; in fact I’ve read the whole series. I told Frau S that I read it on my kindle, which is handy because you can just poke at a word to find the definition in the dictionary. She was not happy at all when I said this, because looking up everything instantly is not good for your second language reading strategies. Don’t worry, Frau S, this is not my first rodeo. Anyway, I’m halfway to a paperless lifestyle; no more paperbacks for me.
I know it’s already February, but I barely had time to breathe in January to post my language goals for the year.
First of all, I’ve started a German class on the weekends. Late last year I asked if anyone wanted to take a beginning language class with me; any class. S stepped up and said she wanted to take German, so I said great!
I took my first German class in the summer of 1994 in Ann Arbor; it was a German for Reading Knowledge course, and there was no attempt to make us into German speakers. I don’t remember how I felt about the language or the people back then; I just remember that the class itself was pointless. It was a requirement for my program because a lot of the scholarship in diachronic Romance linguistics had been in Germany.
German is a super cognate language with English, but the case system is robust (more robust than I’m used to, at least) so the relationships between nouns in a sentence is pretty opaque to me, which just means it’s going to take some getting used to. Pronunciation and reading doesn’t seem to be all that difficult. I’m doing my best to speak every day at work and to keep a summer in Germany within my sites.
My major language goal this year is Tagalog, and I’m planning a long six weeks in Metro Manila, studying with a tutor and hopefully talking my face off. I have some huge heritage bonuses with Tagalog, but at this point I still have problems making sentences with more than one noun. Tagalog grammar monster is the “trigger system,” which teachers call “focus” and linguists refer to as “topicalization,” basically it means that a verb in a given sentence is going to agree morphologically with the noun that you’re trying to stress.
This “trigger system” is the one thing they didn’t teach us at SEASSI in 2002, and it’s the whole punchline of the story. Teaching Tagalog without teaching the trigger system makes as much sense as teaching Spanish without verb tenses, or Chinese without word order; it’s the MAIN EVENT. I’ve had time to wrap my head around it intellectually, but I’m taking the summer to wrap my mouth around it
My biggest worry about Tagalog is trying to get Filipinos not to speak to me in English. I’ve lost count of the number of times someone has switched into pure English on me and then denied it when I pointed it out, and then screamed with laughter when they realize that I’m right. The level of bilingualism is so high that the line between Tagalog and English is often invisible to them. It’s not like in China or France when people look at your shoes and decide to speak English to the Gringo because they don’t like your pants; in this case, it will be me, a native speaker of Filipino English, asking other native speakers of Filipino English not to speak to me in Filipino English, and instead be uncomfortable as I struggle to match verb morphology to noun topics.
The other thing is that most Filipinos I know have never had to be language learning allies. I once had a phone conversation with my mama, explaining to her how she didn’t have to give me English translations; how she could do things like offer me options when I get stumped on a word. Now my mama is a great language learning ally… unlike my dad, who enjoys trying to stump me. This is exactly why I have an English-only policy with my dad, and that’s just fine.
There are other kinds of native speakers, besides the Allies and the Stumpers. There are the DAMMIT JUST SPEAK ENGLISH people, who are worthless to me. Also there are the Horror Movie Victims, who run away screaming. I don’t expect any Filipinos to be Horror Movie Victims, but I saw plenty of those people in Mainland China.
When I get back to Seattle after the great Manila adventure, I’m sure I’ll be back to concentrating on Mandarin Chinese. Here are some other places I’d like to spend time learning language: Korea, Japan, Brazil, Germany, ASL. The list of languages I will need a refresher trip in: Spanish, French, Italian, Chinese. The list of languages I’d consider someday, if I had the time: Arabic, Swahili. I’ll probably give up before I get to those, though.
I was walking through a bookstore today–a real, old-fashioned book store, with paper books and everything. I wasn’t shopping for paper books, of course, just taking a walk after a breakfast I regretted eating. Anyway I wandered up to the foreign language section, of course, and found another book with language learning method. This book, of course, emphasized “hacking” your brain, which brings images of MacGyver starting a car with chewing gum and falling barometric pressure, or frantically swapping computer chips in zero gravity before you drown in your own carbon dioxide.
Your brain is a language learning machine. That’s what it does. That’s why you learned your first language; that’s why you continue to ‘pick up’ accents and slang, buzzwords, and jargon; words you never heard before–without much instruction.
Your brain doesn’t need to be hacked. Maybe your attitude needs to be hacked. Your behavior should be hacked. Your approach is probably wrong; you might have an “ugly swing,” to borrow some golf lingo. Most people I know, including myself, have crazy counter-productive habits that sabotage their language learning. I wish I could dock people points. Not that I want them to feel bad. I just don’t think it’s realistic to play basketball without whistling down fouls, or to let restaurants with rat infestations operate without notices and fines.
Fines. Actually, who cares about points; let’s make it interesting. Here are some fines I’d like to asses on you. I’ll give you my email address if you’d like to deposit the fines into my Paypal account.
$10 Every time you pause our target language conversation to ask “was that right?” Yes, it’s right. When it’s not right, I’ll correct you. Stop making every damn conversation about target language grammar and vocabulary, you egomaniac. The fine doubles if you switch to English. You have to understand how boring it is to have to talk to someone who can’t get through the conversation without calling attention to their sentences.
$10 Every time you just have to tell me something in English. It better be a matter of LIFE OR DEATH if you’re going to forgo the target language, and even if it is a matter of life or death, I’m still going to need ten dollars.
$10 for using your flashcards to produce English. So if your flash card says “el plátano” and in your mind you think “that means banana” and then you turn the card over and say “yasssss, banana, I was right!”, then congratulations, you have just rewarded yourself for producing English instead of Spanish. That will be $10 per card, please.
There will be a $50 fine for feeling bad about making mistakes. The fine is squared if you make another learner feel bad about making mistakes. Your job is to make mistakes, and then learn from them, forgive them, and then laugh at them. And not repeat them. The maxim is “learn from your mistakes,” the implication is that you actually have to make mistakes in order to learn.
There will be a $50 fine for people who feel bad about getting something RIGHT. This includes the teenagers who get the right answer, but still find away to hate and punish themselves. It also includes my heritage language brothers and sisters, for whom vocabulary and grammar triggers deep emotional conflicts after decades of not speaking your parents’ language. In the case of heritage shame, I will dedicate the fines I will have collected to a foundation dedicated to showing you that it wasn’t your fault. In the case of teenage hatred, that money will contribute to my personal wealth.
Every time you refuse a free word or gracious correction, you owe me $100. When you forget or flub a word, the person you’re talking to usually guesses what you’re trying to say and then SAYS IT TO YOU.
“It’s time to get some sleef.”
“It’s time to get some sleep?
It happens just like that, casually. Your job is to accept the correction and say the word out loud. Repeat it. Don’t nod at them or give the “correct” signal from charades, unless your learning target is the “correct” signal from charades. Say it out loud with your mouth.
$100 Every time you do an assignment just for the sake of finishing it, paying no attention to the learning objective. If you didn’t learn, you have wasted your time. If the teacher has to grade it, you have wasted your teacher’s time. You could have spent that time learning, and making the test later much easier for you. But you didn’t, so you’re test is going to be a pain to take, and a pain to correct. 傷不起。 Well now on top of that, you’re buying me a steak, potato, salad bar, a glass of wine and dessert to share. I deserve it, frankly.
$100 Every time you choose memorization over communication with living people. If you can’t go out with your target language friends because you have to stay home and practice your dumb vocab quizzing software, then send me money. If your face is buried in some app that calls itself the “fastest, easiest, most fun way to learn,” instead of exchanging basic pleasantries with the grandma sitting next to you on the bus, I’m going to need you to cut me a check.
$100 Every time you make a claim that you are some special snowflake that has a special second language impediment that the world has not yet discovered. You are probably the 7 billionth person to feel challenged and discouraged. You don’t have to blame someone or find a medical exemption.
$100 Every time you confuse temporary confusion and frustration with acute physical pain. That’s not pain. If you’re one of those people whose pain receptors actually do fire, then obviously you are a special case. But for the people who take ill and act like they’re going to die when they forget a word? that’s not pain kids. Now give me your money.
It’s a $100 to expect a friend or loved one to act as your simultaneous interpreter. Actually, $100 is pretty cheap as far a s simultaneous two-way interpretation goes. If you have a relationship that’s established in English, that person cannot be your interpreter, or language teacher for that matter, without straining your relationship. Pay someone else to be your interpreter or language teacher; professionals are payed by the hour.
$5000 every time you propagate some pseudo-scientific language learning folklore by treating it as gospel truth. For example, if you tell me that “studies have shown that humans can’t learn a language after puberty, then please multiply that sum by the number of languages I have learned after puberty. I thank you greatly. Oh the learning style excuse! “I’m a visual learner so I have to see it written or else I’m medically incapable of learning,” you owe me $5000.
“JP,” you say, “Isn’t it horribly discouraging to impose penalties on people” Well yes, you’re probably right. This blog post does not, in actuality, suggest a course of action. However, I hope it makes you realize that you’re doing a whole bunch of counter-productive habits that sabotage your language learning.
I could keep adding to the list of fines, but I’ve probably alienated enough people today already. In the future look forward to a list of fines I’d like to issue to unhelpful native speakers.
Anyway, before you go hacking your brain, try hacking your horribly counter-productive habits that sabotage your language learning first.
Just to wash the stench of negativity off of this post, here’s a splash of affirmative instruction. The great secret; the great “hack;” the sneakiest short cut to language learning is this: use the target language in real communication. For most of you, that will mean suspending your native language temporarily to give your target language room to grow.
That’s it. You don’t have to buy anything, and no, there’s no software or app that will bypass this for you. If you want to learn to ride a bike, you get on the bike and ride it. If you want to learn to eat with chopsticks, you put chopsticks in your hand and eat with them. If you want to speak a certain language with people, you start by SPEAKING THAT LANGUAGE WITH PEOPLE.
Ask me another time about the miracle of practice; I have more stories to tell.
Dear readers, all 3 of you!
I apologize for not blogging lately. I would blog every day if I had the time, but unfortunately my teaching contract keeps me busy. If you see me writing up a new post, it must mean I’m out of town.
So I’m out of town today, I’m in San Diego, California for an educational technology conference. My students back home are watching educational films, and are filling out worksheets so that they are academically responsible for the content of the films.
I flew down yesterday after school, wearing my new Russell Wilson jersey. I usually don’t wear corporate logos or another man’s name, but Russell Wilson’s #3 gets me priority boarding on all Alaska Air flights out of Seatac. How was priority boarding? It was exquisite. The plane ride it self was a little bumpy the whole way down.
I spent most of the day attending talks at the conference, some of them have been pretty… pretty long. I’m getting a lot of good ideas about how I can do more work. Some of the presenters are not very strong in terms of outlining their theses or sticking to a road map. However, a box lunch was provided.
What else can I tell you about my life nowadays? I’m studying German on the weekends, reading short stories every night. The Frenchies are here on exchange; they’ve been here a week and are staying one week more. I now know my way around San Diego’s Gaslamp district. Later there will be steak, Mexican food, and maybe more Mexican food.
I do miss blogging… not that my life is more interesting than others, but it’s a nice mental exercise. A friend of mine once found out I kept a blog and asked WHY?! in a really gross way; not because he wanted to know why, but because he wanted to let me know that he thought it was worthless. Oh well, I’m not really doing it for other people. Also, the title of the blog…
I do want to be better about posting my thoughts on language learning.
Later if there’s time I’ll post more about my summer plans. If you’re still reading, I’d love to hear from you in the comments section below.
Below is a list of things that I do or have done in the past that have mortified people. Sometimes they’re embarrassed to learn of my exploits; sometimes they laugh like it’s comedy. Sometimes they say, “WHY?” or “Really?….,” but it’s never a real question; they don’t actually want to know why. They just want to express that they disapprove; what they really mean is “gross.” Please post your own “not sorrys” in the comments below.
So if it’s listed above, it’s because it’s something that someone has indicated to me is either tacky, embarrassing, or gross, or a waste of time. Additionally, I’m not ashamed of any of it. Of course, I probably have a list of behaviors that I am ashamed of, but that’s another post.
Happy New Year!
I’m blogging from a high-rise hotel room in Vancouver BC. I drove up to see Amber, who is doing great! Yesterday after checking in to the hotel I walked to Coal Harbour for some sushi and then met Amber for a drive and a walk in Stanley Park. It was a spectacular sunset; Amber casually knows all the sea birds; we casually spotted a heron, no big whoop.
After that it was dinner with the family and a long chat in the living room, as if we were grown ups. Amber taught me how to pronounce “Robeson Street.” Sister L and brother-in-law D are super gracious, and their kids are charming.
Then it was a freezing walk with Lisandro Montenegro (a Mexican pseudonym) through downtown Vancouver and Gastown. We blew off the places with velvet ropes and cover charges, because guh. So we ended up at The Pub 340, which had a hard rock cover band whose median age looked to be 50. I played pinball. I got a lesson in Canadian coins, and another lesson in CanCon, the “Canadian content requirement” that says radio stations here have to play a minimum of 30% Canadian content. Later there was a walk down Granville Street, and a street hot dog.
Eventually we ended up Hastings Warehouse, which seemed to have:
In other words, it was the perfect bar.
Fast forward to this morning, New Year’s Day 2015. I’m holed up in my room because everything is closed in downtown Vancouver. Hard closed: signs on the doors say “will reopen January 5th.” It’s too cold out to walk around anyway.
Here’s the part where I talk about 2015.
In 2015, I’m going to get back to writing music. I don’t care about performing or recording as much; it’s the writing that I need to do.
In 2015, I’m going to spend the summer in Manila and focus on learning Tagalog. Yes, I’ll still work on Mandarin. Korean was my recreation language in 2014, and I still have a huge crush on it, but this year my recreational language will be German.
I have more goals this year; financial and health targets, but who cares about those.
The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.
Here’s an excerpt:
The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 28,000 times in 2014. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 10 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.