Linguistic Autobiography, 2nd Update 2018

It’s been 12 years since my Linguistic Autobiography post, and 9 years since my first update.  I could probably stand to re-write the whole post. Maybe someday.  Here’s the current state of the languages I speak.

English: Native speaker/native fluency.

Spanish. I speak it every day at work, and out in the community. There are plenty of people in my life with whom I have code-switching English/Spanish relationships, and quite a few Spanish-only relationships. I still make language mistakes in Spanish, but I make mistakes in English, too; who cares. There’s still plenty I don’t know about Spanish, and I still learn something new about expressing myself every time I talk to one of my friends. I want to stress that; literally every time I talk to someone in a non-routine conversation, I learn something new; whether by intuition or by explicitly asking, “what does that word/expression mean?” At this point, learning things in Spanish feels effortless, as effortless as learning new slang or expressions in English.  But the point is, yes, I’m still learning.

French and Italian. Each of these two languages were my dominant second language at some point in my life, even though I got much further in my French studies than I did in Italian. There are a few people I can talk to in French, but not many, and not every day.  As for Italian, there’s really no one that I speak to anymore. I miss it. In the future, I’d like to spend a summer in Italy, and another summer somewhere in the Francophonie–maybe Martinique, Guadaloupe, or Québec–just to get those two languages back. I feel like I need two weeks of immersion in either of those languages to get back to speaking them transparently.

Mandarin Chinese. Rusty! I haven’t gotten to the point in my Chinese where I could speak as well as those European languages; I can speak less Chinese, but the little I do speak, I speak really well. I need another summer in Taiwan to get that ball rolling again. Going for two years without daily practice was not great for my fluency.

American Sign Language: This the new hotness on my list. I had a Deaf friend back in 1991 teaching me signs, and I took extension courses in ASL here and there, but I didn’t have the opportunity to really learn it until this summer.  I took a summer intensive at the local community college, and as a resident of the state of California the credits were cheap! $49 per credit! I aced the class and am going to all the Deaf events I catch word of: Deaf Meetup! Deaf Pizza! Deaf Bowling!  I want to be a signer and have Deaf people in my life! I would say my level at this point is Novice High, and climbing rapidly.

I’ve talked before about a two-week headache, not actual pain, but a dull soreness that tells me my brain is re-wiring itself for new language.  I did not feel this headache the same way with ASL; it only lasted for a few days.  I also found myself with no desire to speak English.  After three and a half hours of class, my friends and I seemed reluctant to switch to speaking; I found myself with zero desire to speak again. When I did, speaking English seemed noisy and chaotic, exactly how I felt at the end of my Chinese language pledge back in 2007.

Tagalog, Pangasinan, and Ilocano. These are my heritage languages, and I have made an effort to learn each of them. Tagalog, I think I got up to Intermediate Low, but I’ve lost interest in it for various reasons. I’ll regret it someday soon, I know, but nowadays when I look at Tagalog, all I can think about is Pangasinan.  I’m still all about Pangasinan, but I’m at Novice Mid and holding. I will practice more with my parents. Ilocano is still at Novice Low, and hope to spend a summer in Ilocandia someday.

Here are some other languages I’ve studied in my life; I’m at Novice-Mid, or Novice-Low in all of them at this point. Latin, German, Korean: I took classes in these languages, but I don’t retain much. I’d love to have the chance to study all of them. Hawaiian, Hindi; I’ve done some self-study but haven’t gotten very far. I get a crush on ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi every time I go to Hawaii, and Hindi speakers are everywhere and I want to eat all of their veggies. 

Other languages that I haven’t studied but seem like fun:  Bahasa Indonesia, Kiswahili, Modern Standard Arabic, Guaraní, Portuguese, Catalan, Maltese. Xhosa seems cool doesn’t it? Japanese 100%!

The list is probably too long, but it would be cool. We’ll see; poco a poco.

Language Learning: They Talk Too Fast

giphySo I’ve been a teacher for 23 years at this point, and a casual multilingual for a similar amount of time. I’ve been thinking about the following topic since the 90s, but have been afraid to try to explain it, since monolinguals are often such babies.

Second language learners and monolinguals often accuse people speaking other languages of talking too fast.  “Slow down! Please! You talk too fast!” How inconsiderate of you, to not speak at a pace that I dictate. You people (of a different culture) have a problem, and my needs, as the outsider, must be placed at the center of this exchange.

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Listen, these cross-linguistic studies about words per minute, and syllables per minute were done years ago. There’s a ton of them but I’ll just link to publications with the most authoritative sounding title; so here’s Scientific American and Psychology Today.  Both articles explain that all over the world, different languages exchange information at about the same rate; nobody is actually giving information faster or slower than anyone else. Spanish and Japanese might have slightly more syllables per minute, and Mandarin and German might have fewer syllables per minute, but if you look at Mandarin and German syllables they are denser with information; in the end, no one culture is exchanging information faster than the other.

Yes, there are exceptions; excited teenagers, coke heads, etc. But the remarks I hear are rarely about a coke head; instead they are about entire cultures. I’ve heard: Spanish speakers talk too fast! French people talk too fast! Chinese people TALK TOO FAST (um, Scientific American just said they have the fewest syllables per minute…).

My students regularly tell me I’m talking too fast. I’m not. I’m talking normal speed.  When I show a video, they throw themselves on the floor and say OMG WHY ARE THEY TALKING SO FAST. I can hear with my own freaking ears that they’re not talking fast at all.

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Get up off the floor.  They are not talking too fast.  You don’t understand anything due to the fact that you have THROWN YOURSELF ON THE FLOOR. You stopped listening. You. You did that. You stopped listening, and now you’re complaining about them.

Here’s what’s happening:

  1. giphy1They’re not talking fast; you are understanding slow. You are at a stage where you cannot process normal speed human communication. That’s normal, it’s not your fault. But it is YOUR problem to deal with, not theirs; stop accusing them of being abnormal. They are treating you they way they treat everyone else.  You want them to baby talk you? The least you can do is ask politely.  Could you please baby talk me? Can you please stop treating me like the adult you think I am, and instead infantilize me?  Go ahead and use all your baby stereotypes, I love that.
  2. They’re not talking fast; they are talking in paragraphs. It feels fast to you, because you’re slow to process, but you’ll notice that even when they baby talk you in paragraphs, you still get lost.

But I need it, you say, I need slow speech! That would be a great argument… Actually, no;  it’s not, restating that you need something is a terrible argument.  When you actually get people to slow talk you, one of two things happens:  a) they baby talk you and it’s condescending and they stop taking your seriously as a person, or b) they slow motion talk to you, which DOESN’T HELP YOU UNDERSTAND.  If you don’t speak Chinese, no amount of slow Chinese is going to help you understand.  If you don’t know the words, hearing them at half speed doesn’t help you; no amount of slowing or shouting or repeating the same word at them excitedly is going to connect the dots in your brain.

So just go home and give up.

Or you can try to negotiate for meaning.

  • Interrupt politely and ask a question, hear the answer and repeat it.
  • Interrupt and try to repeat what they said; check for confirmation.
  • Interrupt and try to paraphrase them, check for confirmation.
  • Interrupt and request clarification, “what was that word?” Hear it and repeat it.
  • Interrupt and ask them to repeat what they said. Hear it and repeat it.

These are all communication strategies that forgo you accusing them of being abnormal that don’t require slow motion or condescending baby talk.  You’ll notice that they are all appropriate strategies in a regular conversation in your native language. People talk to you in paragraphs all the time in your native language; you already have the strategies to disrupt the stream of information a little so that you can manage it.

What if you’re in a conversation where interrupting would be impolite?  Oooh that’s a tough one. Let me suggest this; if you’re in a situation so formal that interrupting would be rude, then accusing that person of talking too fast is also rude. Maybe be a different kind of rude. Or maybe stick to familiar register social interactions for the time being; stick with allies who know you better and are familiar with how you fast you process information, and can comfortably adjust for your level. Maybe just smile and survive it, and keep your coke-head accusations to yourself.

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What’s the Lazy Language?

A few years ago I blogged about how to choose which language to study.  Part I dealt with vision; who are you trying to be, which language are you speaking in the future?  Part II was about which language is the most practical language, since people seem to be extremely horny for whatever is practical.  In Part III I try to address the easy language, for those people who just want to skip to “the end,” fluency, free sodas, and recreational drugs.  I am being sarcastic.

The thing that sucks the joy out of me is that many people aren’t looking for the easy language, or the practical language, or the language they can see themselves speaking in the best, most adventurous versions of themselves.  Instead, they’re looking for the lazy language.  The root of that is the ridiculous assumption that language learning is both painful and impossible, which seems like a strange thing, I don’t know why people keep choosing it.

By the way, should we just say it?  Should we just say, “Spanish is the easy language for Americans!” Great. Listen, if I open up my Chinese textbook to a vocabulary list of any particular chapter, I find a list of about a dozen or so vocabulary words for the chapter, more or less. When I open my Spanish textbook to a vocabulary page for a chapter, I find six dozen vocabulary words. Which language is easy; which language is lazy?  Is learning 15 unfamiliar things harder than learning 72 less unfamiliar things?  Why does that question even make sense to you?

Which is easy which is lazy

Here are a couple of videos I’ve made to help recruit students into my programs.  The first one, I made in 2015 when I was trying to get students to sign up for Mandarin at Seattle Prep.  Here’s the higher quality version.  If that’s not working for some reason, here’s a youtube copy:

Now it’s 2018, and I’m at Xavier College Prep, and we made one for the whole language department.  Here’s the original link, but the youtube version is here:

Doing the video in the target languages wasn’t my idea, but I thought we’d try it out.  I was a little worried that it would spook the monolinguals, but so far it seems ok.  The next one I do will be even better.

“Proper Spanish?” That’s just my day job.

Somebody asked me the other day how to say “lunch” in Spanish.  Someone shouted “lonche” and someone else shouted “almuerzo.”  They looked at me, and I said, “la comida.”  Immediately one of the shouters snapped at me, “why do you always tell us different words?!”  It wasn’t a question, it was an accusation.

My best answer; my only answer:  “I’m not from here.”

Spanish in California is different from what I’m used to.  To my ear it sounds like northern Mexico, plus a distinct /b/ vs. /v/ distinction that just doesn’t exist in other varieties of Spanish, apart from maybe some Gloria Estefan songs.

And of course, my Spanish is different from theirs, and I know I sound weird to them.  I’m keeping a list of words that have stumped my Spanish speaking friends, colleagues, and students.  Some of the words are fancy and academic-sounding, like el simulacro and la tertulia.  Some are words that I know to be common in Mexico, like piropo, nefasto, but when I say them here, people blink at me.  In a conversation with my new colleagues I tried to refer to an all-boys school as todos varones, a term I learned from a colleague in 1998, and now I’m starting to think it was never the right term in the first place.  What do I know?

It’s not a nice feeling to use these words and have local people blink and squint at me. I’m trying to get them to like me, and here I am with these strange words they never heard of, I feel like a jerk.  Luckily my new friends are quickly getting used to me; instead of awkward vocabulary moments, they’re starting to just chuckle at me and ask me to explain my crazy word. This must be what it feels like for a speaker of  Australian English to be harassed by… me. By the way, if there is a contest for the nerdiest, most dorky way to explain the word tertulia, I won it this afternoon.

On the other hand, it’s a delight for me to learn local words.  The other day my friend used the word nortearse (which is definitely more charming when pronounced “nortiarse”).  I understood what it meant immediately (to get disoriented, discombobulated) but it was just agiphy surprise to hear it, because it sounds like the root word is “norte,” which cracked me up because it sounds like a comment on what happens when you go north… to the US.

My friend also took it upon herself to teach me the word chivearse, which, again, is more charming when pronounced “chiviarse” (to get embarrassed and go coy, to get flustered by a compliment).  The root word is “chivo,” a kid goat; which is adorable.

So my friend says she’s going to teach me the phrase “qué bolado” tomorrow.  I looked it up but I can’t wait to hear how she explains it.  I told her I would take notes.  She promised to teach me all of her slang, if I would teach her proper Spanish.

I’m told her I’m happy to teach her everything I know. You know, I’m thankful that I can speak Spanish and that people perceive it to be “proper.”  I, personally, don’t hear my own Spanish as proper; I hear a bunch of pronunciation and grammar mistakes, fumbling for words, and awkward expressions.  I think I’d much rather have native-speaker intuition and be able to tell a joke, to write a poem, to talk on the phone without anxiety, to  choose concise words and make powerful and moving statements, to understand stand-up comedy, or those adivinanzas, like this one:

Agua pasa por mi casa;
cate de mi corazón,
el que no me lo adivine
será un burro cabezón.

I understand all the words, but I don’t understand why those words are together, and I don’t get why when my coworker heard this one, she was delighted and said “that was a good one.”  The answer, by the way, is “aguacate…” high fives all around.

I would take slangy, colorful native-speaker intuition over “proper Spanish” any day of the week.  Besides, “proper Spanish” is just my day job; I want to leave it behind after the five o’clock whistle.

 

Interference and other Paranoia

I would like to tell the world that in the early 1990s back at the UW, I studied more than one langauge at the same time.  In fact, it was my policy; taking both French and Spanish was exactly what I wanted to do.  There was one point when I added Italian to the mix so that I could do the UW’s Rome Program.  Anyway, the point is that semester after semester, I was studying two or sometimes three different languages at the same time; often on the same day.

People used to ask me, “Don’t you mix them up?  Don’t you confuse them?  Don’t they interfere with each other?”

And my answer was, no, not really.  Then people would either look at me like I was a super genious (I’ve never been a super genious) or tell me that it was impossible, and that I must be lying somehow.

I don’t really know what their theory of language was. They must have believed that the human brain is a finite container, and that a one language filled a normal brain to capacity.  My Linguistics 120 class taught me that we haven’t really found a ceiling on the number of languages a human could learn, but maybe I was the only one who got that memo.  In other words, if there is a limit on the number of languages a human brain can hold, science hasn’t found it yet.

For me, speaking a language is just a habit, and we conjugate verbs by habit, the same way a basketball player has a habit to dribble a ball.  Is there a limit to a number of sports someone can learn to play?  If someone is a tennis player, does the tennis knowledge interfere when that person tries to play basketball?  Are there stern warnings against learning too many sports or too many games?  Is there a danger that a football player might get confused and start dribbling the ball?

Anyway, for me, French is an entirely different game than Italian; Italian is a different game than Spanish.  So no, I don’t mix them up.  Sometimes, when I’d be teaching a Spanish class and the bell rings and five minutes later my Chinese class is in the room, yes, I absolutely called a Chinese student “Señorita” or “Señor.”  Does that count as mixing up the languages?  Because it doesn’t seem very significant.  Nobody seemed to care, not me, not my students.  I feel like in those quick-switch situations, I wasn’t “mixing them up;” it just had a different langauge handy at that very second.  I mean, so what if I call an English speaking lady “Señora,” or say “Hola” to a Chinese person?  Everybody survives.  Literally everybody survives.

I remember one time when got a paper back in Spanish class back in college.  I had written, “he oído hablar que…” or something and the prof marked it wrong and wrote “Interference from French.”  And I thought, this prof is a dick.  We were in a Spanish class because we were learning how to speak Spanish; if I used a French structure it was because I DIDN’T KNOW THE SPANISH STRUCTURE.  It was a strategy.  But he called it “interference” as if my French habit was damaging my Spanish.  Honestly, literature professors are not qualified to diagnose stages of language learning.  I still think poorly of that prof (although I learned a crapload about Latin American short story in that class).

People love the theory of language interference, they love it like a dog loves a bone.  Whenever I take a new language class, it doesn’t matter if it’s Spanish or Korean or German, there is always some precious snowflake who answers the instructor in French, and the breaks into English and explains that they took 6 years of French and French is just on their mind, and guh, it’s so hard to speak Chinese now because French is crippling them. Later I speak to them in French and find out that they don’t actually speak French; their Chinese is being blocked by a langauge THEY DON’T EVEN SPEAK.

I don’t believe in interference.  I don’t believe that knowledge of one langauge is ever a detriment to learning another.  I don’t think that langauge learning is ever bad.

When people ask me how many languages they can take at once, I tell them, “as many as you believe you can handle.”  If they believe they can handle only one at a time, then they’re probably right, but it’s their personal limitation, not a biological one.

And when people tell me about getting “confused” with too many languages, I always wonder, do they know someone who is so “confused” with many languages that they are disadvantaged in life?  Are there YouTube videos of genuinely language-confused people whose lives are ruined by too many languages?  Have you heard of a single person?  Sure, they say, this person speaks English with a horrible accent, they say, but in that case, it’s not someone that’s genuinely “confused.”  It’s usually the case that they’re not good at English.  Anyway the point is “confused with too many languages” is NOT A REAL AFFLICTION.

Finally, there are people who create monolingual policies for their children, because they don’t want their kids to be “confused.”  Folks, little kids learn language like a superpower.  Confining a kid to one language because you are afraid of confusion is like forbidding Superman to fly because you’re afraid he might fall.  It’s adults that tend to suck at language learning; it is a shame that they project that onto their kids.  Also, you might want to remind those parents who fear multilingualism that they haven’t read a single book, article, blog, tweet, nutrition label, or fortune cookie about raising multilingual kids before they sentenced their child to monolingualism.

The Secret Ingredient to Language Learning

Yesterday my teacher said that my way of learning grammar was unique.  She even did an impression of me;  quietly reading an grammar explanation, frowning, nodding… and then producing well-formed sentences.  Most people are not like that, she said.  

Well, I’m glad to be able to do that.  I’ve been studying grammar all my life and I know my way around some verbs.  Romance languages taught me about grammatical agreement, tense, voice, and mood.  Chinese has taught me about shifting focus away from the actor of a sentence using grammar; putting it instead on an object. So the places where Tagalog is “difficult” reminds me a lot of work that I have done before.  I can read a grammatical explanation off the page and then start producing.  

Here’s the deal though; grammatical analysis is NOT the language learning superpower.  It’s handy, absolutley, and it’s impressive to bystanders, but it’s not the secret ingredient.  

The secret ingredient is practice.  Even though I can produce well-formed sentences from a first reading of an explanation, I still have to practice the forms in real conversation.  I still have to make mistakes and work thorugh doubts and get confused.  Does everybody hear this?  I’m going to make mistakes.  That’s how I’ll get to fluency, just like everyone else.  

I can know the mechanics and physics of how a bicycle works; I can do all the math and analyse the process, but I won’t know how to ride a bike until I physically put myself on the bike and pedal.  The process necessarily involves wobbling and falling.  

I do have very high expectations for myself this summer; I expect to learn a lot about Tagalog, academically.  Whether or not I become a proficient speaker, though, will depend on my willingness to practice and make mistakes.  Just like everybody else.  From a proficiency standpoint, I’m in the same position as someone who can’t tell an adjective from an adverb.  Practice is still everything.  

I keep rememebering back when I finished my study abroad in France, and I left disappointed in my level of French.  But then a year later after 9 months back in Seattle, I realized I had a new command of vowels and an ease with complex structures that I had gained without any intentional effort on my part.  

People like to believe that they have direct control over their learning, that working hard will produce a direct improvement over time.  But we have to remember, we’re not filing langauge into our brains; we’re giving langauge to our brains to file.  The good news is that it’s instinctual, and it goes faster than we think.  The bad news that we’re not really in control of the schedule, and we do like to feel in-control.

The best we can do is practice our faces off with real communication, as much as possible, on a daily basis.  Get plenty of sleep, hand have healthy blood circulation so the brain can install the new language.  And to try to be joyful about language learning, as our memories hold on to emotion.  

Reading grammar off the page?  It’s not the secret ingredient.  It’s still a pretty cool trick, though.  

Some iPad Magic

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.

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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.

My 2015 Language Goals

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.

Language learning: I’m docking you points for that.

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.

Know Thyself in 2014

Here’s what I learned about myself in 2014.  I’m pretty slow to perceive stuff about myself, so it’s a short list.

1.  I need expensive shampoo.  Need.  For decades I was buying the cheapest shampoo possible.  When I landed in Taiwan in July, I bought a random shampoo off the shelf; I think my only criteria was seeing the English word “shampoo.”  I noticed pretty quickly that the stuff I bought seemed to clear up a lot of dandruff and skin problems I had been having since forever.  I got around to reading the bottle after a while (it was mostly in Chinese, so I had been disregarding it).  It was some kind of olive oil, super wholesome, no-harsh-sulfates-or-parabens-havin’ bottle of magic syrup.  When I got back to Seattle I made sure to buy something similar.

Just a few days ago, I ran out of it, and I had to use some of the old harsh stuff for a couple of days until I could make it to the drug store for more ben & jerry’s shampoo.  Those were dark days. One afternoon put my forehead down on the case of my laptop, and when I pulled away there was a huge, oily grease spot where my forehead had been, complete with rainbow slicks and suffocating sea birds.  It was bad.

So now, at age 42, I’ve finally learned my lesson… I buy $10 bottles of shampoo instead of $1.50 bottles.  I don’t even know what sulfates and parabens are; I just know that my skin is healthier and I imagine that fewer dust mites are crapping and sexing all over my face.

2.  I hate the Santa Claus lie.  I hate that an omniscient elderly white clown from the Arctic is judging me and rewarding my behavior with retail merchandise, by means of breaking and entering.  I hate the anxiety that it causes in kids, anxiety that is usually interpreted as wonder and joy, anxiety which adults create for their own entertainment.  I hate that people bust their asses to earn money and then crawl all over each other to shop for these gifts, only to give all the credit to the freakishly-dressed elf.  What if you just gave your kids gifts, instead of lying?

I know people are going to call me a grinch and a killjoy for all this, but I don’t give a crap. I have small nieces and nephews, and their parents don’t have to worry about me ashing all over their Santa Claus lie, but when those poor kids are old enough, I will apologize to them for the lie on behalf of the adults, and get them good gifts, gifts made of metal.

(I’ve felt this way since I was very young, but today’s TAL finally pushed me over the edge).

4.  While I’m at it, I want to say that I also really hate watching when people surprise/ambush little kids with their soldier parents returning from war.  I know most people interpret this as joy and euphoria, but what I see is kids crying; months or years of horrible anxiety, finally bursting like a blister at the sight of their parent, and then BROADCAST ON TELEVISION.  Yes of course it’s a good thing to be reunited with a parent returned from war, but it never looks to me like the kids want to be on TV.  It looks to me like they are crying, burying their faces, they want time alone with their parents.  I for one think they deserve time alone with their parents, every second, and the television spectator has no business gawking at them. Maybe that’s just me.  Also the fact that that whole ambush has to be set up with their classroom teacher or on the Ellen show… I’m pretty sure that the tears and the crying happens regardless of the ambush set up.  I know people see joy, but what I see is all the agony they must have gone through.  Maybe it is joy, I don’t know.  What I do know is that it looks highly, highly personal, and if it were me I wouldn’t want cameras in my face.

4.  I can still acquire language in the wild.  I started Mandarin in 2006 and took a slow road to competence, including a few “intensive” programs that were just garbage, and a year and a half in Shanghai where my Spanish improved immensely, but my Chinese pretty much stalled out.  I know I go around preaching language acquisition like a prophet with his pants on fire, but… after stalling out in Shanghai, I still had my doubts.  I wondered if I was ever going to make it to advanced proficiency.

This summer in Taiwan, I didn’t pay people to present grammar to me, and then test me on it.  Testing is a waste of time.  Instead, I paid people to let me talk my face off every day. The result?  I felt like I was learning faster than I could academically manage it.  I felt like my brain was not only soaking it up like a sponge, but actually attracting any stray language that happened to wander near me.  I know the feeling because I’ve been through it before.  People notice it happening.  It’s exciting.

Now, my Chinese is still not yet where I want it; probably Intermediate (High).  There are good days and bad days.  When I’m among close friends, it’s a good day.  When I’m with strangers or second language speakers who are more proficient than I am, I feel my own level sink down to Intermediate (Low), which is disappointing but I am used to it at this point.

When will I make it to Advanced (Low)?  Who knows, maybe I’ll never get there; that can’t be my goal.  My goal is to have lifelong, fulfilling relationships with Mandarin speakers, and to enjoy myself; if I can accomplish that, I know I’ll blow past Advanced (Low) without even thinking about it.

5.  I love salmon cream cheese.  It’s all I want to eat.

I am pretty certain that I will abusive comments about what a jerk I am for hating Santa and for wanting to deprive people of their constitutional right to watch kids to get emotional broken when their parents are home from a dangerous deployment on a couple weeks leave.  I don’t care anymore.  I don’t really go onto other people’s blogs to take them to task about opinions they are entitled to, but Santa Clause is a sacred cow, and so is gawking at kids whose parents we’ve literally sent into a war zone.

Maybe someone will take me to task over salmon cream cheese.  That will be a relief.