Saturday, December 24, 2011

Magic Winter

Do you like snow? If you drive, and your car spends nights in the open air, you probably don't. Indeed, who likes shovelling, cleaning front and rear windows and having no control over the car on an icy road? Yet winter is a beautiful and magical season.

In Russia, people mostly like snow, and drivers are not an exception. The first snow (in my hometown in Siberia, it normally happens in mid October) puts people in the festive spirit. In late autumn, the sky in northern countries is grey, and the sun is a rare guest. White snowflakes reflecting pale winter sunlight give a city the new, lighter look. Snow hides dirty and ugly things and decorates streets and houses.

Sometimes, when it is humid enough, there is “иней” (ee-ney, a hoar frost) in the trees: they are tiny ice crystals that glitter in the sunlight.

Frozen oak tree
Photo by Tatiana Gerus

Icy pictures that suddenly appear in the windows are another natural winter decor. When the frost is relatively mild, about -5C/23F, snowflakes are large and fluffy. They look very beautiful at night, in the warm light of street lamps and neon signs. After a blizzard, when it gets really cold, a view of a bloody red frosty sun and even bluish snow cover catches your breath. Snow, like a sea, looks different in different weather, but it is always beautiful.

Photo by ezioman

Besides the aesthetics, there is a pragmatic reason to like snow. Poor road pavement in Russia is an everlasting problem everywhere, except perhaps Moscow. When the thick snow covers roads, they become more even, without pits. Driving in winter in Russia is easier than in summer; just do not press your brakes when a car slides.

People in Russia love winter also because it is a season of holidays. New Year is a time when magic comes to life. The common belief is that the way you spend a New Year Eve is the way you will live the upcoming year. For example, it's a bad omen to argue during the New Year's Eve – it means you will be arguing for the next 12 months. People enjoy the New Year's Eve as much as possible: they cook a lot of food, dress up nicely and try to attract good luck by doing “right” things. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Chinese calendar became very popular in Russia, mostly among ladies, so many women check what colour of their party dress should be, what kind of food is “proper” and so on (I'm not sure if people in China believe all this stuff). There is also a belief that if you put some money in your pocket at midnight, you will have a sufficient amount of money during the year.

I wish you the Merry Christmas and the best of luck in 2012!

Новогодняя инсталляция
Photo by Евгений Антонов

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

If You Want To Speak A(ny) Language Don't Learn It

From time to time I feel great temptation to share my own learning and teaching experience with other people. The way we learn something is critically important to the final outcome.

How do we learn languages? Normally, we memorize some basic words and phrases, then we learn some grammar rules and try to compose phrases using wrong words and making predictable mistakes since the interference from the native language is so strong. Why is it that after years of studies many still fail speaking fluently? Do they fail because they are stupid and lazy? Definitely not. At the very beginning of our lives we learnt our native languages perfectly well, so we are capable of learning languages. Probably, the way we acquire a new language is not the most efficient. Most likely, it is quite inefficient. We didn't learn the native language as a sum of vocabulary and grammar rules. We never thought about the grammar at all, and yet we succeeded.

How do kids acquire their first language? They use it from the very first minute. They hear voices of people around and react to them. Meanwhile their brains collect statistics of the word usage, grammar structures and pronunciation (neurologists believe every healthy human brain has a capability to collect and analyze the language statistics by nature). Then kids try to express their emotions, needs and wants with sounds mimicking the speech of other people and adjusting their grammar and word usage according to our reaction to their speech. So the more a kid speaks the better he gets at it. We have to learn from our own childhood experience how to acquire a language; after all, it was successful once.

Photo by Nina

Of course, it is impossible to recreate the circumstances of our early pre-language childhood, but what we can do is to change our learning strategy. Stop learning and start using seems to be a more efficient way to acquire a new language, and this is not so hard to do.

First of all, it is useful to remember that there is a difference between using a language passively (listening and reading) and actively (speaking and writing). When learning a new language, one should develop both active and passive language skills. It is relatively easy to improve reading and listening in our age of the Internet. Passive skills are all about consuming language. For developing listening skill, you can watch movies, listen to online radio broadcasting and the music you like, memorize lyrics with no efforts (this is, actually, how I learnt English). It is not a big deal to find a good book to read (please note that this should be the book you really want to read) and/or to subscribe to blogs on topics that are interesting to you.

Active language skills means that you produce some text (oral or written) and address it to your audience. Finding an audience that is ready to help a non-native speaker with corrections is not so easy, but again, there is the Internet with its powerful resources like Lang-8 or iTalki. I would also suggest a website that is a social pronunciation dictionary. I use it each time when I hesitate how to pronounce this or that word.

So why not use the advantage of the Internet epoch? Why be so persistent in methods that rarely lead to success instead of trying a natural way of acquiring a language? If you want to learn dancing you go to the dancing studio, pick up a partner and dance, improving gradually. Buying a book “Waltz and Tango course” instead would be ridiculous, wouldn't it? Language is a practical skill too, just like dancing, however, nobody has found learning a language from books absurd. Let us be like children, forget that learning is hard work (it is!) and enjoy discovering a new language, tinkering with it, exactly like we tinkered with our first language many years ago.