Sunday, January 18, 2015

Practical Direction

Benny Lewis, an aspiring polyglot and language lover, wrote an article “Why Hard Work Isn’t What Makes Good Learners”. He believes that most failures to learn a second language despite all the enormous efforts and hundreds of hours invested are caused by a single mistake: trying to learn everything at once instead of focussing on one specific task at a time. He wrote,
“The problem is that all of these tasks [studying new words, taking a course, learning grammar rules, trying to listen to podcasts, etc] are unrelated, random and focus on extremely dissimilar problems. I was essentially trying to pull myself in so many directions, that they all cancelled one another out until I ended up effectively back at zero.”

Benny’s solution is “deliberate practice”, i.e. focussing on one specific problem at a time, and move on gradually from one task to another:
“I know this can seem counterintuitive, because as a beginner, you imagine that your ultimate end-goal is to master the language. So you should be learning everything from the start. But rather than know a little of this and a little of that, being a confident speaker first (my first priority always) gives you the confidence and flow in the language to be better at learning harder words, or being able to read, or whatever your next focus is,”.

I completely agree with Benny on his scepticism toward hard work. However, I don’t think that the lack of focus was the reason for many SLA failures. Re-phrasing Tolstoy, successful cases of second language acquisition are all alike, every failure happens in its own way.

When working on some specific language-related task (for example, improving your speaking skills), you inevitably widen your initial assignments: you can’t speak without learning new words, practicing grammar rules and listening to replies. We use language as a whole. Our language skills are deeply interconnected. This is the very nature of language.

Focussing on one specific task may play a dirty joke on you. Lourdes Ortega, in her book Understanding Second Language Acquisition, writes about Richard Watson, an American philosopher. Watson is considered one of the foremost living authorities on Descartes. He read many books about Descartes and by Descartes in French, but he failed to speak French, despite the fact that he made every possible effort. He described his painful experience in his book, The Philosopher's Demise: Learning French. After years of reading and translating complex academic texts in French he failed to achieve his dream to ‘sit at a table in a restaurant in Paris with a group of French Cartesian scholars and … talk’ (p. 65)

My teaching experience allows me to observe that those students who achieved high proficiency in Russian were not the ones who moved from one task to another, but the ones who 1) were personally involved and 2) had a practical purpose for studying Russian.

Personal involvement is what makes you forget about time. You may have “Study Russian at least an hour every day” as your New Year’s resolution, but you’ll be able to do this if and only if you find something interesting. For example, you have a Russian-speaking friend, and you enjoy your conversations greatly, and while driving to your office, you can’t stop thinking about what you will say next time you see her. You repeat your phrases mentally, and your lips keep moving silently, practicing weird Russian articulation. Or you decided to watch the movie Leviathan in Russian, because this movie shocked you, and you happily spend hours trying to translate the lines, because those insight moments - oh, they are so rewarding!

Personal involvement is often driven by practical goals. New social connections, employment or education perspectives, cross-cultural marriages, personal identity built on family heritage - all these help language acquisition dramatically. They give you that vector Benny wrote about. Instead of setting the goals like “Being able to say ‘hi’ in Hindi in ten different social contexts by next Monday”, students start thinking pragmatically. As you can imagine, focussing on one task for solving pragmatic tasks is hardly the best strategy.

Photo by Russ Allison Loar