Author Archives: Miracle

Chinese Advancements

It has been three years and three months since I started learning Chinese. Let’s do a quick recap of how my Chinese education has gone over the past few years, shall we?

(It might be helpful to note that  I have been studying Chinese, I have also been studying several other languages, including: Korean, Spanish, Farsi/Persian, Russian, and Czech. Chinese has consistently been my primary foreign language throughout this time, however.)

 

  • Year 1
    • Focused on pronunciation
    • Studied pinyin and tones
    • Learned about 500 vocabulary words
    • Learned how to write Chinese characters properly
    • Accomplishment #1: Gained a foundation in Chinese phonetics and pronunciation
    • Accomplishment #2: Made lots of Chinese teachers angry. Most Chinese teachers that I encountered felt that I was wasting time – theirs and mine; and that since I was not learning dozens of pages of grammar each week that I was an embarrassment to them. Only if I succeeded and learned quickly was I worth their time. I went through a lot of teachers that first year.

 

  • Year 2
    • Continued to work on pronunciation
    • Studied basic grammar
    • Studied basic sentence constructions
    • Accomplishment #1: Completed HSK1-level materials
    • Accomplishment #2: I upset several more Chinese teachers for the same reason stated above. I made even more teachers upset when I specified that I only wanted to study with teachers from Beijing or with a Beijingese dialect. Native Chinese speakers from other parts of mainland China were offended, while Chinese speakers who were not located in mainland Chinese wanted to argue politics. For the latter, I tried to assure them that as a black person in America, with both black and Native American ancestry, I could relate to their struggles. However, they did not seem to have much of a point of reference for the plights of Native Americans or blacks in the US, so those conversations were less than productive. (The struggle was real.)
    • Accomplishment #3: I found two native Chinese speakers to study with. One is from Beijing and the other is from southern China.

 

  • Year 3
    • Continued to work on pronunciation
    • Studied more intermediate-level grammar
    • Reverse-engineered hundreds of Chinese sentences
    • Translated hundreds of English sentences into Chinese
    • Accomplishment #1: Completed HSK2-level materials
    • Accomplishment #2: Completed 2 semesters of Chinese courses at a community college (GPA: 4.1)

 

  • Year 4 (Current)
    • Continued to work on pronunciation
    • Began to have my very first conversations in Chinese
    • Began writing/speaking/composing original sentences
    • Began writing short essays

Speak! You Need To Speak!

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Have you ever been in a foreign language class in which the instructor was covering 12 pages of content (24 pages, front and back), teaching no less than 7 grammatical constructions, and reviewing 50 vocabulary words that were only just introduced the day before?

 

You had wanted to master the 50 vocabulary words from the day before, but you had also decided to learn the 50 new words that were going to be covered in class today. So, you had spent five hours studying 100 intricate characters made up of shapes, curves, circles, and lines that made absolutely no sense to you.

 

On top of that, you were supposed to remember how to write the characters; how to speak them – with the correct tones, of course; and what their meanings were.

 

So, here you are, in class. You and two dozen other students who never learned to speak the sounds of the language correctly, in the first place, and each of you with your own distinct interpretations of the sounds of this new language. There is Indian-Chinese, German-Chinese, Spanish-Chinese, Polish-Chinese, and American-Chinese. Each student thinks that all of the other students in the class sound “really strange,” when the fact of the matter is that no native Chinese speaker would be too fond of any of your pronunciation abilities.

 

Now, you have been zoned out a bit, doing your best to review those 100 vocabulary words. Suddenly, your teacher demands your undivided attention. You didn’t hear the entire sentence, but you did hear one word in particular: speak.

 

You want to be an amazing student. You want to make yourself proud and you want to please the teacher. You want all of your hard work to come to fruition in some meaningful fashion. However, your brain doesn’t quite know where to start. How much brain power should go to correct pronunciation, tones, word order, using the correct vocabulary…? You studied hard all day yesterday and all night last night, and yet your brain isn’t producing the information the way that your teacher wants it to.

 

Jason just strung together a few dozen utterances in Chinese, but nothing that he said sounded anything like the same language that you had been studying in class over the past few months. Your teacher smiles at him and says, “Very good, Jason. Nicely done.”

 

Then, she turns her attention to the rest of the classroom. One by one, she demands that you all speak. Each and every one of you must speak. She says that it’s good for you. She says that you need to do it. Don’t worry about making mistakes or developing poor habits because those things will work themselves out over time.

 

After all, she has been speaking English for well over 20 years and her English is….

 

 

Wait a minute! At best, we can say that her English is…well…questionable. Meaning, every single time that she says something in English, I have to look within the recesses of my soul and question what I have just heard. I can’t just use my brain. No, I have to think about what she is saying, the way that she is saying it, and I have to think about the context of the situation. What could she possibly have meant? Yes, boys and girls. For this type of interaction, I have to consult with every part of myself. Then, and only then, can I come up with a few possible choices. All of that happens in the blink of an eye. I settle in on one of the choices and move on.

 

As a native speaker, I have to make adjustments for English sounds and English grammar, as I know them, in order to understand my foreign language teacher. Granted, there are certain patterns that will be repeated with pronunciation, verb tenses, missing articles, misused prepositions and things like that. So, those types of mistakes do not require as much thought after awhile. However, for example, in moments when she is trying to present a hypothetical situation to the class, instead of using the “if-then” construction, she simply uses the simple present tense. The Chinese languages does not use the “if-then” construction. So, my teacher never picked up on how important this simple grammatical pattern is for native English speakers .

 

And the confusion begins. Is she telling me to do something? Is she telling me a story about something that usually happens? Is she trying to present a situation that expresses something like “when ABC happens we should do XYZ?

 

It might take me a few moments to get an answer to the question. However, in those few moments, I am not learning the foreign language that I signed up for. No. Instead, I am learning how to interpret my teacher’s English. It really is not such a big deal for a single moment here or there, but that is never the end of the story. To get a more accurate feel for the situation, you would have to multiply that incident by thirty, forty, or even fifty – depending on the length of the class. (And let’s just say that for those day-long seminar like classes that last 6-8 hours, you should secure your thinking cap tightly.)

 

If you have ever been in this kind of situation, perhaps you can relate to my frustration; and perhaps you can understand why I have absolutely refused to have conversations in Chinese over the past three years. Sure, I’ll do the one-liners here and there, and I write copious amounts of Chinese with my teachers every day of the week. However, I have declined speaking practice.

 

Until now!

 

After three years of studying Chinese, I am finally going to start conversational practice. Everyone that I know would say that I am crazy. But I tell you what – I speak the same amount of Chinese as a native 3-year-old, and with relatively the same accuracy. Now, I do have more grammar in my head than a 3-year-old Chinese child, but I want to be more confident about using it. Unlike Chinese children, I am not surrounded by native Chinese speakers on a daily basis – and taking the risk of developing incorrect habits, that take two to three times as long to correct as they did to develop in the first place, is not, at all, of interest to me.

 

See, here we go. I, Miracle L. Smith, The Rogue Linguist, am finally going to start speaking Chinese. I feel confident. My vocabulary is decent. My pronunciation is clear. My listening is improving. I have stored tons of Chinese in the old noggin.

 

In short, there are so many things to feel confident about at this point of my language learning. My brain is not overwhelmed. And, probably most importantly, at least for me, is that I am in a place where I can isolate my mistakes. I can make a mental note of the differences between my sentences and my tutor’s, and learn from those differences. My brain is ready, and so am I.

 

So, let the conversational classes begin! (I’ll keep you updated.)

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Patience and The Linguist

One of the biggest problems with the approach of formal language education is that there seems to always be present a growing need for the students to learn faster. Faster. Faster!

The pressure to absorb information quickly is an on-going issue. Because so much of learning is about digesting information, actual learning takes time.

However, those in charge of educational systems around the globe seem to think that large quantities of information being, quite literally, shoved down a student’s throat is productive. And when the student can only retain about 50-70% of what they have learned, long-term, and they can only use that information with moderate accuracy, it somehow becomes the student’s fault.

But I have some thoughts…

  • Why do we require language students to learn the same amount of content in one year that a native speaker would take 2-3 years to learn?
  • Why do we not acknowledge that a brain that has already adopted and been shaped by a native language is not going to be able to learn a second language at the same rate as native speakers of said second language?
  • How do we not see that the filter of one’s native language is used to process information about any subsequent languages? (This filter adds additional steps for the language learner to think through, if true mastery is to be achieved.)
  • Why don’t we acknowledge that memorizing vocabulary and grammar constructs is not the same as actually learning a language?
  • Why aren’t we allowing language students the time to digest information before requiring them to learn more information?

I am two years and nine months into my Chinese language journey. According to native and non-native Chinese speakers, the consensus would be that my Chinese level is lower than the level of my peers who have learned Chinese in a formal setting. The chart below demonstrates how my language skills compare to those of my peers.

MIRACLE PEERS
HSK Level (1-6) 2-3 3-4
Pronunciation Skills Intermediate Beginner
Amount of Grammar Memorized Beginner – Intermediate  Intermediate – Advanced
Ability to Use Known Grammar Advanced Intermediate
Speaking Skills Beginner Intermediate
Reading Comprehension Intermediate Intermediate
Translation Skills (Chin. to Eng.) Intermediate Beginner
Listening Skills Beginner Intermediate
Writing Skills Intermediate Intermediate
Dedication/Consistency Extremely high Varies
Motivation Extremely high Varies
Joy Extremely high Varies

 

SnailI learn slowly, but I learn well. I review often and compare Chinese grammar constructs to those in English. Slowly, but surely, I am starting to actually FEEL Chinese. The language no longer just abides in my head. The language is starting to become a part of my being. My goal is to one day speak this beautiful language from my heart – not from my brain.

This is the difference between memorizing aspects of a language and becoming one with the language. Language is a living and breathing entity. Approaching it as such, while giving it the respect that it deserves, I believe will ensure exceptional success with the language in the future. So, I am in this for the long haul. I may be moving at a snail’s pace right now, but the benefits of learning with patience with show in the future.

In regards to my current Chinese level, I may not be able to communicate in the language as well as my peers at the present time, but I fully expect to catch up to my peers within two years, and to surpass them within four years. My goal is to speak clearly, to use grammar naturally, and to comprehend spoken and written Chinese more like a native speak with each passing year.

In summary, by many accounts, I am not performing up to par. But, I believe that my patience and my attention to detail will pay off in the end. This is the ground work for the linguistics research that I expect to be a part of in the coming years.

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My First Chinese Joke

Absorbing The Content

Do you remember the game called Hungry Hippo? There is a circle of hippopotamuses (hippos) trying to eat as many pieces of food as possible. In fact, the goal of the game is to eat more pieces of food than any of the other players. The player who eats the most food wins the game.

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Borrowing that analogy for language-learning classrooms, it can be said that the similarities are quite numerous. The teacher places huge quantities of food in the middle of the playing board for all of the students to have access to. And as soon as class begins, the students start trying to consume as much content as possible. And so-called “good” students will do their best to consume more content than any of the other students. But there is no time to absorb these large amounts of information. Instead, students is just expected to memorize, memorize, memorize.

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They are not given the opportunity to dissect the information and experiment with it in different scenarios. They usually do not learn the differences between using a grammar point correctly and using it naturally. They are not allowed to spend time with the material long enough to compare the meaning in their native language to the meaning in the foreign language that they are working in. Language is a living and breathing entity. It is an art form. And there are nuances in language that are better felt than explained. If you do not believe me, then think about the 6-year old who somehow knows to say “we are” as opposed to “we is.” He feels the difference even though he cannot explain the rules of subject-verb agreement.

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And so, because language students are not allotted sufficient time with their course materials, the result is that the majority of students develop a way of speaking a foreign language in a way that it is perhaps best be described as “broken.” We use words like Spanglish (Spanish-English) and Chinglish (Chinese-English) for language skills that can be recognized as both native and foreign in nature. And this is the status quo. The bar is set low. We embrace the notion that it is impossible for a non-native language speaker, above a certain age, to speak a foreign language well. And a student who has spent 8-10 years studying a language is labelled as fluent by other non-native speakers, while native speakers find the student’s abilities sufficient, at best, but usually unnatural and quite frequently unclear.

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We need to understand that learning is cyclical. There are times when students are learning, learning, learning. And there are times when students are reviewing, reviewing, reviewing. And then there are times when students are consolidating, consolidating, consolidating. Why am I repeating each word three times? Well, it’s because learning is a process. And the educational system does not seem to acknowledge or appreciate this fact.

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Even children who are learning their own native languages are given the opportunity to repeat information dozens of times before it is absorbed into their sponge-like brains.

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So, why are foreign-language students expected to cram such large quantities of information into their brains each week? And why aren’t students being given the opportunity to spend more time with these large quantities of information so that they can digest it and make some sense of it?

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I do not enjoy sounding like a broken record, but I feel compelled to again say that memorizing is not the same as learning. And if we are going to begin to produce students who can communicate naturally in their foreign language(s), we need to put more emphasis on quality and not quantity. Students are not animals feasting in the wild. Students need time to absorb, digest, and dissect the information that they are learning – that is, if they are expected to use their foreign languages naturally.

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My opinion is that the status quo needs to change. We should expect language students to speak foreign languages well, regardless of their age when beginning their studies. And we should grant students sufficient time to spend with their materials so that they are able to become more intimate with the lessons. Lastly, we need to stop treating language classrooms like feeding centers where students are expected to absorb content in pretty much the same manner, regardless of their native languages. A Chinese, Japanese, and Korean students will not learn English as well as Spanish, French, and Italian speakers. Latin-based languages resemble each other in many ways, making it easier for students with that background to learn certain parts of English much easier.

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We need to learn how to teach foreign languages better. We need to learn how to pay attention to what the students need.  We need to respect the language-learning process. Until we address these issues, the best that we can expect from language instruction that resembles a hungry hippo feeding frenzy is nothing more than broken, confusing, and sub-par language skills. There has to be a solution to these issues, and I plan to continue experimenting with my own language learning processes until I find something that works better.

Language-Learning Can Be Traumatic

Yesterday, I had the distinct privilege of speaking with a highly intelligent individual whose sole job over the past year has been to learn Chinese, in China. She engages in formal studies at a Chinese university and spends significant amounts of time studying both independently and with private instructors.
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By all accounts, her Chinese is quite impressive.  And the level of fluency that she has been able to achieve is made even more impressive by the short amount of time in which she has been able to do so.
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I asked her what the key to her success is.  She walked me through a few things that work for her.

1) She tries not to compare herself to other language learners.

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I like this.  With this approach, she is less likely to become frustrated over being able to keep up with someone else. Her complete focus can be on her individual journey. Limiting one’s frustrations during the language-learning process helps a lot.  Frustration takes time, energy, and focus – all of which should really be going into learning one’s chosen language. Also, in not comparing herself to others, she is much less likely to limit herself.  It is human nature to think that we can rest a bit easier once we know that we have “a lead” on others.  In staying true to herself and her own journey, she is much more likely to maximize her own potential.  I love it!


2) She described the desire to quit as being a regular part of her early learning cycle.

frustration.
In the beginning, she wanted to quit every 6 six weeks.  I could identify. At the start of my Chinese learning journey, I wanted to quit every month and a half. I started to feel “stuck” and as if I was not making any progress. I have since learned to work through those frustrating moments, with an assurance that I will indeed see the sunlight once more.
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However, she did not become distracted by discouragement, as I had.  She persevered each time she became frustrated and came out stronger.  I left China and vowed not to go back.  Because she did not quit and has only continued to advance.  I admire her character, her strength and dedication to her goals.


3) She acknowledged that there will be tears and immense frustrations.

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She did not elaborate on this issue. But, personally, I cried many times trying to learn Chinese in China. Though I was studying every waking hour of everyday, what my teachers wanted from me seemed absolutely impossible. But, I thought, ‘If Chinese people can do it, so can I!’ So, I would try harder and harder.  And my grades continued to get worse and worse. My native Chinese-speaking teachers expected me to learn up to 50 new words everyday – with their characters, pinyin, correct pronunciation, and the correct stroke order for each character.  The teachers were trying to cram over 250 new terms down our throats every week, and we were expected to learn how to use said terms fluently.  I found the situation frustrating beyond words!
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There were also about 5 new grammatical constructions to learn every single day; that’s about 25 new grammatical construtions each week.  There were crazy grammar exercises to test our written fluency – which we were supposed to have magically mastered solely from reading selected Chinese texts. And to top it all off, the so-called English “translations” in our textbooks were written in broken English. It was a mixture of Chinese grammar with English vocabulary words; something that is often referred to as “Chinglish.”  Much of the time I had no earthly idea what they were trying to teach me.
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The teaching assistant would write in huge red letters on my daily quizzes that I needed to study harder. In a conference meeting with that same teaching assistant and two of my private tutors, he finally admitted that he thought that I was too old to learn Chinese.  I had treated them all to dinner.  He was the only one who ate.  He only admitted that he felt the fault lied completely with my age after scarfing down an entire heaping plate of jiaozi (Chinese buns) that had been dipped in vinegar, then letting out a huge belch.
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The situation was absolutely insane.  So, yes. I cried and I, too, had been extremely frustrated.


4) She explained that the process of establishing a foundation in Chinese is non-linear.

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Her conclusion was that there are no specific steps to be taken in order to transition smoothly from English to Chinese. Now, I believe that she was specifically referring to learning Chinese in an academic setting, or perhaps another high-pressure environment in which there are performance expectations. In these settings, students are oftentimes expected to pass HSK* 3 in a matter of 12 months.
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*The HSK is the Chinese proficiency exam.  There are 6 levels to this test.  HSK 3 represents roughly 3 years of study.
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In a more relaxed setting, there would be more sufficient time allowed for students to learn pronunciation, pinyin, tones, etc., in stages. In a more relaxed setting more time would be allowed for laying a solid foundation. But that is not the way that things work in an academic setting, or when your job has sent you to China to learn. And this leads to her 5th point.


.5) Learning Chinese is traumatic.

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When she said this, I must admit that something on the inside of me reacted. My reflex was to judge her wording and to try to find a softer way to explain the process of learning a language. After all, it was just a language. How can learning a language be traumatic? Isn’t that wording much too strong?
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No. The wording absolutely is not too strong. I am two years into my Chinese language journey and I can honestly say that the process to getting my brain to adapt to this language has, on one hand been beautiful and rewarding; and on the other hand, it has been purely traumatic. The cycle of forcing the brain to create new processes, then giving it a few weeks to adapt, then forcing it to create additional new processes but on a deeper level, then giving it a few weeks to adapt…repeat, repeat, repeat.  No matter how one looks at it, it is a painfully frustrating process. And so we arrive at the final step.


6) Take breaks.

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Speaking with this wonderfully-intelligent and well-rounded individual, I realized that there needs to be a sense of balance.  I simply cannot go at 100%, 7 days a week, without any breaks, and expect my brain to continue to function as it needs to.


7) I would like to add a note here and that is that – acknowledging that there is room for improvement in the educational process takes some of the stress off of the language learners.  Instead of judging ourselves, we can explore better methodologies which may assist us, individually, or the language learning community on a whole.

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Not a single one of my Chinese teachers, who learned English using this Chinese method is confident with his/her English.  Five years later, ten years later, even twenty years later, they are still unsure of their ability to use English. They know that their grammar is not native, that their sentence structures are unnatural, that their pronunciation is often difficult to understand.
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Likewise, I have yet to encounter a native English speaker who has achieved Chinese fluency outside of China, or without having been raised in a home where Chinese is spoken by natives. Our pronunciation is poor; in fact, many of us even downplay the importance of tones. Our Chinese grammar is incorrect, as are our constructed Chinese sentences. We use the verb “to be” incorrectly and forget that time should be indicated at the beginning of the sentence and not the end. We are not clear on how to indicate the time in which events take place, because Chinese has no verb tenses.  And the word order for Chinese and English are totally different, once one moves beyond basic sentence structures.
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The Chinese system for teaching language indicates that students should simply memorize-memorize-memorize. Memorize thousands of characters. Memorize pages and pages of text, verbatim. The Western system for teaching language says that we should memorize tons of material, in-context. But when one is presented with context, there are dozens of nuances that must be explored. Questions arise about why it is appropriate to use a particular construction in one situation but not in another. And insufficient time is granted in both the Chinese and the Western systems for the student to wrap his brain around this information.
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The result is that language learners speak a sort of Frankenstein-esque version of both languages.
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And so, yes.  I can honestly say that as a native English speaker who is dedicated to learning Chinese (and to learning the language well), it does often times feel as if I am forcing my brain to do something completely unnatural.   The process is uncomfortable.  It is frustrating.  And it is, indeed, traumatic.
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But I am determined to persevere on my journey.  And, with that, I am off to study!


I did not intend for my recent conversation with this individual to be a topic for my blog. But her words of wisdom made such an impact on me that I could not stop thinking about them and how they applied to my own journey. I wish to thank her for taking the time to speak with me. You are an inspiration. Best of luck to you in your studies and with all that you do moving forward.

The Great Dilemma: Chinese Tenses

One of the most difficult things that any native English speaker will face when starting to study Chinese is the fact that Chinese does not have any verb tenses. When I first heard the news, I sat in stunned silence for a moment trying to get that little piece of information to compute in my brain. How on earth does one communicate effectively without verb tenses?  Every other language I had ever explored used tenses: Korean, Farsi, Spanish, Swahili, French, Italian…But, it turns out that Chinese does not find them necessary. This was going to be a new frontier.

 

However, two years into my Chinese studies, this aspect of the language still poses significant challenges for me.

 

Sure, Chinese has handy words like , which can be used to indicate that something occurred in the future, and , which can be used to indicate that something occurred in the past.  But the operative word in both of these situations is “can.”  For, you see, and do not always mean “future” and “past,” respectively.

 

So, what’s a girl to do?

 

Well, apparently, she is to learn as much about context as possible.

 

Let’s look at this example:
我只学了一年多。
wo3 zhi3 xue le5 yi4 nian2 duo1.
Chinese word order: I only studied one year a little more than.
Possible English translation #1: I have only studied for a little while.
Possible English translation #2: I only been studying for a little bit over a year.
Possible English translation #3: I only studied for a little bit over a year.

 

As you can see, it was not clear to me from the onset which tense this sentence should be translated into: the present perfect tense, the present perfect continuous tense, or the simple past tense?

 

And Linda, my Chinese language partner for this lesson, provided a response that was not exactly along the lines of what I was hoping to hear. I wanted a clear, direct, definitive answer. Something like: 2+2=4.  In each and every situation, 2+2=4.

 

However, Linda explained that the exact meaning of this sentence depended on the context.  Well, there was no context. It was a single, random sentence from one of my workbooks.

 

confused-woman

 

So, I re-worded my thoughts and asked the question again. “Are there any clues at all that would indicate which verb tense we should use for this sentence?”  And again, the answer was, “No.” There was no way to know the exact meaning of this sentence, without context.

 

This response has become pretty common whenever I ask one of my Chinese language partners about verb tenses.  So, it is finally starting to sink in for me that much of the meaning of Chinese sentences has to do with the overall situation.  Most people who study Chinese (or any foreign language) understand that it is counterproductive to translate word-for-word from Chinese to English, or from English to Chinese.  And so, what we try to do instead is understand the overall “feeling” of one language, then try to capture the meaning of the content in the second language.

 

That part can be easy enough, given that one has a solid understanding of the necessary vocabulary words used and of the manner in which words are ordered in both languages.  But again, the adverbs and other keywords are going to be important.

 

In conclusion, I will admit that I do not have any concrete solutions for this situation.  I am still on my journey, as trying as it is much of the time.  The goal here is not to offer a solution to the problem, as I do not myself know what the solution is.  Instead, I just wanted to serve notice to any new learners about the situation.  Perhaps, knowing in advance that Chinese does not have any verb tenses will help you to readjust your thinking before you get too deep into the language.  Afterall, having the right mindset is half the battle when it comes to learning a new language.

 

I hope that this article helps someone.

 

Happy studying, everyone!

 

 

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Little Lera

We  are pleased to announce a new addition to the Towajo student family.  She is itty-bitty (very small) and comes to us from Russia at just two and a half years of age.  Her name is Lera.  Her mother has been one of my students for a little over 1.5 years and she has made tremendous progress in that time.  And so, we thought that it would be wonderful to get my student’s daughter started with English as soon as possible and help her to achieve results, as well.

 

Currently, little Lera has 15-minute lessons each week, via Skype.  Today, she made it to 12 minutes and decided that she had had enough. So, she abruptly hopped out of her mother’s lap and said, “goodbye.”  But little Lera’s mother and I are absolutely thrilled. She is becoming more used to me and she is becoming more accustomed to sitting still for short periods of time.

 

bee

Lera’s brain is like a sponge.  She stores large quantities of information, and she does so quickly.  Apparently, after her previous 12-minute lesson she went running to her mother to show her the “bee” on her drinking cup.  In her lesson that day, we had gone over the English alphabet and in a picture slideshow, I had shown Lera that the letter “B” was for the animal “bee.”  Not only did she store the information, but she also was able to apply the lesson to real life.

 

Little Lera has a great mom who is deeply invested in her English education.  She supports Lera outside of class with bite-sized reminders of the things that she has learned in her brief English classes with me.  Lera also has access to lots of movies and games on her tablet.  And so, we work together like a small team.  Little Lera’s mother and I communicate openly about Lera’s English lessons.  She gives me feedback that helps me to create more effective lessons for Lera.  In short, Lera’s mother and I work together to develop the best system possible for her daughter.  And Lera seems to be blessed with natural learning ability. She is extremely bright.  This young child of just two and a half years of age is firmly on her path to learning English – and learning it well.

 

Nicely done, Lera!  I am proud of you and I am honored to play a role in your education at such an early part of your journey.  The sky is the limit for you.  It is clear that with your natural intelligence and with parents who love and support you, you are going to be successful in this life.

 

Sincerely,
Miracle

 

(Note: Updates for Lera will be provided approximately every 3-4 months.)

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Birth of The Rogue Linguist

Some Thoughts

 

Learning in a formal classroom setting has always been a challenge for me. By all accounts, the manner in which I learn is unconventional.  When studying languages independently, I spend time with the course material, dissect it, rearrange it, and internalize it.  Testing my new knowledge out in different contexts and getting feedback from multiple native speakers is one of the great joys in life for me.

 

 

The idea that we as language students should just learn well enough to be understood, frustrates me to no end.  Simply being understood is for young children.  As a maturing linguist, I want to use my languages in as natural a fashion as possible.  My dream is to sound as much like a native speaker as I possibly can.  So, getting inside the head of a native speaker and embracing that person’s language in my heart is all a part of the process.  And it is a part of the process that I love.

 

And so, when I am studying independently, no new lessons are introduced until I have mastered the previous lesson.  I review everything numerous times, until the information becomes a part of me.  When I can access vocabulary words, phrases, and grammar constructions within myself, within up to about 5 seconds, only then is it time to move on to another lesson.

 

It will still be necessary to review the information regularly (in writing or in conversational practice).  But over the coming weeks, it will be a lot easier to access those details, and the time that it takes me to do so decreases until the words come out of me as easily as I breathe.

 

The Classroom Experience

 

classroom1In school, teaching is based on simply memorizing words and phrases, while nodding to intricate concepts in passing (and using the most vague wording possible to do so).  The expectation is that students should somehow pull all of this information together in a matter of a day or so and use it naturally – in much the same way as native speakers. Students are required to learn massive quantities of vocabulary words and grammar constructions, while somehow figuring out how to pronounce the language correctly.  Usually a day or two is allowed for students to learn how to pronounce this new language.

 

For languages like Chinese, Korean, or Arabic which have completely different writing systems, sufficient time is not allowed for students to learn how to write or type the new language.  Any unchecked poor habits that students develop in their first language class will likely stay with them for years to come.  Teachers will be obliged to focus on “more important” issues like vocabulary and listening comprehension.  Students will learn to listen selectively – “catching” certain phrases that they have been taught while ignoring words that they do not know; never really understanding that getting the gist of something is not the same as really getting a feel for the deeper meaning.

 

Many times I will ask an English student, “Do you understand this passage?”  They will tell me “Yes,” with an air of confidence that suggests that they are prepared to move onto more challenging work.  I then ask them to express their understanding of what they have read.  Oftentimes their understanding of the passage is inaccurate or incomplete.  And so, I started wondering – what is the problem?  Why don’t I learn language well in school?  And when students come to me with the goal of improving their English, why have they had such a difficult time learning English well?

 

Studying In China For 3 Months

 

chna-mmap-mdIn China, students in my class were expected to learn 50 new vocabulary words everyday.  That included pinyin, tones, pronunciation, and being able to write the characters with the correct stroke order.  And, on top of that, we were expected to learn somewhere between 7-10 grammar constructions each day.  Subsequent lessons did not always build from previous lessons, so for about 70-80% of the vocabulary words and phrases that we learned each day, there was very little review.  It was a nightmare!

 

The Western Educational System

 

flag-map-of-united-statesThere are some differences with the western educational system, but the concept of “learning” is also largely based on memorization.  Western schools do not require that students memorize such large quantities of information.  But there is substantial focus placed on reading comprehension, with dozens of nuances that one is expected to embrace and miraculously remember how to use naturally after just one or two sentences.

 

My native Chinese-speaking teacher would test our knowledge of a Chinese grammar construction.  In broken English she would explain on a test that we should translate a sentence into perfectly natural Chinese.  The test was timed.  The pressure was on.  And the challenges were not made any easier by fact that my teacher’s understanding of English was limited.  Everything that she wrote was just a little bit “off.”  It was not a question of whether or not her writing would be confusing.  It was a question of the degree to which her writing would be confusing this time.  In testing situations, her writing made things especially difficult.  Her instructions were in broken English and so was the English sentence that I was supposed to be translating in Chinese.  But because she wrote so poorly in English I often had questions like: Which tense does she want me to use?  Which grammar construction does she want me to use?  What was her intention in putting that adverb there?

 

b-minus-school-letter-gradeI had studied over 35 hours with native Chinese speakers to prepare for that exam.  And instead of the bottom line being whether or not I understood the content of the course material, it was whether or not I could get inside of my teacher’s head and give her what she wanted.  It became a tiring and frustrating game.

 

I sifted through my brain and managed to remember every vocabulary word needed to complete the sentence, and even the correct grammar construction required.  However, I put the character 了 (le) immediately behind the verb instead of at the end of the sentence.  (We had not yet been taught about the many nuances of using the character 了.)

 

My instructor marked the answer wrong.  No partial credit was given.  I used the correct vocabulary, the correct characters, and put all of the words in the correct order except one, and she marked the answer wrong.  This was the second week of a first semester Chinese class.  My passion for Chinese was quickly replaced by seeds of frustration.

 

My instructor employed the same unreasonable grading practices for the other questions on the test.  There were also multiple Chinese characters on the quiz that we had never been taught – that had never appeared anywhere in our course materials.  We weren’t allowed to use dictionaries, of course.  And the end result was that I received a grade of 84 on that test.

 

Growing Frustrations…

 

cute-baby-girl-looking-frustratedMy frustration began to grow.  My teacher’s broken English, unrealistic expectations, and unfair grading practices were getting in the way of my actual education.  Her use of English was not natural, and yet I was expected to take her broken English sentences and turn them into natural Chinese sentences.   After just two weeks of a first semester class?  And if a single character was out of place, the entirety of my work was discounted?  The situation was absolutely absurd.

 

And so many students have their own stories about the ridiculous conditions under which they have been expected to learn well.

 

The bottom line is that the system for teaching foreign languages is broken.

 

Einstein said that the definition of insanity is “doing the same thing over and over again, while expecting different results.”  And what we are doing in terms of language education is truly insane.  Standard methods, if they can be called that, are not working.  Results are minimal, at best.lightbulb-15

 

I’m on a journey to change things.  Over the next 3-4 years, I want to illustrate that it is possible to learn a foreign language and to learn it well, outside the realm of formal education.  Formal classes may be a part of my journey, sporadically – but the majority of my language education will be done independently (with the support of my language partners, of course).

 

My primary foreign language is Chinese.  I also spend significant time studying Spanish, Korean, and Farsi.  Additionally, I have begun to study the pronunciation and writing systems for Russian, Hindi, and Thai.  My main focus will continue to be on Chinese, however.

 

My initial plan was to take language classes for 4 years, then apply to a research-based graduate program overseas where I could focus on contrastive linguistics.  There are excellent programs in New Zealand, Scotland, and Singapore that have piqued my interest.

 

But, instead of relying on a faulty system to teach me Chinese over the next few years, it will be up to me to learn – and to learn well.  It will be a small miracle to get into a good research-based graduate program overseas without having learned formally, but that is a chance that I am willing to take, especially given the alternative.

 

rogue

And for the record, my final grade in Chinese was 99.8 and my final grade in Spanish was 98.4.  But the grades are misleading.  What they do not show is that I memorized enough in the short-term to make my teachers happy.  What the grades do not show is the growing frustration that comes with knowing that although my grades were good, I was not given the opportunity to learn the material well enough to satisfy myself.  And that’s what really matters.  The integrity of my relationship with each language that I study is what is most important to me.

 

The system that we currently have for teaching foreign languages is highly ineffective.  Someone needs to create a solution that works, and I want to be a part of that process.

 

My name is Miracle. I am The Rogue Linguist.

Learn the English Alphabet (Video)

I was recently looking for a slightly more exciting way for one of my young students to learn the English alphabet when I ran across this gem.  Granted, the pronunciation is a little peculiar, as the speaker does not seem to have a true “feel” for the English language.  (The accent seems to be Indian.)

 

However, this is still a great starter video for your little ones who need to learn the English alphabet while having fun.

 

We like it because:

  • The music is compelling
  • The images are entertaining
  • It teaches the names of the letters, as well as the way that the letters sound (at least approximately) in words
  • It is short – only 4 minutes long
  • It’s a great starter video

 

So, if you are having a difficult time getting your young child to pay attention to you as you try to teach them the English alphabet, give this a try.  Simply, push play!

 

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