Birth of The Rogue Linguist

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.



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.

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