Donate to Red Cross Japan

The earthquake victims would appreciate your help more than you'll ever know(more resources can be found here).

Monday, March 26, 2012

How to Teach Yourself a Language [part 5]

When you're developing a feel for riding a bike, it's not often you can just hop on, peddle forward and get going without falling over. For most, it starts with the training wheels, then having someone hold you steady while you build up your sense of balance, and work to point where they stop holding on and you're using your own balance to keep you up as the bike moves and you're in full control of where it's going. This process is called Scaffolding, and it helps people do things they couldn't before, which is what many, less charitable folks call coddling, especially when it's done in the classroom and there's no apparent progress in what the students can do.

            In your own studies, this can give you the legs you need to push onwards the more you learn about a language, but to do this well, you gotta be willing to set goals outside your comfort level, even if it's only a little; you learned how to walk, talk and much more from it, so why not use the process to help you learn? If you can find someone of equal or higher skill than you to help you practice, than Scaffolding can let everyone involved learn from each other and build up your experience and knowledge, perhaps even building more than that as you spend time with them.

            You may not notice it now, but the more you use Scaffolding, the more your capabilities will be pushed further and further out, like the woman who never noticed how much weight the incremental changes to her lifting regiment let her lift until she was able to sweep her lover off of their feet in a moment of spontaneous joy. Like her, the little ways you push your limits in what can do in a language will lead to big results down the road as you go from words to sentences or paragraphs to even speeches in the language you're studying.

            Get all that? What, not sure it's all sunk in, yet? No need to stress, that's where the next step in the learning process comes in: Comprehension.

Getting Familiar with the Hows and Whys
When you're picking up a book teaching a foreign language, you're probably expecting it to show you how to use it in different spots and why you'd say it the way the book teaches, and you might find that they go into it with the same of understanding as a student who just spent 4 days neither reading the material nor doing anything besides a young party animal(however you define that to be). To prevent that from influencing your way of studying the language, let's take a look what needs to be understood, first, in order to build a more human way of communicating, starting with the culture the language lives and breathes in.

Actor-style v. Normal-style
When we first learn a language, we often start by learning it the way an actor learns a script: line by line, matching the desired intonation and intent to the letter; for people who want to get around without getting too in over their heads, this is probably all they feel they need to learn (and in reality, you won't investing too time in going beyond this stage if all you're doing is traveling there once or twice for a few days or weeks).

            When it comes to long term communication, though, you'll quickly discover that your scripts are not one size fits all, and will leave you looking stupid in a hurry if you don't know what effects your words create or how they function in the environment you use them in. This is one of the key aspects to becoming fluid in how you use a language, you must develop a desire to understand both the person you're speaking with and the culture they do their 9-5 in, for those are what continue to shape how they interact with their world and with you.

            As you delve into different news sources, read different literature on the subject and speak with people from the country, you'll build a lens both to view the culture and it's people through and to continually refine with books, news and chats, so while you do that, examine and apply the upcoming techniques to help you better grasp what people are saying and give you a firmer base to work from when it's time to put that understanding to work.

Mirroring and Developing a More Listening-centered Approach
As you know from the way you and those close to you use language, it's far more than just a string of words and grammar used to convey a certain message, it's also in the words you use, the tone you use them in and what overarching message each statement us building towards. To better grasp that  overarching message, one vital technique is Mirroring, which is repeating the perceived message back to the listener in simpler terms to make sure you're both on the same page.

            Doing this well often means letting them speak their piece and not trying to insert yourself into it before they finish, using different sounds cues to show you're listening and, of course, listening and giving them your undivided attention-e.g. No txting while you talk to them, taking calls or otherwise doing something that takes away from you paying attention to their words; someone I know once did this while we were playing Street Fighter, and this made me quite unhappy, prompting me to beast on him hard while his eyes were otherwise occupied.

            This all may seem daunting if you don't know the nuts and bolts of a language yet, but the reward for your effort will be a deeper knowledge of what makes them and the things around them work, as well as a willingness for them to hear you out and be more curious about what you want to share; curiosity killed the cat, yes, and if you develop that with the people you speak with, you might learn something that might not feel comfy telling folks less willing to give them the time of day. Like what? Well, most time, to dig up the right answers, you'll need to ask the right questions, which can be a frustrating process. To keep that from minimizing the quality of your studies and chats, we'll take on the ways to take those moments and turn into something positive, or in other words, Frustration Management. 

Monday, March 19, 2012

How to Teach Yourself a Language [part 4]

Sow a Habit, Reap a Destiny
Do you remember the quote that basically said “Sow X; Reap Y” by Ralph Waldo Emerson? If you don't, it preaches that you're made by what you do, and this holds especially true for when you're learning a language and establish the way you absorb and use what you pick up; it's much like the feel you developed from learning to ride a bike, the feel that comes through when you hop back on it for the first time in however many weeks or months it's been since you swapped it out with a car for your primary means of getting around. 

            To develop that feel, however, you can't just do something right once, you gotta do it right several consecutive times and then do it until it feels breathing, then it'll be able to come back to you no matter how much time passes. (If you need a guiding principle in how many times,  try repeating the key info or skills in 3s/an odd number; for some reason this makes the info stand out when it comes time to use it.) After you get that down, the natural thing is to move on the next skill you'll need to nail on your way to the big end goal, which raises the question of which skill should be the next skill. To decide that, ask yourself if the next has any elements of the one just got down, and if does, that should be the next one you take on. Why?

            Let's say you just learned how to cook a piece of meat and wanted to keep the flow going. Would you rather go learn how to change a tire or how to cook a piece of fish? Because you have a good grip on the art of making dead animal tasty, you have more of the tools in your mind at the ready to deal with the fish and its unique challenges versus going right to the garage and trying to figure out how to use a wrench and looking for where the trouble spot is. You can certain learn how to change a tire if you stick to it, but if go with the stuff using your already learned skills, you'll learn something new a lot faster and a lot easier; if you want to, you can make each new thing you wanna learn even easier by applying Chunking, or breaking one big block of many bits of info into more manageable bits. Why Chunking? Let's find out!

Working Within the Brain's Memory Limits
The human mind can manage only manage 7 pieces of info at a time before things start getting fuzzy, so  Chuking makes something easier to both absorb and recall. For example, could you remember a phone number if it looked like this(13455764325) or like this(1-345-576-4325)?  If you get the first one down, great, but the second, broken down one lets the brain do more with it to try and make it stick stronger, like using it in a mnemonic(memory device used to strengthen how we remember things, like setting someone's phone number to a rhyme or song you know).

            In using a language, this is crucial to helping you speak the way you want to and weening you off of set phrases and scripts to express your thoughts and feelings, which means you can be more creative with your words and focus more the subtleties of what you want to convey instead of scrambling around in your brain for that one phrase you learned from that book that's right on the tip of your tongue, but just won't come out. When it gets tense and the next words out of your mouth could change the way things come to be, getting tongue tied is the last thing anyone would want, and chunking that info will make it that much less work to find, cutting down the chance you stick your foot in your mouth.

            For big info with lots of little things to remember, Chunking can be used  to condense related info together and make it easier to manage and pull from your Working Memory, which is the stuff that's immediately on hand and ready to go when you are. If you're getting a call from one of your buddies and they say “Hey, that guy from the Harvard lecture is coming at about 7:15-ish, be sure to have some grub ready. He really likes Chocolate bacon, so if you can, have some on hand for him-and maybe the rest of us to snack on,”  Chunking can prevent all that from overwhelming you.

            When you're on your way home from work and thinking about the stuff your friend said, your brain is working double time to get the details right, and with Chunking, each bit of info starts to come together and eventually gets connected like so:  Hey, that guy from the Harvard lecture is coming at about 7:15-ish, be sure to have some grub ready. He really likes Chocolate bacon, so if you can, have some on hand for him-and maybe the rest of us to snack on. While you may have a bit of a time getting Chocolate Bacon prepped, at least now you can have a little less stress on your mind while you get your place presentable for the impending company. As you get better at this, you'll feel more ready to take on the next big challenge, which, as a whole, can be very intimidating, but can be made less so with Scaffolding. 

Monday, March 12, 2012

How to Teach Yourself a Language [part 3]

The Generalized Others StageAs your Significant Other is the one who means a lot to you and is the closest, emotionally, Generalized Others are just the opposite, and are the basis on which you figure out how things work and what you need to do in certain spots and under certain circumstances based on previous interactions. Since this happens in a natural way, it doesn't often go noticed as you grow up and build your inner and outer circles, but when it comes time to interact with a new kind of culture, it comes time to start refining your conception of Generalized Others and allowing for multiple types of personalities, foibles and other little things that make people who they are.

If you were, say, planning a trip to London, the knowledge you built on how people act in wherever you're from becomes the basis on how you judge the way people in London act, which is what leads to that oh -so-common state of surprise and wonderment known as 'Culture Shock', e.g. 'Oh no, they're driving on the wrong side of the road!'. This decreases as you build up your knowledge of the ways locals do it, what their basic history is and get more familiar of the pace of life they set, which leads to a more solid foundation and lets you dip into the more probing questions revealing the depth it has to offer, including why Soccer violence is linked to the sport and how its fans carry themselves.

Got all that? Excellent. Now, with how you develop your learning established, it's time to get into some of the good stuff, particularly the 6 things you'll want to take with you as you work on your learning approach, starting with Motivation.
Getting Stimulated into being Motivated

The key to sticking to something is stimulation, and when the brain isn't stimulated, it's more susceptible to drifting off to things damn near completely unrelated to what you're learning, like when you get bored of learning how to play guitar and look up how to make the perfect French Fry, instead (the secret, by the way, is boiling the cut potatoes in a 1 quart (4 cups of) water for every 1 tablespoon vinegar mix, frying once for a minute in 350 degree oil, allowing a ½ hour for cooling and freezing over night before you cook it for consumption in 400 degree oil. Check it out, if you don't believe me)

As for how you can motivate yourself, the key lies in concrete goals that are hard enough that we have to put in some work, but easy enough for us to reach in a reasonable time frame. For example, say you want to learn a language and decide to set the goal of fluency and pour your energy into achieving it, only to find you haven't come close to this in the months of study, practice and gaining experience that ensued. If you keep on this way of doing it, you might achieve it, but it could be months or even years before you see this come to fruition, so instead of trying and failing to make the one big leap, why not break that up into several hops(known in psychological circles as Scaffolding or Shaping)? Low hanging fruit gives you the fuel to go the high hanging stuff, so unless you like repeatedly plummeting, I no see no reason not to.

Keep the big goal as the end goal, but alongside that, set little goals along the way that you can work towards achieving in fairly rapid succession, like learning a certain amount of words, then how to put them together in a sentence, then learning one sentence structure, then another, then another and so on until you can string 'em together to create a solid paragraph of coherent thought. Not only does this make the rewards more immediate, but also instills the needed foundation for going for the big leaps you'll need to make in your goal to the big end goal, like using all that stuff in a live, no reference conversation with someone you're meeting for the first time.

If you're looking to add some fun to this, try making a game of it. There are lots of Japanese language games out there, such as Shiritori(where you try to make a word from last Mora of the previously mentioned word), crosswords, tongue twisters and others, even if you make it up yourself(e.g. A Japanese-language game of HORSE, where you use Shiritori's rules to create an entire sentence from the word, and failing 5 times equals a loss). Why would a game motivate you?

Well when you're on the edge of losing, your brain enters clutch time and leads you think of the best, quickest way to get out of your current fix and get to the end reward, which will prep you for the real world test these skills will be put to and get you used to thinking on the fly (an actual reward for achieving victory increasing the quality of your brain's clutch time and making you that much better); that, paired with the natural incentive when you find something you like that uses what you want to learn, will make you willing and ready to endure the grind learning something new comes with, which leads to the next part of better learning: repetition

Something to chew on while you wait: What's one of your big goals you want to work towards?

Monday, March 5, 2012

How to Teach Yourself a Language [part 2]

Simple enough concept, right? Do something, learn how it's done by both where you excelled and where you didn't. It's the way people have done it for generations, even before history was ever recorded. For some, it's the peak of their enjoyment with it and may be the way they stick with all their lives; for others, it may be the bane of their existence, based on how often they failed at it before finally getting it the way they wanted. Both sides can agree, though, that it instills the knowledge at a level no book, classroom or application could hope to match(I mean really, would you rather sit there watching someone talk about the way a guitar works or get up there and see the sounds you can make with that knowledge?)

            Before writing it down was widespread, this is how info was passed on, and the immediacy and intimacy it creates is why it's lasted as long at it has and why people look to it when they're in a pinch and only have themselves to pass either on the knowledge or story they want to tell. True, it benefits many more when it's recorded for others to observe and add their own input, but to make that solid, it needs to start at the personal level.

            When you tell a joke, for instance, how you interpret the punchline and delivery play a huge role in how the listener feels after you're done and they have to digest what you've said, so if you don't really get it, neither will they; the more you do get it, the more you can alter or add to the story leading up the joke and perhaps hit even further out of left field than the the person you heard it from, in turn drawing out a bigger appeal to their sense of humor. In other words, when the teller connects to it at a deeper level, then they can help those they tell it to make the same connection, which is where the Game stage starts to influence how the info is processed. 

The Game Stage
When you hear the word 'game,' what pops up in your mind? Maybe you think about that game of Monopoly where you managed to make everyone broke as a joke through your strategic railroad and hotel purchases? Perhaps you think of the game of Halo where you got your team together to plan and execute your improbable comeback on the Hang 'em High map? Or maybe, just maybe, you think back to that game of flag football where you worked the Flea Flicker play to perfection and watched as the other side was juked out of their shoes while your ball carrier ran it in for the game winning touchdown? However you get your kicks, you know that success at any kind of game demands that you're able to manage doing different things at once as well as managing different people at once, and this is referred to as the Game stage of development. Whether you know it or not, though, it's games like the ones mentioned that sharpen your ability to do the same when you're in the daily grind and work alongside the folks around you to get things done and make sure everything flows fairly smooth until it's quitting time, and you get to head home and kick up your feet. In learning to use a language, this is a skill sure to help you see the deeper connections at work when you communicate and ensure that everyone is on the same page, which is when a relationship truly blossoms and amazing moments have the proper conditions to take root.

            Nowhere is this a more pivotal aspect of your personal life than in how you regard their significant other. The better you can manage all the different facets of what you know about them and what they do everyday, the more in tune you become with how they think and feel, which gives you ample opportunity to show what you feel about them and help them get through their trials and tribulations, such as what the best present would be for their birthday or whether or not they should take that promotion for more pay and hours, but with much less time to spend together. In the game of life, this is where you fly high or face-plant, and an unseen but ever present factor guiding these decisions is the concept of Generalized Others. (coming soon!)