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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. 

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