15 December 2011

I love learning languages... but I hate language learning

Ok, so yesterday I had my last exam of the semester, so I decided to take a break from Gaelic and start working on my Welsh.  I never really did much study before, but trying to catch as much as I could by watching the Welsh-language soap opera Pobol Y Cwm regularly has helped some of it stick (but not all, by a long shot).

So I went to the college library, and started reading Asterix ym myddin Cesar, the Welsh translation of Asterix the Legionary.  Oooooh... it's tough going.

So rather than attempt to struggle through it in the library with a dictionary, I decided to check it out and take it back to my room to go over it seriously with a grammar book.  I was the first person ever to do so -- which isn't surprising given that there isn't even a Welsh course here...

So I took my copy of Teach Yourself Welsh Grammar off my bookshelf, and started reading... then stopped.  You see, while I love learning languages, the vast majority of language learning material is excruciatingly bad.  I know that this book isn't a language course, but it is aimed at learners.  So when the first chapter after the pronunciation guide starts by individually listing 31 different circumstances in which the soft mutation occurs, it immediately loses its audience.  There's no structure -- just a list.  In several of these circumstances, LL ard RH are immune to mutation.  Did they group these together?  They're numbers 1, 5, 6, 18 and 28.  There's no implication that these are in any way related, meaning the learner risks trying to learn 5 exceptions instead of one group.

I'm trying to extract enough information to teach myself, but I'm overwhelmed by information -- I have to try to read and understand it all in order to identify the patterns and salient points.  It's tiring, frustrating, and to a great extent insulting.

Yes, insulting.  Because at one level, the mere existence of the book is a claim by the author that this is good enough for the learner.  And if the book is good enough for the learner, then it must be me that is the problem.

I'm lucky -- I feel insulted.  Many, many people genuinely believe that they're at fault -- that they're "stupid" or "not good at languages".  And they think that I'm good at languages.  Well believe me, I'm not.  Even despite spending countless hours in this sort of book, I still can't make head nor tail of some of them.  If anything I'm worse at languages than the average, and I've only got where I am today because I refuse to believe I'm incapable.

The hardest part for me in learning any new language is getting started, because in general there's just too much information thrown at you in an unstructured and poorly thought out way.

So for those of you starting out and discouraged by your materials, remember: you're not the only one.


gbarto said...

Some of the best teachers I have ever had struggled with their subjects when they were learning it. Because of that, they understood where their learners were coming from.

You mentioned in your group work post that strong students are not necessarily strong teachers. In fact, a strong student can only become a strong teacher if he becomes consciously aware that he makes connections in his given discipline faster or more automatically than the average learner and takes up a learning challenge of his own: understanding the process which causes the subject to make sense to him in order to share it.

Too often, textbooks, like other academic enterprises, are undertaken with an understanding that you will be judged by how well you demonstrate your knowledge to other experts, not how well you educate those as yet ignorant of your discipline. I don't think this is conscious. It's just that if you're studying to become an educator, those are the circles you run in. In the real world, it ought to make you a millionaire to figure out how to get Spanish speakers to say "I'm going to the store" instead of "I go to store," yet this is not what you hear people talking about in faculty lounges or student unions in my experience. It's not the sort of thing that draws the educator's attention.

The problem, in a nutshell, is that being educated is not the same as being an educator. It's good to see the reminder that sometimes the problem people have with these courses isn't that they're lousy students; it's that they have lousy teachers.

kaye said...
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Nìall Beag said...

I wasn't going to right any posts about the yellow language software from hell, but if I keep getting spam for them on my blog, I may just have to let rip. Given that the link didn't have a referral ID, the most likely conclusion is that it was a directly paid marketing campaign....