Thursday, March 20, 2014

Secrets of Language Learning (1)

This is a long promised blog post for my students who are studying a language in college and complaining that they can't remember anything. 

When you teach Intro Anthro, as I do, you find the triggers to get your students to oooh and aaaah. This is very useful as a break from detailed-filled lectures.  

One of my favorites is to tell them that I know (or knew) seven languages, most of them fluently.  They look at me in awe, in consternation, or are simply further convinced that I am not on the same plane as them. They are either struggling through fulfilling their language requirements as 1st  and 2nd year students, or they have vivid memories of their recent travails in high school language classes. I don’t blame them. I did not like high school or university French, either. 

And yet, my job has required that I learn languages. If I did not, I tell my students, I would not have been able to talk to anyone in my years in the field. I would have been lonely. I would have wandered through fieldwork convinced that people were talking about me (and, yes, they often were) and that they were misinforming me (not really, at least not intentionally). Most crucially, I would not have been able to participate in social networks, the web of relationships that make up everyday life, and I would not have had access to people’s own explanations of their world.  A quote on my office door from Wittgenstein says “the limits of my language are the limits of my world” – language learning is an essential step toward understanding what anthropologists do – going in, going in deep. 

Those students who go on to become my advisees come to me later and ask me how I did it. They understand, intellectually, that I needed to learn those languages. But seven languages (along with two very long periods of fieldwork in challenging conditions)?  Dr. Kate is indeed a superwoman. 

No, of course not. I wish!  So I tell them my secret … which I’m going to share here with you.  

I hated learning French in high school. I loved many of the end results, like looking like an intellectual when I could read short stories in French and understood some of the language in French language films.  That was significant cultural capital for a marginalized geek girl.  But I hated the process.  

Think of it – you get to college and you are liberated from the stultifying rules of high school, the shallow learning, the endless rote memorization and dutiful spitting back of what the teachers tell you.  You are, at last, rewarded for thinking outside the box, for doing extra reading, for speaking up in class about odd elements of what you read. Your teachers talk to you after class about intellectual things! And in my undergraduate department (Anthropology at The University of Iowa), the faculty invited even the undergraduates to department parties. You were part of a vibrant, questing, community of the mind.  

And then there’s language class. It’s memorization, memorization, and more memorization. Creativity is not rewarded. You try, you make mistakes, you are publicly corrected. It feels punitive. It’s humiliating. You feel stupid & foolish. Plus, you want to know “why” and that’s not a question that gets answered – it is not relevant to basic language learning. The refusal of teachers to answer the “why do you do it that way” question is one of my students’ biggest complaints about language learning (tellingly, they also make that complaint about statistics).  It’s all about the rote learning.

What I found for language learning is that I needed to flip the script to put rote memorization at the center of my educational value system. How do I do that? I think of it as a relaxing variant on the critical analysis I have to do elsewhere.  It’s your secret ‘dumb job,’ like knitting or washing dishes or fixing the car that lets you slow down and decompress.  I learned to value memorization in its own right.  This worked for me with learning Thai in graduate school. I had the option of ‘auditing’ the course, which meant that the stress of grades and achievement was eliminated. In the end, I earned an A just because I dealt with the stress of the first semester of graduate school by spending a lot of time on Thai (and after that, I took Thai for a grade).

But I can’t remember what I memorize, moan my students!

And thus, the tricks of language learning. You need to learn how to get your new language words from short-term to long-term memory. This is my method, courtesy of bible-translating linguists.  

No comments: