I’m finally reading a book (in English) that’s been gathering dust on a shelf in my bedroom for several years.
I managed to buy this particular paperback twice in successive summer holidays in the UK, but not read it on either occasion.
I was finally prodded into doing so (and into discovering that I had two copies) when the title was recommended in another book I was reading, ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’ by the Nobel-prize-winning psychologist, Daniel Kahneman .
“Wow, I have that on my shelf”, I remarked to myself. “And if Daniel (cool name) thinks it’s good, I’d better take a look!”
‘Black Swan – The Impact of the Highly Improbable’ by Nassim Nicholas Taleb (2007, Penguin Books) is described by the Financial Times as ‘hugely enjoyable – compelling’, which it is.
The Economist calls it ‘a deeply intelligent, provocative book’, and that’s also true.
Other reviewers say it’s ‘great fun’ and ‘idiosyncratically brilliant’.
Insomma, it’s definitively not boring, and I’m glad I finally brushed off the dust and began to turn the pages, all three hundred and seventy-nine of them, plus notes and an extensive bibliography.
And I mention this because?
In Chapter 11, ‘HOW TO LOOK FOR BIRD POOP’, there’s a subtitle, ‘How Not to Be a Nerd’ (p. 181-2). The advice begins like this:
“Let us dig deeper into the problem of knowledge … Do nerds tunnel, meaning, do they focus on crisp categories and miss sources of uncertainty?”
Bear with me.
A footnote adds: “This idea pops up here and there in history. Alfred North Whitehead called it the “fallacy of misplaced concreteness,” e.g., the mistake of confusing a model with the physical entity that it means to describe.”
See where this is going?
Well of course you don’t.
THIS NEXT PART is the point (the bolding is mine):
“Think of a bookworm picking up a new language. He will learn, say, Serbo-Croatian or !Kung by reading a grammar book cover to cover, and memorizing the rules. He will have the impression that some higher grammatical authority set the linguistic regulations so the nonlearned ordinary people could subsequently speak the language. In reality, languages grow organically; grammar is something that people without anything more exciting to do in their lives codify into a book. While the scholastic-minded will memorize declensions, the … nonnerd will acquire, say, Serbo-Croatian by picking up potential girlfriends in bars on the outskirts of Sarajevo, or talking to cabdrivers, then fitting (if needed) grammatical rules to the knowledge he already possesses.”
Sadly, NNT has nothing further to say about the elementary but common language-learning error of ‘confusing a model’ (what you read in a grammar book) with ‘the physical entity that it means to describe’ (the language itself, and how people actually use it.)
Which is a shame as it needs to be said more, and heard.
I’ve been a language teacher now for getting on thirty years, so can confidently assert that most would-be language-learners believe that:
1.) if you go live in a country where the language you want to learn is spoken, you’ll pick it up more easily and quickly;
2.) but if that’s not an option due to your job or family commitments, then taking a course or self-study with materials such as vocabulary lists, grammar books, CDs, etc. will get you there in the end.
I’d generalize and assert that most language teachers would agree.
Though they might invert the order: do 2.) first, then 1.), which is more or less the typical approach taken by, say, foreign language faculties in colleges and universities around the world.
NNT and I (esteemed company) represent the minority opinion.
The 2.) option, that is to say courses/study, works OK for motivated, intelligent students.
IF you stick with any reasonable syllabus you’ll get there in the end.
But where is THERE, and might you have reached THERE earlier if you’d followed a different path?
Doing 1.), going to live in a country where the language is spoken, on the other hand, is no guarantee of progressing faster, or even progressing at all.
Our cities are full of, for example, migrants and their families who make little or no progress learning the language spoken by the wider host community.
Often they have no need to, even if they had the time and motivation. They use their own language at home, watch TV in it, and speak it with others outside – in shops, at work.
A language is an organic system for communicating, shared to a greater or lesser extent within a group.
Languages are almost infinitely complex. Were you to make the mistake of trying to model them completely, you’d never truly finish.
But successful languages have certain characteristics in common:
a.) they’re learnable by everyone who needs them, from early childhood, and IRRESPECTIVE of the availability of materials, methodologies, etc.
b.) they’re sufficiently comprehensive and/or flexibile to do the job required of them i.e. facilitating communication within the group
If either of these conditions are not met, the language either evolves or is displaced by a more functional alternative.
Given all this then, ‘How Not to Be a Nerd?’
Simple. In some way or another, you need to be part of the community using the language.
If this condition is met, your brain will take on the task of learning the codes (phonological, lexical, cultural and yes, even grammatical) needed to understand what other members of this community are saying and to, eventually, express yourself in a way they can decipher.
However, the brain isn’t dumb.
It has plenty of other stuff on it’s plate, so needs to do the most critical tasks first.
Learning will only happen if you actually NEED it. And will likely stop at the point when you know enough for your requirements.
Create a situation in which you NEED to learn and the likelihood is that process will get underway on its own. Hence the common belief that ‘going to live in the country’ is the best solution.
Not if you have a job and a family, it isn’t!
However, with the Internet and so on, it’s never been easier to become part of the community whose language you wish to acquire.
Virtually, I mean. There are a multitude of ways.
In my own language-learning, for instance, I prioritise listening to the radio and reading. Plus conversation practice online with native speakers.
Yes, yes, I know, “How can you listen to the radio and do conversation if you don’t know the language?”
But remember “Let us dig deeper into the problem of knowledge…”
You probably won’t ever KNOW the language unless you use it. It’s using it that enables you to ‘know’ it, see?
And yes, of course, obviously, it’s going to be hard at the beginning. Like most things that are worth doing.
Hence ‘simplified’ materials, which are especially created for language-learners as a ‘bridge’ between not-knowing and knowing (and as a time-saver!)
Which reminds me.
Saturday’s bulletin of ‘easy’ Italian news is here.
We have an entire online shop of graded stories for learning Italian.
And next week, there’ll be the option (for new students only) to try a FREE online lesson with a real, live Italian teacher.
If you’ve never actually spoken Italian with anyone before, that’ll be your chance.
Watch this space for more info.