Serendipity means an unplanned, fortunate discovery. Serendipity is a common occurrence throughout the history of product invention and scientific discovery. Serendipity is also seen as a potential design principle for online activities that would present a wide array of information and viewpoints, rather than just re-enforcing a user’s opinion. (Wikipedia)
Invention, discovery, product design…
But not language-learning.
I wonder why not?
I mentioned syllabuses in Monday’s article.
Anticipating that more anally-retentive club members will be tempted to write in to correct that plural, here’s a quote for you.
The noun syllabus has a Latin root, which is the derivation of the plural syllabi. Syllabuses (which adheres to the standard rules for forming plurals) is equally as acceptable. Gramar Monster)
When you’re speaking English you order four beers to go with your four pizzas, right?
Not four pizze, though when speaking Italian you’d say ‘quatto pizze’.
I rest my case.
Anyway, syllabuses basically lay out what you should be learning and in what order.
Course books, such as the ones we use in our school, include an implicit syllabus. Follow them in your learning (or teaching) and, as you progress through the levels, you’ll be covering the topics that the writer thinks you need, in the order that she thinks will work best for you.
Maybe your needs are not the same as that Chinese kid’s sitting to your left?
He does look rather lost, doesn’t he?
Or maybe that fluent French and Spanish speaker to your right (she’s an interpreter, apparently) could be making much more rapid progress with Italian if she WASN’T proceeding at the snail’s pace typical of Anglo-Saxon learners?
A competent teacher wouldn’t stick to the ‘syllabus’ if she was teaching either of those people individually. But a class is, by definition, a compromise between different people’s needs.
That’s less true of a class at, say, high-school.
There, all the kids speak the same language, all learnt approximately the same thing last year, and most will go on to study together next year, too.
Their needs are more or less the same, one assumes.
But in a class of adults from different countries, whose native languages are different, who have had different previous learning experiences, it’s not a given that the students’ needs WILL be coherent.
Ditto with you, self-study student, working at home with a website, a grammar book, an app or an online teacher.
Will your needs, your abilities, your preferences, your interests be the same as someone else’s? As mine?
One person loves Duolingo. Another hates it. Someone else thinks it’s fine to start with but then you need to move on (that would be me…)
We are all different.
No course book or group class will perfectly meet our needs in terms of the exact CONTENT and SEQUENCE of what is studied.
An example: Italians can’t do the difference between ‘I studied’ and ‘I have studied’, which is probably obvious to you.
This English grammar is the same in Swedish, which is lovely. It’s a piece of cake. At least that.
But an Italian studying Swedish would have a job with it, so Swedish teachers (who don’t effectively predict who will have issues with it and who won’t) have tried to waste my time explaining it to me.
“But it’s the same in English!” I protest.
No matter. People from other countries have problems with it, so we have to study it. It’s in the book.
Back to serendipity, then.
Your brain is a LEARNING MACHINE!
It is, really.
Even though you may not believe or appreciate it.
Give it enough context and it will figure stuff out.
I only had to see “Han har varit” a couple of times to figure out that it meant “He has been” and that that was different from “Han var”, which meant “He was”.
“What’s next?” my brain wanted to know, “Feed me. Feed me now!”
Get yourself enough INPUT – that is to say text, audio and so on – and the stuff that is quickly and easily learnable by YOU, with your current knowledge of the world, with your particular mother-tongue, with the knowledge you have or don’t have of other foreign languages, will get learnt.
Keep seeing/hearing the same linguistic features (grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation) and cultural information (names of places, political parties, etc.) and you will fairly soon be taking stuff in.
That’s what your brain was designed to do (by evolution.)
Syllabuses are not useless, by any means. But they’re not optimised for you personally.
Supplement them with lots of reading and listening (yes, I know, it’s hard at first.)
You’ll discover the bits that are easy and fast to learn, your brain will figure out what’s relevant, what’s interesting, what’s doable and what isn’t.
And if it ain’t doable, why waste time on it?
Just because it’s in the book, on the syllabus, if it’s going to be hard for you, why get stressed up about it?
There’s stuff on the syllabus that offers a poor ‘return on investment’ for certain leaners.
For example, Italians never learn the present perfect, however well we teach it.
A poor teacher fails to recognise this and persists with explaining things.
A good teacher spends the lesson doing something else – practicing speaking, say, or fixing pronunciation issues.
You’re familiar with the term ‘Artificial Intelligence’ (A.I.), I expect?
Computer programs, algorithms that can learn, that sort of thing?
Tell the machine what features a cat has, then show it enough pictures of various animals and it should start to pick out the cats.
It’ll be wrong some of the time, of course.
Perhaps because your description of a cat’s features was inaccurate – cats don’t always have eyes that are the same color, for instance.
Or perhaps because it just needs some practice at the task. Keep feeding it animal pictures and giving it feedback when it makes mistakes and, sooner or later, you’ll have an expert cat-identifier!
A.I. gets a lot of press coverage these days.
A.I. can pilot planes, drop bombs, kill ‘terrorists’.
A.I. can even learn languages!
But so can people.
So can you.
You have Intelligence (I.)
Why not deploy it?