Knowledge Ain’t Nothing
I've been studying Russian and Polish language for about four years now. It has been a great experience for me. I discovered that not only do I love learning languages, but I seem to be pretty OK at it. During that time, my thoughts on how one should learn a foreign language have been constantly evolving.
In the beginning, I was largely focused on grammar. This was primarily because the class I was taking focused on grammar. This agrees with a general trend in modern American education, which emphasizes understanding the ideas rather than memorizing the facts. In general, this is good thing. Language courses of the past focused on memorizing vocabulary. Now understanding grammar is the main focus.
Also grammar was easily interesting to me in its own right. Its like math with words. My programmer brain liked it. And it was comfortable. I didn't have to go out on a limb and risk personal embarrassment like with speaking.
Yet largely, all that grammar instruction yielded very little in the way of actual ability to communicate in the language. I have managed to become proficient in Russian and I'm well on my way to being proficient in Polish. But nearly all that progress has stemmed from experience reading and writing letters, listening to music and actually traveling to Russia and Poland.
Of course, having knowledge of grammar helped a bit. But thats the where the disconnect is. Its only knowledge.
I've come to realize that speaking and understanding a language (even your native one) has nothing to do with knowledge. When you read or hear your native language, you don't think about the words or the grammar, you think about the meaning. To use pure knowledge to understand, you have to hear the words, dissect the grammar and then translate the meaning, rather than just short-cutting straight to the meaning.
On Thursday, I discovered The Way of the Linguist by Steve Kaufman, which you can read online for free or buy in paper form. I just finished reading it today. It is a fascinating book. Steve has been learning languages for the past 40 years or so, and his ideas largely confirm what I've just been starting to realize in my own study.
He describes language learning as being more like exercising a muscle, than learning knowledge. I like to think of it like training karate. You can see the teacher doing the movements in front of you. You can understand them on a logical level. First the foot moves like that, then the hand comes out like that, etc...
Then you attempt to do it yourself. At first your movements are wild and imprecise. There are so many details to get at once! The feet, the posture, the breathing, your hands. But you practice and you train and slowly the specific movements and postures of karate become more familiar to you. After some time you are able to mimic the teachers movements closer and closer.
Do you now understand karate better on logical level? Yes, probably. But the logical understanding isn't what allows you to do it now when you couldn't before. Even if you had watched the teacher do it a thousand times, took detailed notes, memorized his every movement, passed a hundred written tests on the subject, you wouldn't be able to do it yourself from that alone.
You have to learn by doing. You have to train your mind rather than learn knowledge. There are many different techniques for doing this. Steve discusses many of them. It can be hard but it isn't a matter of intelligence either. A whole different set of values are important if you really want to be become fluent. And anyone can do it. In future blog posts I plan to address these values and techniques in detail.
But for now that's what I have to say: Knowledge ain't nothing.