Thursday, February 4, 2016

Learning languages by reading I

Barry Farber: How to Learn Any Language

Take the newspaper or magazine. Go to the upper left hand corner of page one. (In languages like Arabic and Hebrew, that will be the upper right hand corner of the “back” page, which is their front.) That article is your assignment. It will easily be the toughest newspaper article you’ve ever read. And it will just as certainly do you more good than any other.

Take your highlighter and highlight all the words you don’t know in the first paragraph. You may very well end up with a coloured line through every single word in that paragraph. After all, this is no schoolhouse text that dips to your beginner’s level. This is as real life and real world as an exercise can get. And all you’ve had so far is five lessons of elementary grammar. Never mind. Play the game and dutifully mark through every word you don’t know, even if it be every last word in that first paragraph!

Then reach for your dictionary and your blank flash cards. Go to the first word and look it up. One of four things will happen:
(1) You’ll find the word exactly as it appears in the newspaper.
(2) You’ll find a word that starts out the same but seems to go haywire halfway through or at the end.
(3) The word will not be in your dictionary 
(4) You will think that word is not in the dictionary because the word has done crazy things with itself. It’s altogether possible, owing to rules of that language you haven’t learned yet, that the role of the word as it appears in the newspaper demands it be written differently from the base form, which is the one listed in the dictionary. (The word vaya in Spanish, for example, won’t be in the dictionary. It’s the singular imperative form of the verb ir meaning “to go.”)

In case 1, the word is in the dictionary spelled exactly the way it is in your newspaper (from now on we’ll say “text” – it could be a magazine or even a book). Take a blank flash card and write the English on one side; then flip it over and write the foreign word on the other. Write in block letters so your flash cards will always be easy to read. I hesitate to labour the procedure for making your own flash cards. There is a preferred procedure, however, and I herewith present it in case you don’t already know it.

Single words and entire phrases are best handled differently. When you write individual words on your flash card, you only need a “short runway,” so treat the card in its “tall” (vertical) form rather than its “fat” (horizontal) form and enter your words one under the other down the length of the card. Write the English word across the “forehead” of the card, then flip it, not sideways, but head over heels, and write the foreign word across the opposite forehead.

Then turn the card back over to the English side and write your next word directly underneath, turn it over and write in the foreign word, and keep repeating until the card is filled. That head over heels lengthwise flip makes the card easier to manipulate in a crowded bus or elevator and less likely to fall out of your hand.

When you graduate to writing entire phrases on your blank flash cards, it’s obviously better to treat the card in its fat form. Continue to flip head over heels.

Now, case 2: You find a word in the dictionary that seems as though it’s trying to be the word in your text but it falls off track: the ending changes spelling. You’ve probably found your base word, all right, but the word in the text, for reasons you don’t yet comprehend, has taken another form. Is it a verb? Then the dictionary will give you the infinitive form (to be, to do, etc.), whereas the form in your text could be one of many variations, depending on person, number, tense, or, in some languages, aspect.

If that riff of grammatical terms makes you feel like I felt on my fifth day of Latin class, fear not. Language teachers would prefer to assume that such grammatical jargon is familiar to every graduate of an American high school English class. Alas, that assumption is grossly misguided. But help is here. The “Back to Basics” chapter later in this book will explain all necessary grammatical terms in friendly, nonthreatening language that requires no prior understanding of grammar.
Write the base form – the dictionary form, that is – on your flash card and try to decipher the meaning of the text with that base form as a clue.

If the meaning is clear, don’t worry yet about why the word in the text differs from the base form. Part of the fun of this process is having that knowledge surrender itself to you as you proceed through your grammar book. If the meaning is not clear, make a “question card,” spelling the confusing word the way it appears in the text. Keep your Sturdikleer with question cards with you at all times. When you meet your informant, or anybody who can explain your confusion away, pull out the question card and your miasma of confusion will become windshield wiper clear.

List no more than six unknown words per flash card. Don’t clutter the card. It’s a good idea to draw a line under both the English and the foreign word, giving each entry its own “cubicle” on the card. Also, check carefully to make sure you don’t omit either the English or the foreign word, giving you a situation in which English word number three on the card fails to correspond to foreign word number three. (I once went around for almost a year thinking the Russian word for “prince” meant “raspberry jam”!)44In cases 3 and 4, either the word’s not in the dictionary or it’s not there in any form recognisable to you. Enter the word on a question card.
You may have four or five complete cards, eighteen or twenty words defined and ready to be learned, from the first paragraph in your text alone. Put those cards in clear plastic and carry them with you at all times. Don’t mix them up with the question cards. Keep them separate. The cards with the dictionary forms of the foreign words from the text you didn’t know, with their English equivalents on the reverse side, are the beginning of your collection of linguistic growth protein.

Now you’re ready for paragraph two. Between paragraphs one and two, you’ve been glancing at those flash cards during your hidden moments – waiting in line, on elevators, etc. With highlighter poised like a sword, you now sally forth into the second paragraph.

The going will probably be noticeably easier, because paragraph two will likely be dealing with much the same subject matter as paragraph one and many of the words will be repeats. Step back and note how many fewer coloured lines marking unknown words there are in paragraph two. Never mind that those are repeat words. If you knew them from flashing your cards in the interval between tackling paragraph one and tackling paragraph two, then it’s clean conquest.
Bask in it, and move on to paragraph three.

No cheating! Don’t let your possible lack of interest in the subject matter of the text tempt you into junking it and jumping across the page to another article that looks like it’s about something that interests you more. No soldier fighting in the arctic would dare ask his commanding officer if he might be excused to go fight in the tropics. Advance! Charge! Slog through it one step – one word – at a time.

By the time you reach the end of page one, if it’s a newspaper, you will note with glee that the coloured markings indicating words you didn’t know, almost solid in the early paragraphs, will have diminished precipitously by the end of the page. That page is a progress chart.
And you’ll have what seems like a ton of flash cards loaded with words in varying degrees of surrender to you. Carry as many flash cards with you as possible, and rotate them regularly so your attention is evenly parcelled out among them.

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