pondělí 8. června 2009
Point break in language learning
Well, I would be the last to expect myself to write a text like this. Nevertheless, my recent experience seems to support conviction that I hold for some time already when it comes to language learning.
This conviction could ba characterize as belief, that once you reach a certain level of grip of a language that allows for its use, you start absorbing other knowledge rapidly and naturally. I call this "certain level" the name of a good film: "Point Break".
I will now present several roots from which my conviction stems. Maybe first of all I should mention the general linquistic theory, which sees a language as a system, where elements are defined by their mutual relations. If we so see a language as a system, lets add another theory, the theory of inertia of complex systems.
In general, a complex system is characterized by inertia, because its inner relations are so intriquing that it is quite complicated to induce change. Unless there are simultaneous efforts on a sufficient number of fronts, the system regardless of the effort expended tends to "slip back" into its initial configuration. Only if changes are introduced at several fronts the system can reach new configuration, new equilibrium and thus new inertia and stability.
I first saw this theory applied on social science in work of Geofffrey Canada, an american social worker, who was by then in charge of large social program in Harlem, New York. He explained, that if there is a change to occur in the life of poor inner city youngsters, efforts must not be made only within the education system, or only within street work, or only within family interventions: the inertia will cause negation of a singled-out effort. Only if intervention is undertaken on all these fronts simultaneously, the real change can arrive.
Now I am quite sure the same can be said about language learning. The individual components of the complex system - here the mastery of a knowledge - are the components to this mastery, i.e. knowledge of grammar structures, vocabulary, idioms, phrases, pronunciation and stresses etc. Why am I so sure about it? Because I know stories of people who attained language knowledge "outside" of the official structures of language education. One example might be the czech traveller and writer Martin Mikyska, who learned Spanish while actually travelling around South America. His starting point was by and far a complete absence of knowledge, and a dictionary and a phrasebook. He learned through intensive interaction during the travelling! Other people I know learned English by watching movies and MTV.
Now as a language student we all start from the departure point of complete ignorance of the language desired. As our assets are close to zero on all fronts, the slowly growing isolated isles of knowledge can at first not turn around the inertia of language ignorance. This then causes the frustrating experience of the learner when he - regardless of the effort - "slips back" into the "ignorance point" where the language does not work for him. That said, to make a language work means to gain the ability to communicate and to reach our objectives within given language environment.
This situation persists untill the "Point Break" occurs. At that moment, the isolated isles of our knowledge unify to produce such a general picture of the system, that we can "make it work for us". Once we achieve this, we can interpret all the unknown phenomena in the light of what we already know, or we are able to clear our doubts about the unknown reasonably with the aid of the known.
I call this moment "Point Break", because after this point the whole subjective experience of language learning changes drastically. It ceases to be frustrating and becomes challenging and actually fun. Theoretically, the first step (and the most important one as it means the difference between literacy and iliteracy) of a teachers work might well be to guide the pupil or student to his or her "Point Break".