Friday, April 1, 2011

Fear-laden thoughts on traveling

With the recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan, civil unrest in the Middle East and North Africa, and economic stagnancy throughout the world, I must confess that I have been growing more fearful, more insular, more quiet, and feeling less adventurous. Tonight, however, I came across an essay in the New York Times by Paul Theroux on the importance of travel. One passage stood out to me:

But the prevailing quality of war is not noise or gunfire. It is suspense, something like boredom; nothing happens for long periods and then everything happens at once in indescribable confusion.

News media today repeats itself so many times through multiple syndicates that it seems we skim over the articles in search of change and ultimately lose track of time. We associate more content with more time. Ten articles on Colonel Qaddafi from papers including the Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor, and the San Francisco Chronicle must mean that this event happened during and filled up all those hours that we weren't glued to News Google.
That's not true. Those articles simply compound the "indescribable confusion" within our minds, which depend on the phantasmagoria of pictures to fill the imagination void that we fear filling up with real experience.
Of course, if everyone acted as Theroux had, then those who lack his common sense will inevitably face all sorts of ridiculous perils and sadnesses that seem newsworthy. (Maybe the world will be better off without them.)
The "laborious" kind of traveling, the kind that feels like work, the Joseph Conrad brand - the work that you hate but makes you "find yourself" - that's to travel.

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Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Goo goo ga ga: Early Language Acquisition

A TED video on how babies love language. "It takes a human being - not a TV, not just audio - for a baby to take statistics to learn a language."

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Monday, January 31, 2011

Pacifiers and Rattles - To Learn Languages, Start Off as a Kid

I really enjoy reading Cal Newport's blog Study Hacks. He writes on effective strategies that high school, college and graduate students can use to improve their academic performance and stand out in the deepening sea of competition today. I went back through his older posts, and found out that he had compiled an entry on studying foreign languages.

The tips that Cal highlight are more applicable for students in academic institutions taking semester or year-long courses, but some are broad enough for any language enthusiast to employ. The second tip - "expose yourself everyday" - is a no-brainer. It doesn't just mean cracking open your old textbook and rememorizing set conversations - it can mean watching a movie or television show in the native language, or listening to a music through Youtube or Grooveshark.

I believe in mastering languages according to one's linguistic age. What do I mean by that? Take, for example, a 40-year-old man learning Italian by reading formal conversations and newspaper clippings. The man will pick up phrases and vocabulary words here and there, and one day use them in a talk to give the listener a sense of his fluency. But this is superficial. If he really wanted to master Italian, he should start from scratch - I mean from children's books and short stories. Of course, you can accelerate through works that befit younger audiences to material more appropriate for your real age, but I think one important part of speaking a new language is to construct arguments and narratives as native speakers do. There is a difference between speaking fluently and talking intelligently - you can convey your intelligence by using foreign vocabulary too big for your mouth, but you can convey fluency by engaging native listeners with the imagination that they have created through exposure to local cultural media.

Assume that when you start a new language, you are a child. What would native speakers of the language read in their infancy?

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Monday, January 17, 2011

Benny the Polyglot

I think mistakes are good. In fact, I think studying languages is the best way to accumulate as many errors and slip-ups as possible. I'm not endorsing the pursuit of German or Chinese strictly for the sake of being an idiot. The mistakes you make at the risk of sounding idiotic, however, will eventually reap larger and larger dividends in your speaking ability.
Benny the Polyglot seems to disseminate the same idea, along with many other ideas on learning languages, on his website, Fluent in 3 Months. Benny started off with English, but expanded into Irish, French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, and Esperanto (what?!). He is currently studying Tagalog. His tips on awakening your latent multilingual potential are wacky and unorthodox - if you've tried various methods to master some difficult tongue but still feel like a novice, consider some of his experience-tested remedies.
A personal note: All of the languages he learned are very similar (romantic languages, especially). I wonder if his reflections on acquiring languages will change if he leaves his linguistic comfort zone by studying something like Hungarian or Swahili.

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