Wednesday, March 25, 2020

In Your Ear: Instilling Truthful Wisps

I recently explained how I was going about learning a new language as my Perky Pandemic Project. I noted that a few deeper issues of learning - specifically, how to teach new tricks to an old dog - had come up for me. This posting explores the solution I came up with.

First, a slight digression ('cuz it's my Slog and I'll digress if I want to).



On the subject of Privilege, it should come as no surprise that I, a centrist, believe the left makes too much of it and the right too little. Few of us ever really acknowledge how we've benefitted by unearned privilege (when I finally did, that was a big part of how I outgrew Libertarianism).

Here's one big fat juicy hunk of privilege I've enjoyed: my family spoke more or less grammatical English when I grew up. And so I had it in my ear. So, later, when I spoke like a shiftless suburban youth who spent evenings hanging around the dank foosball lounges of Suffolk County, or, even later, like a jazz musician in smokey nightclubs and on endless tour buses, I could flip back any time I wanted to. This eased my way to wailing my SATs, going to a good college, getting good grades, and generally being able to signal class and education via my use of a semicolon. Correct language use was perennially available to me because it was in my ear.

If I needed to determine if a given construction was grammatical, I could run it past my inner ear, and gauge whether it seemed right. Easy peasy.

Not everyone is in a position to do this. In fact, most Americans speak/write correct, grammatical English as a second language. It's not natural, and this "marks" them. Even if they avoid outright errors, their unfamiliarity is telegraphed via telltale bits of awkwardness. Our ears are sensationally well-geared to detect out-tribe inflections so we can categorize who's who. And this social sorting - based largely on unearned privilege! - is a super power people don't realize they wield (I'm so fricking "woke"...I'm thinking about buying a vaping kit, de-vaccinating my children, and signing up with the Bernie campaign).
See my admiring pep talk to a thoughtful young woman working tenaciously up the other side of that hill (including a brief treatment of issues raised in this posting) here
So, in terms of learning....

If I'm drilling hard cold data - especially data that involves a big leap from The Familiar, as when learning a foreign language - and the answer doesn't pop, I'm sunk. I just flail like an upturned bug. Some people might have the mental horsepower to "muscle up" to a correct answer, but all I get is a futile dusty cough (can I even say "cough"? Too soon?).

But if the answer is even dimly "in my ear", so I can "listen" for it, that's something to cling to. I'll patiently wait for thin wisps to materialize into....well, maybe not a solid answer, but at least a slight tipping preference for the correct answer over the wrong one.

Drilling alone is painful. The answer must preexist, however faintly, in my ear. Yet I'm incapable of brute force memorization. There's the rub! The answer must exist in my ear, yet I'm incapable of firmly lodging it there.

It's a major challenge for me, and perhaps for all middle-aged people who no longer enjoy ample cognitive absorbency. How does one bootstrap oneself to the hazy familiarity necessary to even begin to learn?

I solved it, but, like a lot of my best "takes", it was hidden in the most forgettable part of my posting. This seems almost laughably foggy, fuzzy, and generally dismissible:
I formatted the material into a nice multi-page document which I print out and read through at traffic lights and over coffee. I also saved them as one big PDF, which I emailed into my Kindle app for browsing on mobile. It's like knitting or a fidget toy; the thing I pull out at odd moments.
How do kids learn? If they're learning to, say, wiggle their ears, or whistle, or hoola hoop, they'll playfully return to the activity at idle moments all day long. It resembles what adults term "obsession", but without the fraught neediness of adult obsession. It's fun. It's play. And it works!
As I wrote here, It's not "obsessive" if it improves your life. Pejorative terms ought to be reserved for failed tactics.
I take the following as gospel; it's been a guiding principle all my life: Children learn everything via play, and only start losing their innate learning skills when forced to sit up straight and get serious and learn more like grown-ups do - which is to say, poorly and painfully.

My account of informally perusing printouts in coffeeshops doesn't match up with the natural inclination to tighten up the learning process into something normalized and structured; into something one can wrap one's head around and take control of. But those controlling, normalizing, structuralizing moves will not bootstrap you. That's not the way to slip wisps of truth into the recesses of your ear.

Here's how to instill truthful wisps for language learning:

1. Sloppily, distractedly mumble verb forms a zillion times without ever once sitting up straight and Getting Serious. Go ahead and emotionalize the process - even thickly! - but via dilated earnest eagerness rather than the constricted self-judgement and stressful urgency characteristic of grown-up (i.e. shitty) learning. (I just buried the hell out of that lede.)

2. Drill on Anki, drawing blanks, patiently pausing to allow in-ear wisps to materialize into....well, maybe not a solid answer, but at least a slight tipping preference for the correct answer over the wrong one.

3. Continue drilling on Anki until the Knowing becomes snappy (Anki does this for you by exposing you more often to the material you've struggled with).

4. Practice actually using the material, either with a native speaker or else in your own head. (Whether you recognize it or not, there's an omnipresent mental narration, and you can always change the language pref, even if you're a beginner in that language. In fact, the narrator actually enjoys impasses and the process of eternally trying to scale them; that's what the narration function is for; it's the internal rehearsal studio.)


If, over the course of drilling, I get the same question wrong a few different times in the same way, that wrong answer starts to supersede the in-my-ear truth. The answer I wrongly coughed up a few times starts sounding right, out of sheer familiarity. I frame this as amusing and bemusing, rather than anything worthy of aggrieved horror, and gleefully tinker with the formula. I'm my own lab rat!

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