Learning a language isn’t hard. At all. In any way. What’s hard is taking all the mental beatings you give yourself. Stop the beatings and it’s all smooth sailing. In fact, it becomes so easy that you’ll be using “learning” (getting used to) a language as your escape activity, to get away from and out of doing other stuff.
So stop the mental beatings. Stop with the bad questions. I wanted to call them “dumb” questions, but they’re not dumb in the traditional sense. On the contrary, they seem reasonable and intelligent. But they are damaging and destructive and deleterious in their effects and therefore dumb, since shoehorning as many “D” words as possible into one sentence appears to be the theme of today’s episode of Sesame Street.
“I should be better by now!”
Why? Because what? Because who? Why? Who invented that obligation? Who died and made them God? Plus that’s not even a question.
“Is this working?”
“Am I doing it right?”
You’ll find out soon enough, gosh. Just chill. Let the results speak to you. Then decide whether to keep going how you’ve been going, or mix it up and try something new.
There was a very grim point in my ongoing Cantonese experiment where I felt like what I was doing was useless: from the standpoint of developing conversational ability, it felt useless learning to read and sing 1. There was just so much to find fault with. Conflicting accounts on how to pronounce a given character, no phoneticization/romanization worth really bothering with, the nagging suspicion 2 that my text-to-speech software might be completely “off”. It just felt useless. It totally wasn’t. But it took so much time for me to “see results” that I often felt at a loss…
Until I picked up Hong Kong newspapers, and all my SRS/text-to-speech-learned Cantonese pronunciations came flowing out. I could just…read. And I didn’t even really know how, because all the SRSing I’d done had often felt so useless and removed from reality (especially pre-MCD). They say the “testing effect” makes you feel useless despite making you more competent, sort of a Dunning-Kruger effect in miniature. They speak the truth.
Despite (or because) of all my movie- and cartoon-watching, I saw and heard so few examples of standard written Chinese being read aloud with Cantonese pronunciation that I wondered whether anyone even really did it. Intellectually, I knew that people did, but emotionally, I wondered whether I wasn’t the victim of some conspiracy, or whether I wasn’t doing the equivalent of accidentally learning Akkadian instead of modern Hebrew.
It didn’t help that I didn’t have any Cantonese speakers to hang out with, or that many dubbed movies to watch (except animated stuff).
And speaking of animation: like, you watch “Powerpuff Girls” in Cantonese, and the Chinese subs are so far removed from the audio (in both Mandarin and Cantonese) that you feel…almost cheated. Like, here I am, a reader, and…it’s not really helping. Reading standard Chinese comics only made it worse because it was like…OK, “這是甚麼”…no one says “je si sam mo” in regular Cantonese speech, so why am I even…?
Sidenote: I’ve noticed, observing Cantonese speakers reading Chinese out loud, that while some people do read the text as written, many people almost unconsciously do “on the fly conversion”, converting much of the standard text to its spoken Cantonese equivalent.
Now, what this all comes down to is the simple and rather innocuous fact that Cantonese is rooted in a deep East Asian tradition of diglossia. Actually, it’s a deep worldwide tradition. To some extent or another, most of the world for most of history, when it has written at all, has not written as it speaks. And even written standards, like contemporary English, that most of us would consider quote close to speech, when looked at closely are not that close (or are only close for a minority of speakers). So to one extent or another, most of us do not write as we speak. It’s just a little more obvious with Cantonese.
But it’s not like written Chinese is Greek and spoken Cantonese is English or any goofiness like that. 3 Or Latin and English or something like that. And it’s not like written Cantonese (vernacular or formal) makes for no insight or improvement in spoken Cantonese, because it totally does. 4 I’m using “totally” a lot. It’s just that sometimes…at some points, it required, and I’m going to use the “f” word uncensored here: faith. Faith that what I was doing was not a waste of time and energy.
This whole vernacular writing — speaking as you write — business has existed for some time, but was confined to relatively lowbrow things like theater and pop lit. So, even in Greater China, scripts were written, you know, as spoken. However, history (my shallow knowledge of it) seems to show that vernacular writing only rose to widespread primacy beginning early in the 19th century, with the growth of European nationalism and people starting to take their vernaculars seriously, defining standard national languages and raising their profiles, finally treating them as worthy vessels for (acrolectic) knowledge, promoting their local folk tales to the status of national epics and what have you 5. But before that? Proper Finns were too good for Finnish; proper Russians were too good to even speak Russian — they did their thing in French; proper Czechs rolled in German.
This is why learning languages for external rewards is such a bad idea, because there’s just too much pressure over nothing. The only reason to learn a language is because it’s there. Not because of who or what you’ll get out of it — think of those as bonus reasons only. The only core reason is: because it’s there. Otherwise, really, don’t bother. Whatever external rewards you want can be acquired more easily by other means.
Because, what do you want, really? Money — to buy objects and experiences…to make you feel good. Praise and recognition — to make you feel good. Hookers and blow? For feelings. You want to feel good; this is by no means an original realization of mine, everyone from Tony Robbins to Esther Hicks 6 could tell you about this. So, you want to feel good. If you want to feel good, why are you spending so much time making yourself feel bad? It doesn’t add up; 9 does not follow 8.
I am reminded of a quote by Nietzsche(at least…the Internet says it’s by him):
“Do not talk about giftedness, inborn talents! One can name great men of all kinds who were very little gifted. They acquired greatness, became ‘genuises’ because they all possessed that seriousness of the efficient workman which first learns to construct the parts properly before it ventures to fashion a great whole; they allowed themselves time for it, because they took more pleasure in making the little secondary things well than in the effect of a dazzling whole.”
The key part up there is: “took more pleasure in making the little secondary things well than in the effect of a dazzling whole.”
That’s the pleasure of each movie or SRS card. Each rep.
You never learn a language. You just hear and learn individual words.
And if they all belong to one language, then we call that “knowing” a language, but that’s no more than a convenient — and horribly misleading — shorthand.
“…construct the parts properly” — focus on handling individual quanta.
This is going to sound super cheesy, but only because it’s true. As always, I am going to try to put it an interesting way so that you’re not completely numbed to the idea by the smell of cheese. So here goes. It all comes down to where you seek and find the fun, the pleasure — where your locus of fun is. Now, if you’re one of those rare but sad individuals who’s going to ask me what fun is, I cannot help you; if I have to define fun for you, you are beyond my help.
So, the thing is, you can’t be a bastard to yourself and put the fun way out there, dangling it like a carrot on a thousand-mile-long stick, promised as future reward while you administer ample emotional beatings in the present. That’s cruel and unnecessary. You can have fun right now. That’s the irony of it. And because of how you’ve been raised — yeah, I went there — you honestly think: “but I won’t DO anything if I have fun (and like myself and make life easy and comfortable for myself)” 7.
1) First of all — so what? Even if you literally accomplished nothing in life but enjoyed it the whole time, doesn’t that make you a winner just by default? Because again, all the trying and struggling you see around you is being done in order to generate pleasant affective states. And you skipped all the BS and went straight for the milk. That’s not lazy; that’s efficient; that’s intelligent.
But guess what?
2) The irony of it as all is that the more you enjoy it, the more “productive” you’ll be at it. The more you enjoy it, the more you’ll (want to) do it, and the more you do it, the better you’ll get at it. So, it turns out that giving yourself the reward of fun now — not later, not delayed gratification, but right now — produces better long-term results. It’s weird and it’s wacky and it goes against everything you’ve been taught.
I certainly enjoy knowing Japanese now…actually, no, I don’t even notice it most of the time — a lot of times, it doesn’t even register as a separate language, so I’ll actually think I’ve been reading English when I’m reading a Japanese book. But I loved learning kanji, too. I loved that building up, block by block, card by card, word by word, getting better and stronger each moment. I loved listening to science documentaries and picking up more each time I listened. I loved watching cartoons. I loved each moment and I loved where I was, not just where I was going (although I loved that, too).
I can remember a point in the 10k sentences learning process where I was so deeply happy just learning new sentences that it was a feeling no more money could buy (because, technically, money bought the computers and electricity I was using to get it, so…money bought that feeling 😉 ). I remember telling a friend that the feeling was pretty priceless and I pretty much wouldn’t part with it for any amount of payment or, I dunno, something hyperbolic, but it was really good feeling.
Part of having all the fun now and feeling all the good now is a physical orientation thing — your choice of actions. But mostly it’s an emotional orientation, an affective orientation. The biggest thing is letting yourself feel good with where you are now, when you’ve been taught that you have to look down on yourself; you’ve been taught to call, think of and treat yourself like a worthless maggot — as if you were some movie drill sergeant…to yourself.
What you have to realize is the aims, methods and timescales of, say, since we’re on the subject, a military organization are thoroughly at odds with those of an individual; they differ completely. You’re not a number to you. You’re not a statistic to you. You’re not collateral damage to you. You’re not a point on a graph to you. You are it. You are everything to you. To you, you might as well be the entire Universe. You are the institution. You are the beginning and the end. And so then giving yourself the drill sergeant treatment turns out to be wildly ineffective and inappropriate. That kind of thing only works from the outside, for a limited time, and when it doesn’t work, they don’t care because they can replace you.
Would a drill sergeant talk like that to the President? Or a queen? Or a precious little girl? Or a baby? No. Well, you’re the king, queen, baby, president and all those other things, you little queen, so don’t talk to yourself like that. Heck, even a drill sergeant wouldn’t talk to you the way you talk to you; someone would call him in tell him to “cool it”. But there’s no one around to call you on how you talk to you, because you do it all in secret, like a very subtle bully! 😀
So go ahead and try it. Let yourself feel good. I’m not talking about telling other people how awesome you are; it’s deeper than that. This really all happens inside you. It’s that “winning feeling” that Maxwell Maltz talks about. Let yourself feel like a winner right now. Yeah, without even winning anything! Feel like a winner for no reason.
But what? It’ll destroy the value of this emotional currency you’ve been rationing out like some miserly…rationing goblin? You think that, don’t you? You think, that if you let yourself feel good, there’ll be some kind of “inflation” effect, sort of like giving out too many A’s and gold stars, so nothing will even mean anything any more. It’ll be like giving everyone Roman citizenship: there’ll be a decline and fall! And so you think the only reason life has any meaning, is because you withhold the feeling of victory until you (and, more importantly, society at large) says it’s OK, after much pain and suffering, to dribble out a little bit…don’t you? You’re raising the value of an emotion via (artificial) scarcity as if it were a mineral; you’re the DeBeers of feeling good.
Haha. I don’t know that you actually think that, but after analyzing…well, ruminating 8, on it for just a short time, I realized that this was a core belief of mine, at some level. And just like in school where you ask an embarrassingly fundamental question but it turns out that most of the class had that question, too, I often — not always but often — find that the faulty ideas I have are shared by other people. Which makes sense, because they’re often culturally transmitted — the worst part is that they’re often not transmitted verbally or explicitly, but implicitly through thousands of interactions, rendering them almost invisible to notice. These implicit ideas become much harder to refute because you don’t even know you had them (and neither do the people who infected you with them!).
Have you ever lost your keys and looked all over the room for them, only to find them in your hand? They were in your closed hand all along? Well, if you could lose keys in your hand — hard, visible, concrete, metal keys — imagine how easily you could lose track of invisible, intangible, colorless, odorless, formless, unverbalized, abstract idea in your head. It could literally sit there forever, for the rest of your life, affecting and controlling you, without you ever noticing it.
Occasionally, though, these ideas — memes — might rear their ugly heads in the form of “folk wisdom” and aphorisms. I love me a good aphorism, but theirs is a neutral power, so it can be used to help or harm. Take this one:
“No pain no gain”?
Really? No gain?
Is that why coal miners and toilet cleaners are so wealthy oh wait.
Bill Gates, billionaire coal miner: “seeking out pain and suffering for myself made me wealthy.”
Or, what, are all coal miners like dogs — set for a paradisaical afterlife? Or do all people who own coal mines have gout and live on morphine drips — all the pain for that gain? What about self-cutting? All that pain — must be super lucrative!
“That’s not what it means, Khatz”, someone objects, “it doesn’t mean seeking out pain will lead to gain; it doesn’t mean that roads with more pain in them have more gain”.
Great, then why the #### do people use it that way?
If they don’t mean that, then why do they use it in that way?
And what does it mean, really?
I never hear it (NPNG) qualified, I just hear it when someone is suffering to encourage them to suffer more.
All I hear is the sound of involuntary rhyming sado-masochism.
In fact, there are people in certain philosophies (religions) who will get upset at you if you try to alleviate their suffering, because they’re hoping to get some mad gain from it, blud.
If “it doesn’t mean seeking out pain will lead to gain; it doesn’t mean that roads with more pain in them have more gain”, and thus pain is not even proportional to gain, and pain does not even correlate with gain (let alone cause it), then presumably there are roads with low or almost zero pain but near infinite gain, which means that this aphorism has told us nothing, no, worse than nothing, it has mislead us. Because in its traditional, four-word form, it sure sounds like it’s saying that pain causes gain.
One down. One jillion to go 🙂 .
Perhaps you can’t figure them all out. But you don’t need to. Let yourself feel good for where you are, with where you are and what you’re doing and how you’re doing it. No one needs to be convinced of this but you; you have to be around you the whole time; you have to live in the environment you create and sustain for yourself…forever; we get to leave. But it’s the most amazing gift you could give yourself, and you’d think it would lead to decadence and stagnation, but it won’t because you just get into this self-perpetuating spiral, and endless stream of fun and cool little things. Yes, I am seriously still talking about learning languages 😀 .
“…stop wasting that most precious gift of all – human energy and imagination.” ~ Richard Koch
You know, I just got done reading a Japanese paper about Japanese-language education in Hong Kong (香港の広東語話者を対象とした語彙教育での考慮点), specifically vocabulary-building. And it has this one table that compares words in Japanese versus Cantonese versus Mandarin. And I realized that I knew all those words. I know 映画(eiga)／戲(hei)／電影(dinying/dianying) and how to use and read (pronounce) them and everything; I just picked them up effortlessly in context. But if you’d come up to me and given me this list in advance, I’d have hated myself. I’d have felt so overwhelmed. The languages in question would not have changed one bit, but my reaction would have.
So, clearly, it’s not the language that overwhelms. We overwhelm ourselves. Our own perceptions overwhelm us. The way we choose to present the language to ourselves (or have it presented to us), overwhelms us. As Dr. Woz of SuperMemo puts it, it’s never the subject matter that’s difficult, only the volume and presentation. And this is why you need to stop being a good, conscientious person. Because good people are the most prone to this — to overwhelming themselves. As I once explained it to a friend, it’s…the difference between a funnel and an ocean. It’s the difference between someone who needs to plan out the full contents of every meal he will ever eat for the rest of his life (try it; you will wear yourself the heck out) and someone who can just eat something delicious now.
You’ve got to funnel the language down to ridiculously small units, and then enjoy — really, deeply, allow yourself to enjoy — each of those units as if it were the whole language (and not some chore on the way to “real” life). Because, in a way, it is. You never learn a language. You just do these small things. You just play with quanta. You call it learning a language, but that’s like…it would be like telling a cell it was playing hockey; it’s just being itself. Maybe at some cosmic level hockey is being played but…it’s just…it doesn’t even know that hockey exists and doesn’t need to, yet it is ultimately essential to hockey.
You already do this with food, so effortlessly that my suggestion up there about planning out your meals just seemed silly to you. It just seemed nonsensical. But why should it? Surely food matters? You can live without language, good luck living without food. Surely, then, you should plan and worry and fret about food? But, no, we’ve made the choice to not do that. So you don’t plan or worry or fret about food or water…you enjoy each meal and look forward to the next (or, if you’re reading this, you probably go through all manner of gyrations and machinations trying not to eat).
Why, then, would you let yourself freak out over an arbitrary set of sounds and geometrical patterns (a language) that you’ve managed to survive this far without speaking? Why are you letting something sub-trivial be the cause of real pain to you, when things that actually matter are just taken in stride? Don’t you feel silly? Like a model who can dodge bullets but then bursts into tears when someone brings her her Volvic instead of Evian?
Crap, I wanted to say something original and deep, but I ended up saying what I usually say, with more words. But maybe the truth is like that. Maybe it’s like coats of paint and you need multiple passes at it for it to stick. Oh well…whatever. Maybe it’ll sink in this time!
Anyway, let yourself win. Let yourself feel like a winner. Don’t wait until you “win” something to feel like a winner. There’s nothing to win out there. There’s nothing anyone can give you, no language you can learn, no test you can pass, no certificate you can get, that will make you feel good for more than about 5 minutes. But if you let yourself win, let yourself feel like a winner right now, you’ll get to feel good all the time! All the time! And, ironically, you’ll also be far more likely to win all that external approval, whether or not you even seek it.
Like an AJATTeer once said: Michael Jordan didn’t practice basketball because he wanted to wear championship rings. Those are nothing but cheap, gaudy pieces of metal. Ultimately, he shot hoops because he enjoyed shooting hoops; it was its own reward. He didn’t need the external proof, but he got so into the shooting that external proof found him. Look closely at many people who’ve achieved great ends and you will find — masochist proverbs to the contrary — that they get lost in the means; they might even safely be said to enjoy the means more than the ends, which is wonderful given the usual time distribution (which disproportionately favors the former). They say that Ted Williams just plain loved baseball, and he wanted to talk shop even when fellow pros did not.
Lost. Like you’re in a forest or massive library or you’re dreaming 40 hours a day in “Inception” and the idea of coming back no longer even crosses your mind.
Let me apologize. I am sorry. You wanted Japanese, you got fruity theories instead. But it’s just like the guy who wrote the book “Self University” said: you need these fruity theories. You’re not a machine; a machine can just get instructions. Not that unambiguous instructions don’t help — for the prepared mind, they can even be transformative. But they’re useless if you’re too busy doubting them and yourself to allow them to help. The medicine can’t work if you keep not taking it and throwing it up. If all you needed were unambiguous instructions, we would not be here. You would be out there churning it up like a machine.
But instead, you have feelings. You have these hopes and desires and fears. And you’re looking to resolve or realize some of them by getting good at a language. And so you need some understanding of your psychology because that’s what’s blocking you from doing something as mundane as speaking and reading a language (Japanese) that even stupid people in Japan can speak and read. Even the “Japanese is the hardest language in the galaxy” forum trolls, I feel for them because they’re speaking out of ignorance and frustration, not malice. They’re just clueless.
What I’m trying to tell you is: the language is not stopping you; your physical hardware is not stopping you. But your mental software? Is utter crap. It has commands in it that do the opposite of what would help you move forward; it shows itself in the form of disempowering ideas and dumb questions and self-flagellation and withholding a feeling of victory from yourself. It makes you take a mental dump in every mental meal, and then it makes you try to eat it. And you wonder why everything tastes like crap.
- “I should be better by now!”
- “Is this working?”
- “Am I doing it right?”
These are not helpful questions. But they seem like it and it’s screwing you over.
HA! You thought I’d lost track of where I was and just gone on an inspiring pablum ramble, didn’t you? Nope, still here. Still making the original point 😀 . And I’m tying it all together, so there’s closure!
- “What’s 1 fun thing I can do?”
- “What would be fun to do right now?”
- “What’s 1 easy thing I could do?
- “That was fun! Let’s do it again!”
- “Let’s find something new to play at!”
- “Some of the good things I did today are…”
↑ Those are somewhat better questions and prompts and statements.
Here’s the weird thing about fun. It often doesn’t take that much of a change to make and keep something fun. Sometimes — not always, but quite often — all you need is a variation on the same theme. Think of how much fun staring at water is. Like, at the beach, or on a boat — maybe even just a good fountain. It’s not like the water is changing colors or physical states or turning into hot chicks and making out with you. It’s just water. But you…you love it; bubbling up like a fractal, always the same, yet always different. Sometimes you can play the same episode of a show on loop, or you can play different episodes of the same show — same main characters, same settings, but the small changes are enough for you.
Again, I apologize for all the fruitiness…the fruitivity. I don’t like deep fixes for problems when a shallow fix will do. I like things quick and easy; I like to keep my hands clean; I like to take naps and snuggle on couches; I’m not Captain Struggles over here — I’m Captain Snuggles; I’m not trying to make the world better, just a little three-foot radius circle of it that I call my own. You don’t have to achieve Enlightenment to get used to a language (just look around for proof — heck, look at me), but you do need to calm down, as David Spade once conservatively estimated: “like, a million percent”.
“Attitude is much more important than intelligence” ~ Richard Koch
When you’ve seen as many intelligent, capable, conscientious people suffer with this as I have, and the mental atrocities they commit against themselves, you get to thinking. And sometimes you get to thinking: what’s it all for, anyway? And when you realize it’s for nothing: no thing (*eye roll* — I know, right? Yeah…I went there) — you’re just like…well…well, screw it then; let’s stop fussing and caring and just enjoy this, this accretion of quanta.
Learning a language is so easy that it shouldn’t even be…there shouldn’t even be a name for it, it’s that’s easy; it’s like growing eye boogers. But constantly wondering whether or not you’re doing it right, waiting for your boogers/skills to get all nice and big and shiny, hankering for someone to tell you you’re awesome and give you a piece of paper that says so…that’s rough; that’s hard; that’s painful.
The learning process is not a little necessary evil on your way to “real” life, it is your life. It’s not the trailers — it’s the main feature . And so if you’re learning process is painful and boring then your life is painful and boring. Your number one job is to make your life not suck, not hurt, not bore you to death.
- I did enjoy the songs I was learning though; I like hip-hop and R&B; I ‘d have wanted to sing those songs anyhow ↩
- Not proof or certainty, just free-flaoting anxiety ↩
- (Speaking of which, members of my family who lived in Greece tell me Greek has or had mad diglossia going on, at least back in the 1960s — which adds up because WikiPedia says Greece ended the diglossia in the mid-1970s; a lot of my family stories don’t always seem to add up 😀 ). ↩
- A lot of Japanese cartoons, when dubbed into Cantonese, have standard written Chinese subs that are pretty durn close to the dialog. Some live action movies (especially comedies) have actual, vernacular subs that match the dialog exactly. ↩
- (and this is around the time you see the Brothers Grimm go around talking to grandmas in German villages, asking them to tell stories, which they are going to actually write down; people hadn’t previously considered that kind of thing worth enshrining in a book; like our modern TV commercials, they were probably considered crass and ephemeral, utilitarian at best…) ↩
- We’re going full fruity today; I’m probably gonna quote a bunch of Hay House authors and it’s gonna be awkward… ↩
- I wish I were making this up to prove a point, but I’ve actually had friends and acquaintances say basically these exact words and argue for the suffering in their life; I was pretty shocked. I guess I shouldn’t be because I probably thought the same thing at some point in my life. But still… ↩
- RUMITATIS! MALEDICTIS! No, it sounds like that! Metaphorically, I mean. It sounds like that song or whatever segments of classical music are even called, is the soundtrack for ruminating. Don’t even give me that face — you were thinking the same thing! ↩