This is the third and probably final post in a multi-part series on Language and Society. Here is the first post.
It is a disease.
It is contagious.
And you have it.
People who learn a language other than their original “native” language are like man-eating dogs and abusive husbands — once they’ve crossed the line, they’re very likely to cross it again. I know because I used to watch Oprah in the early 1990s, back when abusive relationships were all the rage, and expert guests invariably, psychiatrists would say these kinds of things all the time. They’ve got PhDs, baby, you know theys is good for it.
So, despite our love for our L2, we all aspire to go further. All of us who have extended ourselves beyond the language set of the society in which we were originally born and raised. We want it. More. More. More. We want that rush(?) again.
The problem is that this greed, followed blindly, can lead to a trail of tears, broken promises and half-eaten languages, which, as we know, aren’t very useful economically, and aren’t nearly as much fun as they could be. For one thing, it takes some time to be able to produce and consume an unbridled variety of comedy in a given language…I mean, I don’t know about you, but I want to laugh and cause laughter. And think of the limits on friendships when there is a language barrier; you can still have great friendships, but the signal is far, far weaker than it could be.
What to do?
I propose a simple “solution” of sorts. Scheduling. Due to the time spans involved, I haven’t quite fully “tested” this idea myself. But I can say that it is already, at this early stage, giving me that most precious of things — peace of mind, and the ability to focus on what and where I am right now.
As we discussed in the previous post in this series, there are a lot of forces and voices out there pushing us to learn the “right” language. And there’s also our own curiosity pulling us toward new horizons.
But those voices, forces and urges are best not acted upon in their raw form. They need to be channeled and managed and manipulated. Like beans, they need to be cooked. Raw, they will lead to burn-out, disappointment and half-buttockedness. We want ownage. And what gets ownage is diligence and discipline.
Oh, snap, he busted out the “d” words! Who does this guy think he is? Has Khatzumoto gone all cranky old man? Not quite, because the way we define diligence and discipline, or “D&D”, as we’re going to call them now, is different from the painful, sucky way the rest of the world typically uses these words. Diligence is, to borrow the words of Steve Martin: “effort over time to the exclusion of other pursuits”  Discipline is, “remembering what you want”. Apparently the source of this quote is a guy called David Campbell. I’ve never heard of him, but his quote is awesome.
D&D is all about memory and exclusion. Now, I am a lazy, lazy, man. I want things done for me. I want to chill, and I generally do. That’s why scheduling languages in multi-year blocks is so powerful. First of all, it gives you permission to be diligent; it gives you permission to exclude; it gives you permission to be lazy; it tells you it’s okay to ignore other things because you’re going to get to them eventually, so you can just lose yourself in the (music, the moment) thing you’re doing right here, right now. Thus we see that diligence is not “hard work”. Diligence is deliberate neglect; it is highly directed laziness. It is greed with a purpose — a deep, focussed greed, rather than a shallow, wavering, ADHD-addled one. Laser-greed.
 Secondly, it gives you the discipline you need, because it does the “remembering” for you. If you have your multi-year language schedule somewhere easily visible, you can see that “yes, I want language Z, but I also want language X, and I want it first! Thanks for reminding me, oh dear schedule of mine!”  Thirdly, it turns destructive desires (“I wanna know EVERTHING!!!”) into constructive passions (“we’re doing this right now”), not by denial, but by regulation. This concept has had success in society at large.
Let me elaborate. I personally think that alcohol, tobacco, narcotics, Gilmore Girls and season 4 of Prison Break are things best kept far out of one’s life. But American history has dramatically demonstrated that enforcing this for/on other people does not work. Even though banning these things across the board seems like such a great idea (drunk driving alone offers proof that these things are not just personal choices that “don’t hurt anyone else”), prohibition of substances like alcohol has clearly tended to increase secondary negative externalities (you try reading the WSJ every day and not have this phrase crop up involuntarily! I’m not even sure if I’m using it correctly; it just comes out! “Hey Khatz, how was your day?”, “Dude, I was at Stacy’s house, and dude…secondary negative externalities everywhere“) rather than decrease them.
Whether it’s pot or prostitution [I know you’re having a WTF? moment right now] the answer seems clear: either give the cat a litterbox, or the entire house becomes a litterbox. Either give your languages a place (a schedule), or they all try to take first place at once; they all want to be everywhere, all the time. And that is the very definition of stress — and not the good kind of stress, but the circular-hair-loss-and-ulcer kind.
So, we see that scheduling will take your D&D, and make it feel even more like R&R than usual.
While we’re at it, here’s a fictional example schedule:
- 2005 — 2010: Japanese
- 2010 — 2015: Mandarin
- 2015 — 2020: Klingon
- 2020 — 2025: Cantonese
- 2025 — 2030: Teenage Slang
- 2035 — 2040: The Language Of Love
Et cetera. Why five years? It’s just a round number. Two highly-focussed years is enough to get good, but then we also want to leave time for actually using our good once we’ve gotten it. In any case, it’s just a number; it doesn’t matter too much. Keeping to the schedule religiously doesn’t matter either; there is room for alteration and transposition — as always, you are the boss.
In any case, as I’ve hinted at before, I’m not such a big fan of “trophy-collecting” style language learning. While I have the deepest respect for all the polyglots out there (and they all have cool ideas and techniques worthy of imitation) I do also think that many of them could benefit from sacrificing breadth for some more depth. The whole “learning N number of foreign languages but ultimately doing all my significant activities in English” thing seems to be missing the point — and I say this with full awareness of the hypocrisy it entails, given the current content base of this blog.
Any language that has enough people [that you care about] and/or media [that you care about] is worth sticking with for a long time. Not just for return on investment, but also for pure enjoyment. A language is for living in, not just passing through — more a home than a hotel. Move house if you want, but don’t just do it because everyone else is saying or doing so.
When you use Y-year scheduling blocks, even when Y is a number like three or five or ten, you start to realize that there is plenty of time in our lives to “get it all in”, or at least a lot of it in, and there’s no need to go breathlessly and desperately dilettanting from one hot language to another. It’s fine to remain calm.
We can still have fun; we can still be spontaneous; we just need to direct our ever-flowing fun and spontaneity into “cups” where they can steadily accumulate value for us, and also be easier to drink from.
For example, I have leanings towards couch potato behavior. I can sit there in my sweatpants, watching TV and movies for days on end. Doing this in English (as a native speaker) is just considered sloth. Doing this in Japanese is dedication; it is an act of intellectual heroism worthy of, like, a website. All I had to do was swivel my couch potato tap into the cup called Japanese.
The same behavior, reprehensible in one sphere/language, becomes a demonstration of discipline and diligence in another. This is the power of directing, channeling, managing our greed, our “flaws”: If possible, why bother overcome them, why bother destroy them, when we can just recycle, reuse and redirect them? Violent sociopath in one place is courageous soldier in another (I am again being very cruel to military people, but they’re tough enough to take it 😉 ).
Thus concludes my two or three yen on the somewhat vague topic of “Language and Society” — for now, at least. Sorry for going so…preachy on you. Hopefully this has been somewhat useful. But you know what’s even more useful — your comments. Feel free to share any insight you have on this issue…I want to be enlightened, too 🙂 .