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Automatic English For The People

Monday, July 10, 2006

Small Is Oh So Beautiful

by AJ

Subtract out all issues of methodology, approach, theory, and materials... and I still find that traditional classes ( a bunch of students sitting in a room, focused on a teacher) are a poor way to learn a language (or, indeed, most anything). The simplest, the easiest, the first way to make a learning breakthrough is to adhere to the maxim "small is beautiful".

The more people you add to a class, the less attention each will get. That means that with each new student, it becomes even more difficult to customize the class to each person's needs. In practice, beyond 3 or 4 students, its almost impossible. The law of averages, the practice of teaching to the lowest common denominator, takes over. Its very difficult to avoid. And its not only the teacher's fault. Students too fall into a kind of hypnosis when they enter a class. Its like they walk through the door and automatically surrender their autonomy and responsibility to the authority figure.

In short, BIG SUCKS!

Small is beautiful. And the smallest possible learning unit is ONE. That's you- the learner. No one else. No teacher. No school. No authority figures to surrender to. No one else responsible for learning but YOU.

That is the most effective approach. In the beginning, it seems like more work. We are so used to being passive and lazy learners-- sit back, take notes, and depend on the authority (teacher and textbook) to tell us what to do.

But the traditional way really isn't easier, because you waste huge amounts of time and get very little benefit from it. Also, what you save in initiative you pay for with boredom.

The initial stage of becoming a self-responsible learner does feel like more effort. Like any good habit, it takes a few weeks to keep yourself on a consistent self-learning schedule. You've got to do the research, find the content, and put in that time listening to audio. No one is going to check up on you. No one is going to berate you about not studying, or fail you if you don't do anything. So at first it seems like you need strong willpower to study on your own.

But that's only for a few weeks. If you use methods that are enjoyable-- mainly reading and listening to content you enjoy (repeatedly... especially in the beginning) the process gets easier and easier. Before long, it becomes enjoyable. Then it becomes fun. Finally, it becomes addictive.

Its much like starting a physical exercise program. When you are lazy, flabby, and out of shape... it does indeed take effort to get your ass moving each day. But after a month or two, you've developed a strong habit. You feel healthier. You have more energy and endurance. And you've started to crave those good feelings. After a while, you become irritable and frustrated if you CAN'T exercise.

So it goes with mental exercise. My Spanish self-learning has followed exactly this progression. In the beginning, it seemed like a big chore to study 30 minutes every day (by "study" I mean read & listen). I needed great effort to do it. I needed pep talks and support (such as reading Steve Kaufman's book, talking to others who'd learned a language, etc...).

After a month, the habit was formed. It no longer felt tiring to listen or read for 30 minutes everyday. Soon after, I began to understand a bit more. And then a bit more. I slowly increased the reading/listening time to 40 minutes a day... then 50... then 60.

After a couple of months, I was really enjoying it. I looked forward to my Spanish time each day.

And now, three months later, I'm addicted. I not only look forward to Spanish-- I crave it. I turn on iTunes when I wake up. After work, I get my iPod, walk to North Beach, sit at Cafe Puccini, and read/listen to Spanish for 90 minutes.. or more if I have time.

If work or other obligations prevent me from studying Spanish, I now become very irritated! I've come to enjoy the pleasant experience of learning on my own.

At this point, I can't imagine returning to a traditional classroom-- stuck in a desk listening to somebody give obtuse explanations about textbook grammar points. Ugh! Such a brain-antagonistic way to learn! So damn boring!

No, much as I became a running/walking addict... I'm now a Spanish learning addict. It's an addiction I'm happy to indulge!

In learning, small is indeed beautiful.

(This experience, by the way, is profoundly changing my thoughts about my role as a "teacher". I now think the best service I can perform for "my students" is to wean them off me until they are autonomous leaners. In other words, my job is to teach my student-customers how to fire me :)

San Francisco, CA

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