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Questioning Is Not the Same as Offending to Elicit a Response

Posted by admin on Jul 28, 2011 in Uncategorized

One thing I have been thinking about a lot lately is the notion of questioning: questioning experts, questioning authority, and questioning people in general. And what I have seen is that most people tend to confuse genuine “questioning” with some form of insult or challenge designed to provoke a response.

Extremes often help illustrate things. Consider approaching an Olympic runner and saying, “Hey man, you’re all talk, I bet I could out run you any day. You say you’re fast, but prove it.” The runner would be completely justified in ignoring you. Annoyed though he might be, he need not actually prove anything to you—he’s already proved himself through known standards, and justifying his speed to every moron who wants a demonstration will run this man into the ground.

It seems absurd to behave in such a “questioning” manner, yet I see it all the time. The truth of the matter is, when it comes to ability, we are NOT equal.  Nor should we be. Someone who has spent years developing a skill that others do not have deserves respect and admiration for that skill. And it’s our duty to recognize the training that went into obtaining that skill, rather than simply assuming comparable ability.

For years, I have watched people come to my mother to seek her advice. She is the wisest person I’ve ever met, not because she was born that way, but because she has devoted her entire life to an internal practice that allows her to listen on a level far beyond the bounds of physicality or circumstance. People come to her for that very reason, yet many—even occasionally those who have sought her advice for years—will pick and choose what they want to hear. People want her to “prove” her abilities, but like the runner, she already has. Those who have studied with her for more than a few months can attest: follow her advice exactly, things turn out well; ignore even part of her advice, things turn out badly. It’s never personal. Her advice is not her advice, but rather what is best for the individual to whom she gives that advice. People tend not to understand that her ability to listen internally means that “opinion” is not involved at all.

Yet it infuriates me when I see people assume that they could do the same thing as she: “She just sits in a room and gives advice; I could do that.” No, ignoramus, you could not.

I’ve been experiencing some of the same uneducated provoking lately to “prove” my abilities in language. Three graduate degrees from top institutions in language-related fields would seem to be proof enough that I could teach a course in linguistics. But for many, it doesn’t seem to be enough, and they write me “questions” that are not questions at all, but rather provocations: “You talk too much, I bet you can’t even speak five languages.”

It’s a waste of time to respond to such uneducated and discourteous remarks. I will always answer questions that demonstrate the respect that one should routinely show a stranger (much less an expert), but I have no intention of wasting my time with ill-worded provocations from people who clearly do not understand the value of education. They could not get much out of Linguisticator anyways, as it would probably be over their heads.

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Bread, Toast, and Snowballs

Posted by admin on Mar 11, 2011 in 300 Push Ups, Language Learning, Standing

I once heard a language teacher for Biblical Greek say at the beginning of a course that learning a language is a lot like watching bread toast in the oven. The bread stays white, stays white, stays white, and then all of a sudden…boom. It starts to turn brown quickly. In learning a language, there are a lot of parts to keep in mind, and as you go through and learn each of these parts one by one, it feels like you’re not getting anywhere. But then, there comes a moment when the bread starts to toast and all the little pieces you’ve been learning start to come together as a unified whole. It’s a wonderful experience.

In order for this process to happen, however, there has to be enough “heat.” If you try to learn a language by spending some time once a week, you’re not going to have the “heat” necessary to make it all come together. It’s a bit like leaving a piece of bread out in the sun. Sure, over time it may absorb the same amount of energy from the sun as a piece of toast has, but it’s been absorbed over too long a period of time. The bread is still bread, not toast. This is why the method I teach at Linguisticator is so effective—it empowers students to apply that “heat” on their own, and shows them exactly what all the little pieces they’re going to need are.

The same principle is true of most activities and disciplines, and is somewhat of a founding principle for this blog. For example, I used to stand half an hour every day for months and months on end; but last spring, I forced myself to work up to 2hrs every day for a month, capped off by an epic day on which I stood for 8 hours straight. The intensity broke barriers I could not have broken any other way and took me to new levels.

I’ve been finding the same true with push ups. When I started, I tried to do several sets a day and gradually increase the number of reps and the number of sets. It lacked the focus and the “heat” necessary to toast the bread. I got stronger, but I wasn’t going to get to 300 push ups, perhaps ever. I had to change the game and step it up. So, I’ve been working pyramids, and trying to do 500 push ups in a session. Last week, I moved up from 450 push ups in an hour to doing 500 in an hour. This week, I’ve managed to do 500 within 45 minutes on Monday, and within 40 minutes on Wednesday.

I have a pyramid of 210 now: 35-40-35-30-25-25-20, with minute rests between sets. Considering how difficult this pyramid is, I know I’m not nearly ready to break 200 in a single set, but I feel it’s moving in the right direction. With consistency over the next several weeks, I’m confident I’ll break certain barriers and the numbers will snowball.

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Flash and HTML

Posted by admin on Feb 18, 2011 in Misc. Challenges

As I’ve written about recently, I’ve started a new business called Linguisticator, designed to teach people how to learn foreign languages. I built a website using Flash and was really pleased with how it looked. It was designed to be a temporary site so that I had some kind of storefront and I planned to build a more extensive HTML site down the road, perhaps in 6–8 months. The Flash site didn’t allow for much flexibility in terms of adding content, and I’m not that comfortable in Flash, but as I say, I thought it looked cool.

Apparently, however, many people have trouble viewing Flash sites, and mine was no exception. Perhaps the file didn’t load, or it loaded slowly; perhaps the fonts came up pixelated or unclear. Whatever it was, it was not good, and enough of these complaints had come in the other day that I decided to just build a new site immediately and have done with it.

Because I liked the look of the Flash site, I built an HTML site modeled on the Flash one—same colors, fonts, layout, etc. And it looked like crap! The Flash animations had added enough flair to an otherwise simple site for it to look sophisticated. But without the animations, the site just looked dull. So then I decided to create a homepage where people could choose whether to enter the Flash site or the HTML site. And that looked like crap!

After about 8 or 9 hours of messing around with this on Wednesday, I decided to scrap the whole thing entirely and start from scratch. I opened up a new blank document in Dreamweaver and began to create. The final result:

I’m much happier with this than either of the other two sites I created. It’s quite plain at the moment, but I’ll be adding more content and images over the next couple of weeks. And hopefully a video, too. I need to take some images of my language books for the site. I was thinking a stack with Mandarin, Classical Japanese, Egyptian, Xhosa, and Hungarian might look pretty fly.

Wednesday ended up being a 16 hour day in front of the computer. I began at 8am and finished at midnight. Brutal day, and I was completely shot yesterday, but I’m glad to have fixed the issues with the Flash site. For a business that will rely heavily on the internet, it’s important to have a good site.

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The Challenge of Starting a Business

Posted by admin on Feb 11, 2011 in Misc. Challenges

Back in the fall, my plans were derailed by a number of visa issues in Europe. This pushed me in several new directions as I looked for employment options. I have recently accepted an internship in London with a small consulting company and am very excited to be working for them this summer. But I have also started a new business that answers at last the question: what could I, a medievalist, offer the world?

This was the big question. What skills do I have of value to other people? The easiest answer was my gift with languages, but there was a slight glitch: I don’t speak Arabic, fluent Mandarin, or Pashto. Most of the languages I know are dead or not widely spoken. There is no great need for these languages from an employment perspective. It seemed my greatest asset was likewise useless.

But as I wrestled with this problem and had (sometimes heated) discussions with my family and friends, it at last became clear that my ability to learn languages was itself a skill. Sure, I may not yet speak the languages most sought after by military and business companies, but I can learn a language about as quickly as one can. And that skill is not something I was born with—it’s something I learned through studying linguistics and more than 20 languages.

So I’ve started Linguisticator, a service designed to teach people how to learn languages. There are tons of language resources out there, but more and more these resources seek to avoid central issues of language’s inherent complexities. A lot of language resources have little faith in a customer’s intelligence, I feel. The result is that people study a language for years only to reach a mediocre level at best. Language is a complex…organism, shall we say? But if it is broken down into its component parts, its complexity resolves into a wonderful clarity. That’s what my courses are designed to do.

Problem solved, right? Not exactly. I have a more or less unique product—the only comparable course I’ve seen is one offered for the US military—but how to get it out there? Many people have looked at my site and asked, “What languages are you teaching?” There is no precedent for such a course as this, so people assume I’m teaching specific languages. But I’m really teaching methods that will enable one to learn any language at record speed. Explaining this has been one challenge of communication.

The courses are the culmination of years of experience, and are something I wish had been available to me many years ago. Where do I go to tell people about this service? How do I get people to try something new? It’s a challenge, and I know it will take time. I struggle with impatience, I struggle with the risk of starting something so new. Yet I’ve had a ton of fun putting it all together. I like my website design and my new business cards are pretty flair; and nothing has been more fun than writing the actual courses. I’ve solidified the method for myself, and at the very least, I now have a more articulated process for tackling new languages myself.

Linguisticator will take time, patience, and a lot of work to build. It’s a larger challenge than many of the others I’ve worked on, but it’s a labor of love and I can only look forward to the fruit it will yield as I share one of my greatest passions with other people interested in language.

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How to Learn Language

Posted by admin on Jan 10, 2011 in Language Learning

Having now studied more than 20 languages, I’ve realized that I’ve learn a lot more than just how to communicate in other tongues.  I’ve learned a process and a method for picking up a code quickly.  At this point, I can learn a new language in only a few months, even less time if the language is related to one I already know.

In Iceland this past summer, I would speak to Icelanders at the pools.  A little into the conversation they would recognize that I was not Icelandic, but could not tell where I was from. “I’m American,” I’d say.  “But you speak Icelandic?” they’d respond. “A little; I’m learning,” I’d say.  “How long have you been here?”  “Four weeks.”   “Four weeks! You’re lying!  I know people who have been here for 20 years who can’t speak as well.”

I had this or similar conversations several times.

While in Iceland, I was working 40 hours a week with people who did not speak Icelandic.  In the evenings, I would write in English and speak to family and friends over Skype, so the amount of time I had to be actually immersed in Icelandic was fairly limited.  Nonetheless, I learned quickly.  It was in part because of interactions like the one described above that I realized I actually have a gift with language. But so much of my ability to pick up languages quickly is the result of training rather than innate faculties.

When I go to learn a new language now, I have a clear method. There are questions I want answers for, there is an order of operations, there is a combination of drills I do to master the different aspects of the language. And as I’ve gotten clearer and clearer in terms of this whole process for myself, I’ve realized recently that this is something I could articulate and teach.  I could share this method with others who want to learn languages. Perhaps they don’t want to learn 10 or 20 or 30 language, but one or two?  The method would still be useful in speeding up the process.

I’m now offering courses in practical linguistics designed to teach people about language so that they can actually learn a foreign language essentially on their own.  This is something I feel a lot of people would be interested in knowing, especially those who, like me, spent 10 years or more in school studying a language only to reach a mediocre level of proficiency.  It frustrates me knowing that I spent 10 years studying Japanese and that in 3 months now I could reach a higher level of proficiency than I did in those 10 years.  If you’re interested in learning these methods, please drop me a line!

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