The Yin and Yang of Language Learning


Language learning is about communicating. It’s about meaning. It’s about substance. Therefore, we want to learn the language from content that’s of interest to us and when we talk we want to communicate things that make sense. We want to have meaningful conversations and, yet, we do need a certain amount of exercising, of overworking certain muscles, overworking certain patterns in the language. We sometimes refer to it as the big picture and the nuts and bolts or sort of top down, bottom up, but we kind of need both.

English not your first language? Read this post on LingQ instead.

Someone pointed out to me that when Mark Zuckerberg made his Chinese speech to those university students in Beijing, who were an elite group of students and he spoke to them in Chinese, many of the students there were not very impressed. They wanted to hear something of substance from Mark Zuckerberg and his Chinese is not really good enough to actually have a meaningful exchange with these students, all of whom speak English much better than he speaks Chinese. So in the interest of communication, he should have spoken in English after perhaps a brief introduction in Chinese because the authenticity, the substance of the communication is so important. That’s why I like to listen to things that relate to history and so forth and so on, but some degree of exercise we also need.

I was thinking about this as I went off to my 24-Hour Fitness, which is not too far from me here in Indio, California. Not only do they have a room full of all this exercise equipment, but then they have individual rooms where twice last week I went to a thing called bootcamp where this lovely lady just pushed us through our paces. I was just exhausted between jumping and stretching and pushups and God knows what.

How does that relate to language learning? I was thinking of the tremendous cost of university education, a very poor return on the money invested. The professors are not that interested in teaching, they’re more interested in doing research for their peers, which is of very little interest to anyone. It’s a bloated bureaucracy. It costs a fortune. Whether it’s paid for by the student or the taxpayer, it is very expensive. Now, if we had a 24-hour intellectual fitness, language fitness place. I pay $25 a month to belong to 24 Hour Fitness and I can use all their equipment and I can go to all these sessions of Zumba, U-Jam, and a whole schedule of stuff and I can drop in to all of them if I want all for $25.

I do a lot of my language learning while exercising, so if we had a class where we worked on the subjunctive in French or Spanish, verbs of motion in Russian or Polish, whatever it might be and so if someone was up there leading us through these exercises and we were repeating certain phrases or answering questions and repeating them for an hour focusing on let’s say five basic patterns in a language because, after all, there’s not an unlimited number of these patterns. There are a limited number of them, so you could choose to go to a boot camp or Zumba where the emphasis would be on the subjunctive in Spanish or something. It may be an unrealistic idea, but I’ll throw it out there.

Similarly, you could get on a treadmill and you could switch to different languages. They would make sure that they have content on there that was at your level and you would pay $25 a month to go down there and access exercise their equipment and participate in their classes. You could either be watching movies on your stepper for half an hour or you could be working on the subjunctive, so you would be combining both the substantial content-based authentic interesting stuff while exercising or you would be focusing on exercising certain aspects of the language.


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