Natural versus Unnatural Learning

My criticisms of undergraduate education (e.g., here) have three bases:

  • my experiences at UC Berkeley. Both sides — faculty and students — disliked the situation. I accidentally found a way that worked much better.
  • my theory of human evolution. My theory explained what I saw at Berkeley, and a lot of other stuff. It says that learning specialized job skills is a basic part of being human. Our brains have been shaped by evolution to make this happen.
  • the everyday observation that people successfully learn specialized job skills all the time and did so long before colleges. Or any schools.

Set up by people who didn’t understand how learning works — the crucial ingredients — colleges teach poorly, just as malnutrition is common.

At Berkeley I was a teacher. In Beijing I’m on the other side — a student — in a different but similar learning situation: learning Chinese. We learn languages naturally, without any special structure, just as people learned job skills. There is the same broad dichotomy: between language learning via official channels, involving classes and textbooks, and natural language learning that happens without any classes and textbooks. So there should be a better way to learn Chinese than via a textbook or a class or even a tutor.

What that is, I’m trying to figure out. For reading, flash cards may work. I’m starting with food words — I see hundreds of them every time I eat a meal (in the student dining halls) — and sign words and the preset messages on my cell phone. Listening and speaking is harder. When I get better maybe I can watch TV but now I can’t understand any of it.  I always enjoy my Chinese lessons but they happen without context. During the day I may want to say “Where is ______?” but my lesson happens much later, when the motivation has gone. Maybe I will get a tape recorder show I can record what people say to me and then play it for my teachers to translate.

6 Replies to “Natural versus Unnatural Learning”

  1. Surely we didn’t evolve to be thrown in our old age into a country with a completely different language, but to absorb our native language from the cradle or adapt the group’s language to changing times (slang). Learning via book is just a tool to simulate your father’s patience in teaching you a new language when the old is all you know, or using only simple structures at first.

    There’s nothing wrong about using tools. If we only had evolution on our side, for example, we would be no match for viruses and bacteria (and this may yet be how it ends).

    I’ve found no better practice for learning to write characters than repeating nearly identical or banal sentences in a workbook. Vocab, there are a couple flashcard programs out there that you might like (Supermemo claims to be the best, the others are probably equal for language use), but there (where repetition and not insertion is the point) it can be tedious to enter the words–I’m glad my textbook’s lists were available online.

  2. We are evolved to learn language as children, not as adults. If you want to learn as an adult, you need ot use “unnatural” means, i.e. general learning strategies. Starting with food terms isn’t a good idea, you don’t need to know those characters and they don’t come up in conversation. You should get a textbook and work through it with a tutor. Use flashcards for the characters in each chapter, learn to write each word as both the character and the pinyin and learn the correct tones for each word. Just rote learn a first-year textbook, rote-learn the dialogues and the practice them with a tutor. With that rote learning under your belt, then you can go ahead and learn the language “naturally”. But you need the boost of the rote learning, and you shouldn’t assume you are smarter about language learning than the textbook writers. You aren’t.

    Chinese is exceptionally difficult to learn, that is why you are having problems.

  3. Also, having employed Chinese tutors myself, let me give you advice. The best way to do it is to have them go through a textbook. It gives structure to the whole interaction. The most important parts:
    read the vocabulary items together, having them correct your pronunciation
    do the dialogues together

    Chinese grammar is relatively simple. The difficulty comes in pronunciation and of course characters. Realistically, you don’t need to learn to write characters by hand. You only need to be able to recognize them and correct pinyin so you can generate them via computer. But learning to write might be an aid to learning them. I’d forego the writing, though, unless you ahve a personal interest in that.

  4. Aside from the tools you have mentioned, I would advise listening to songs. It is always fun to translate pop songs. Also, they tend to be more colloquial and idiomatic which is very important in achieving fluency.

  5. If you walk around with a recorder you might end up with something like Beijing Sounds! My experience is that it’s not very efficient for actual learning, though.

    Mostly fine advice from my fellow commenters. My two cents
    1. Practice simple dialogs with a partner
    2. Ignore characters but learn Pinyin

    The dialogs ensure that you are getting spoken Mandarin, which like English (but to an even greater extent) uses quite a different and much more limited vocabulary than written. If the contexts are good enough — i.e. they are from situations that you could reasonably see yourself encountering in your everyday life — you can practically memorize them and the vocab will be useful. Chinesepod and Popup Chinese now have some free materials to start with.

    Ignoring characters is bound to be a wee bit more controversial, but for the vast majority of learners it is going to be a better use of time in the beginning stages. Essentially the tradeoff is to spend many hours learning to recognize characters or to spend many hours acquiring the sounds/grammar/vocabulary. I did this for about five years before buckling down to learn characters, a task that is made infinitely easier since I can already speak the language with some degree of fluency.

  6. I don’t think characters are such a huge barrier to study unless you try to learn to write them. Just recognizing them really isn’t that hard, especially at beginning stages.

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