Beginner’s Luck

I used to think that learning a new language was a matter of finding a good course book presented in three volumes: beginner, intermediate, and advanced. Once you’ve mastered the material in these three volumes, you were fluent in the language. Of course, experience has once again taught me humility.

Don’t misunderstand. I’ve found some superb books, usually in two volumes that certainly lay the foundation for becoming fluent in a new language. However, after working so hard to establish that foundation I still found myself unable to understand the native spoken language. Naturally, I had to ask myself: “What did I miss?”

Well, I made the same mistake I made when, as an aspiring musician I assumed that once you learned to play the piano, you were a pianist, period. A gunslinger in the old west would never make it to his final ride off into the sunset with that attitude. If he, or she, did not practice his skills every day, and I mean every single day, it wouldn’t be long before someone younger and faster made him regret his sloth. Of course, unless it’s possible to actually die from embarrassment, the pianist and the language learner would probably be spared such a fate. The lesson here is that you never acquire a skill, “period.” You acquire a skill, “comma,” and then you practice.

Now I know that the gunslinger, the pianist, and the language learner all have to practice all the time in order or their skills to prove useful. The two questions for gunslinger, the pianist, and the language learner are, “What do I practice?” and “How do I practice it?” I can imagine what the gunslinger has to practice, and I know what the pianist has to practice. But I’m not writing this article to send you back to the OK Corral or to off to Carnegie Hall. I want to share one of my most entertaining and effective language learning techniques with you. I call it, “Beginner’s Luck.”

Most beginner language books cover pretty much the same grammatical material. Where they tend to differ is in the vocabulary. While the topics covered in these volumes will not vary wildly, they will be different enough to offer an extensive, useful daily vocabulary if you work through enough of them. I find it both effective and fun to work through several beginner books in one language over and over again. “Over and over again” is just a way of saying, “practice.”

Practicing through multiple beginner books in one language, even before moving on the intermediate level, has some surprising effects. In addition to developing an impressive vocabulary of high frequency words, the grammar of the language becomes etched in the brain in a way that is far more permanent and practical than memorizing rules. Also, the work in each book supports and simplifies the work in all the other books. This makes the process of acquiring the language easier and a lot more fun. Finally, but far from least, practicing regularly through at least three beginner books leads not only leads to fluency, it gives you an easy way to maintain it, period.

by John DePonte

Chopping Ice

It’s winter in New York and the freezer is on the fritz. We’re chopping ice inside, and we’re chopping ice outside. It’s painstaking work, but it’s necessary. If we don’t chop the ice in the freezer, we lose all the food that’s buried underneath it. If we don’t chop the ice outside, we can’t use the car, we’ll get fined for leaving the ice on our sidewalk and stairs, or worse, someone might slip and get hurt.

As I’m working through my book of Japanese idioms, I’m noticing the similarities between working through unfamiliar language and chopping ice. You don’t always feel like you’re making progress, but you know you have to carry on. You may have to make several passes through the task before you reach your goal. Once you do reach your goal, there’s always maintenance, or “salting the sidewalk.”

What’s at once fascinating and difficult about my book of Japanese idioms is its sample sentences. Sure the explanations of the idioms are interesting. Most of them are from long ago in Japan and China, and the stories behind them can be charming or mortifying. But what interests me is the employment of these idioms in sentences that use the colloquial language of the Japan of today.

While most language books teach the “text book” language that you would learn in the classroom, good books that offer ample coverage of the idiomatic language of daily life are far and few between. No, I’m not talking about those ugly little volumes that purport to teach you the language that “you never learned in the classroom,” in other words, profanity. I’m talking about comprehensive coverage of the non-standard way that native speakers of any language combine their words, phrases, and ideas. This natural linguistic process is essential to the understanding and use of any language.

All speakers shorten their native language in ways that would be incomprehensible to a learner of that language who had only studied the “standard” language. Finding good books that teach this natural way of speaking can be challenging, but they do exist. Once you find one, start chopping ice. I like to work through the entire book, making sure I understand all that I can during the first pass. Will I understand everything the first time through? Probably not. It doesn’t matter; I know I’m going to be working through this book many times, so I just keep going.

The second time through the book, I choose those phrases that I think will be most useful and I practice them for fluency. The other phrases I just work through again as I did the first time. Then I repeat this process, adding new phrases to the fluency practice process each subsequent time through the book. If I find a phrase that doesn’t seem to be useful, I ignore it. You don’t have to do something just because the author included it in her book. Finally, I salt the sidewalk by reading through the book either until I don’t need to any more, or for the rest of my life.

by John DePonte

Death, Taxes, and Student Loan Payments

There are only two things that are certain in this life: debt and taxes. I’m sorry: death and taxes. And if you are a student, you will most likely be looking at a lifetime of student loan payments. You will pay taxes. If you need a student loan to go to college, you will pay it back. And you will probably die before your loan is paid off: tough break for the federal student loan program.

So what if you must pay back your student loan? You used the money, now you should pay it back. Fair enough. However, situations change. The American economy reflects this truth. The European economy suffers from this truth. The Asian economy experiences this truth. All the individuals who live and work in all the economies in the world are bound by this truth. The American bankruptcy laws exist because of this truth.

An American who experiences overwhelming economic hardship can get a fresh start by filing for bankruptcy. Of course, this means that the person will have to change some habits moving forward, but this is a good thing. You really can live without credit cards. Trust me. The debt can be restructured to make repayment possible or, under extreme circumstances, the debt can be dismissed. Not so with student loans. You will pay your student loan back, in full, or die trying. Period.

There was a time when this was not the case. As a result, students took advantage and abused the system by not repaying their student loans at all. The federal government over-reacted and now we all suffer. How is it that we all suffer, and not just the students? We hear a lot of lip service from every level of government about how education is essential for a stable, productive society. Our students are our future. We hear this as we watch our public schools churn out graduates who are not prepared for college level work. We hear it as most college freshmen must take remedial courses in English and math in order to have even a shot at understanding college coursework. We hear it as college tuitions exceed all reason.

So, the average college student must borrow an enormous sum of money that will be paid back come hell or global depression. Affordable education can now only be found online, but not through college or university online courses. These too are exorbitant. As far as our government is concerned, online college courses are just another income stream for their student loan programs.

If our government really believes that education is the key to the stability and productivity of our society (a big “if” by the way), there is only one course it can take: The federal government must make education affordable for everyone. If shackling our college students with a debt that most of them will spend their entire lives trying (and failing) to pay off is serving anyone, it is not the students. Nor is it our society. Indiscriminately lending money to students without giving any consideration to whether or not they will be able to pay it back is not responsible.

When our banks misbehave, our federal government bails them out with our tax money. When big businesses misbehave, our federal government bails them out with our tax money. And the federal government never refers to these institutions as “our future.” When college graduates find themselves in a position that makes it impossible for them to repay their student loans, they’re on their own.

Forcing students to pay back what they will never have is not reasonable. Our college graduates don’t even have to misbehave in order to find themselves in this position. Things change. Economies change. Family situations change. Students’ lives change. Student loan laws have only changed once in this lifetime, of course to serve the lenders, not the borrowers, nor our society. In this case, the borrowers are our future, where three things are certain: death, taxes, and student loan payments.

by John DePonte

Data-Driven Instruction

As I peruse the positions offered by the New York State and New Jersey Departments of Education, I see in almost every ad one of the reasons I resigned from public education: data-driven instruction. What was the first thing your professor said to your class of aspiring power brokers in Statistics 101: “There are lies, there are damn lies, and then there are statistics.”

Instruction is always driven by two things and two things only: the students’ needs and the students’ capacities. That’s it. We can all go home now. But let’s look at what data-driven instruction could possibly mean. Ostensibly, it means that educators and administrators can use student performance, i.e. grades, as the criterion for what should be taught in the classroom and how it should be taught. This seems reasonable. The operative word here is “seems.”

The quintessential example of why this does not work is the vaunted Common Core Standards Initiative. The students were underperforming. So naturally, it only made sense to require only higher order thinking tasks (i.e. no memorization of times tables or learning how to spell, etc.), increase the workload, and make the exams more difficult (only testing higher order thinking skills). Now our streets are teeming with geniuses. Not quite.

The Common Core is doomed to failure because, as is always the case with everything our educational leaders do, it ignores the students. If a student doesn’t understand a math problem, you break it down into digestible components and explain it in terms that the student can understand. You don’t give him/her ten more problems that are even more difficult, assign more homework, and administer exams that he/she has no chance of understanding, let alone passing. The situation requires less work and more time, not more work and less time. I understand this. I know that you understand it. How can it be that educators, administrators, and politicians always get this wrong? They would almost have to be trying to fail.

An even easier example of the disingenuous intentions behind data-driven instruction is the graduation rate. The powers that be love to cite rising graduation rates as an indication that we have turned some kind of educational corner. What these rates actually measure is the plummeting standards for graduation. Our students simply do not have to know or do anything anymore.

So why are our educational leaders insisting on data-driven instruction? The answer is obvious. Producing numbers is a much easier way to justify a salary than producing an educated student. After all, someone had to be doing something in order to produce all those pages upon pages of data. Let’s not kid ourselves. There are no more teachers in our public schools. They have all been coerced into becoming data entry technicians for their administrators. And our students…

by John DePonte