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Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Learn foreign languages by having fun reading. Part 2

I once asked Michel Thomas about studying on my own.

He urged me to read in the language I was studying.

"Read what you enjoy and don't look up words in a dictionary. Just keep on reading," he told me.

His advice was built on the fact that when we simply relax into whatever we are doing, we will recall much more than if we set out to recall and remember stuff.

Thus, simply reading becomes a way of taking one's mind out of the " I am doing this to improve my vocabulary" mode.

It is nice in that I find myself using vocabulary and sentence construction that I never sat down to formally learn.

Recently I was speaking French with a lady whom I had just met. She was very upset about some things in her life and found it hard to speak English. So we spoke French.

I had learned French with Michel Thomas in the 1990's but hadn't spoken much since. However, on this day it all just poured out including a lot of vocabulary and sentences that I had never worked on.

I figure it must have come from my reading light material in French over the years. When reading these texts I simply pushed on whether I understood every word or not. Michel told me that if the same word kept coming up and it was really bugging me then I could look it up. Otherwise, don't look it up. Just read and enjoy whatever it is. If it is really interesting then you will unconsciously make pictures and that will reinforce your understanding of the language.

From context the unconscious figures out what the words mean just like a kid learning a language understands that you use this or that word in certain situations.

Today Boris, my Russian teacher, went through a spontaneous riff on how to ask someone to enter a room in Russian.

Say they knock on the door and you want to let them know that they should enter.

The way that is translated as " enter" in the dictionary, he said, is actually almost a military command like proceed. This word is проходите. In my office I have been using this word almost daily with my secretary. She is Russian and we use the language to conduct business. It is one of the reasons I hired her. I now get to speak Russian daily as part of my work. Nice. She never told me that this is not the way that she would ask someone to enter. I am her employer. She understood but wasn't about to give me such personal feedback. So Boris did. He told me that заходите is a less formal, less commanding form. да, да or можно are two very informal ways to indicate that you are OK with the person coming in. This is the fine tuning of language use. It is delightful for me to learn these things. It makes my experience of using the language a lot more satisfying and personal.

This is only something that can be learned in context.

So reading what you enjoy is a wonderful way to begin to learn such things.

( to be continued)

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Saturday, September 10, 2011

Reading Chinese the easy way.

One of the major hurdles for anyone wanting to read real Chinese, Chinese written for Chinese natives, is the simple fact that Chinese has no alphabet. The characters in which it is written can appear overwhelming to the neophyte. This in itself discourages many from plunging into reading as would be the case with a language having an alphabet.

As the author of a course in spoken Chinese ( Michel Thomas Method Speak Mandarin Chinese; three levels) and a former student in the International Chinese Language Program at National Taiwan University, Taipei, Taiwan, I am very familiar with this dilemma. No one studying Chinese is immune from this issue; we all have to either find a way to learn to read and write or, essentially, remain illiterate in Chinese.

Most current Chinese language instruction follows the model for other languages, languages with alphabets. The student learns to speak, read and write more or less side by side.

I don't find this approach helpful.

It wastes valuable time that could be used to just become comfortable with communicating in the language. In addition, the enormous burden it imposes on already burdened students all but assures that many students will just give up.

So my approach, which works well for me and many others I teach, is to just get the student speaking with native Chinese speakers. This gets them really excited and they naturally want to go on. It gives them a lot of motivation that the traditional way of teaching doesn't permit.

But what about reading real texts?

The fact is that Chinese does have systems of phonetic, alphabet based ways of reading.

The Communists introduced what is called pin yin. This uses Latin characters to pronounce Chinese. It was actually developed with Soviet help and was used for teaching Chinese to foreigners and also for communication with the outside world. However, there are no books meant for native Chinese in pin yin.

I have a lot of material in pin yin but it will only take you so far. In my opinion, it should be learned by the student if only to use dictionaries that enable one to look up material using pronunciation.

However, there is another system of writing Chinese using phonetic symbols which is much more useful for the student.

It originated on mainland China and was developed by Chinese for Chinese.

It is called bo po mo fo, after the first four characters in the alphabet. Kind of like saying, ABC's.

The official term is Zhùyīn fúhào ( 注音符號).

Since all children in Taiwan learn to read using this system, there is abundant material available in it. This basically means that if you know the Mandarin pronunciation for a character then you can write it in bo po mo fo without any hesitation.

Even better, you can read a text in Chinese characters annotated with bo po mo fo and you will understand every bit of it assuming you know the meanings of the pronounced words. If you don't, you can easily look up the word in a phonetic dictionary of which there are many. You could even use a pin yin phonetic dictionary which is the type you would find outside of Taiwan.

There is a daily newspaper, Mandarin Daily News, which many school kids in Taiwan read. It is an amazing aid to learning to read in Chinese since it uses the traditional characters and the bo po mo fo side by side.

There are many, many books in Taiwan that use this system.

When I was there I bought over one hundred of them.

I have Sherlock Holmes, Arsene Lupin ( a French detective character), Chinese and Western history and biographies all using this system.

Let's face it, most stuff for students is really boring.

So I love to read these texts because they are what I would enjoy reading in English anyway. Since they are in Chinese and I either know or can look up the words in a dictionary quickly, the language just opens like a flower.

More to follow.


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Thursday, September 8, 2011

Learn foreign languages by having fun reading. ( 1)

One of the many pieces of advice Michel Thomas gave me was to read.

I am the first of five kids. Born in NYC I was alone for many years. Sure I had a brother and three sisters but we were never close friends. To this day, I am only really close to my eldest sister. My parents both worked and I was in school. I would come home to an empty house; my parents got home in the late evening for many years. My brother and sisters hung out with their friends after school. Up until I was in high school I had only one or two friends. Our friendship was built around shared interests. One of my friends was interested in old movies. Another enjoyed writing. This became the basis of our friendship. Other than that I was basically a loner.

My main activity outside of school was reading. I would tell people that my closest friends were my books. Via reading I explored the world and formulated many dreams. This was the basis for my real education.

I loved reading and became a regular at the local public library.

Eventually, I even ended up with a Master Degree in Library Science and worked in the field for many years in public, academic and research libraries.

Any extra money I had was spent on books. I saw books as my teachers, my mentors. For many years I truly believed that any question or problem I faced could be solved by reading.

Over the ten years I studied with Michel Thomas we often discussed books and reading.

Though it is not mentioned in his recorded courses one of the essential parts of his language courses when done in person was learning how to read and build one's vocabulary in the target language by reading.

Since I studied two languages privately with him, I was exposed to this part of his work.

What I shall do is to teach you some of what he taught me in improving your vocabulary via reading.

( To be continued)

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Sunday, September 4, 2011

John Rechy and City of Night.

In the early 1970's I picked up a copy of the book City of Night by John Rechy.

The other day, in a funk, I came across the book again in my library. I wanted something different than Russian verbs of motion to read.

I immediately went to a favorite chapter, The professor: the flight of the angels.

This chapter details the author's encounter with an aging, eccentric, lonely gay man who paid street boys to come and listen to him talk. At the time, the author was a hustler. He sold his body to whomever would pay him. Time Square in the heart of New York City, was his preferred spot for such assignations. This man wanted his attention. And he was very willing to pay for it and something more.

At some point while reading I became diverted and put the book down. When I returned I flipped around in the book and noticed an introduction by John Rechy which I had never read.

In these nine pages written in 1984 in Los Angeles ( for a later printing, I imagine) Mr. Rechy describes how the book came about and how he came to be a writer.

As I read the introduction I realized that I had struck gold. I love first hand accounts by writers on their personal journeys in putting words together.

El Paso, Texas is where it all began. Rechy, the son of a Scottish father and Mexican mother, wrote to escape his less than glamorous life. A local newspaper gave him work as a copyboy and also a scholarship to go to school. He was a voracious reader and over the years educated himself by reading and studying the work of many writers. He writes that after class he would go up into the mountains near El Paso and sit and read until it got dark. Later he went into the army and afterwards he came to NYC to enter Columbia University.

Instead, he ended up on the streets as a male whore. He writes that he found this infinitely more interesting and useful as a writer than being a student at Columbia University.

He would hustle, get a straight job, hustle, get a new job and leave, over and over again. At some point he enrolled in the New School for Social Research, located in New York's Greenwich Village area. I recall the original building which used to be located on the corner of 14th Street and Fifth Avenue. It was a shrine for New York intelligentsia for over 90 years. It was recently torn down. A gaping hole in the ground is all that remains at this time.

At the time, Evergreen Review was a famous avant-garde literary quarterly review which in the sixties published many outre and unknown writers. Many of these went on to become famous. On a lark, Rechy sent a story to them, Mardi Gras. They took some time and then published it. Overnight he began to attract attention.

I read Evergreen Review in the sixties and seventies. The other night I found a copy in my library from 1963. It brought back so many memories of my life in New York City where I grew up and, during the sixties, where I spent most of my free time. I knew many of the writers and figures mentioned in its pages. They were very accessible even for a young, unconnected, introverted boy like myself. All you needed to do was to find them and say, Hi.

That was then.

These people are all gone now.

Don Allen, an editor at Grove Press which published Evergreen Review, became Rechy's connection to the literary world. He loved Rechy's writing when few others did. Allen flew out to Los Angeles from New York to meet with Rechy who was then hustling there, living by his wits and writing on the side.

Rechy tried to shock Allen by taking him to some notorious haunts in the inner city. Don Allen just told him that he wanted to go elsewhere to talk.

Allen earlier had written Rechy that this story could be the basis of a novel and wondered if this was something he was considering.

John Rechy replied that it was the basis of a novel. But this was not the case at all. He did this, he tells us, because he was afraid that if he didn't say this, he would be ignored and the story would never get published.

Based on this lie he became a famous writer.

He notes that this first novel was very difficult for him to write. Every chapter went through at least twelve drafts. Some many more than that. The first chapter ended up as the last and the last became the first. He became obsessed with the book. When the proofs arrived from the publisher he rewrote the entire book again. He was determined to communicate exactly what he wanted to and nothing less. Since the publisher would have to go to considerable expense to make all the changes he offered to pay for all of it out of his advances on the book. Barney Rosset, the publisher at Grove Press, had everything changed without charging him a cent. The book took over four years to complete.

City of night became a big hit. It went through many reprints. And it attracted the ire of the conservative literary establishment. This made it even a greater attraction for readers curious to find out what all the fuss was about. It still sells well today almost 50 years later.

The introduction shows how Don Allen constantly encouraged John Rechy to write. At some point, Rechy had become quite well known and admired as a writer. He never forgot Don Allen and offered him and Grove Press first rights to publish what later became known as City of Night, the novel I return to on a regular basis for inspiration and reminders of what we can all accomplish if we are willing to allow our imaginations to soar and our hearts to honestly speak.

Rechy wrote many other books but this, his first, remains my favorite.

Many people are very turned off by his content. Much of it takes place in the seedy side of urban, gay life. Often it is not pretty. We are exposed to life at the edge. And that can be very revealing in sometimes wonderful ways.

The writing sparkles. It takes real insight and talent to produce such writing. Rechy worked very hard on his prose. If you want to learn about how to put words together to create a compelling story, read City of night.

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