Tuesday, March 22, 2005

KIRS: Keep It Relevant, Stupid

by Suw on March 22, 2005

Back in school, French lessons were based on what might possibly have been one of the most tedious language courses known to man. I remember that it followed the plights of a French boy called Xavier and his family. I also remember wondering why I was supposed to give a toss about him as he was a boring, annoying little shit with all the personality of a brick.
Latin was slightly better, because at least there was a bit of mystique around the Roman Caecilius and his exploits in the Forum. Maybe it was down to the intonation in the voice of Mr Briggs, my erstwhile Latin teacher, but there always seemed to be a hint of some dirty little secret in the goings on at Caecilius' house. I never knew quite what the puella was up to in the culina, but I had a feeling it was something that innocent country girls should probably read up on.
Almost all of the course books I've seen since – and trust me, I've seen a lot – concentrate on a cast of characters in order to try to fake some sort of everyday life, to put what you're learning into the context. They all fail, because it's clear to anyone with half a brain cell that these scenarios are about as contrived as it is possible to be. Any American man who starts chatting up a Japanese woman, uninvited, at an airport these days more is likely to find himself clapped in irons and shipped off to an uncertain fate than talking about whether or not he can speak Japanese.
Maybe I'm just being cynical. But what I do know is that you absolutely have to bring your new language into your life, to give it context, to make it relevant. Relevance is essential. Do you really care whether or not the monkey is in the tree, under the table, or in the oven with an apple in its mouth, roasting slowly at Gas Mark 6 in a pan of olive oil with a rosemary garnish?
No. You care about being able to ask your friend if she wants a cup of tea, or finding out how to get back to your hotel, or telling someone that you can't understand a word they are saying and could they point to the phrase in the phrase book please. Even more importantly, you care about which phrases will be most effective in getting you into your dearly beloved's pants. (Pity me – I'm having to learn American for that.)
When I started writing the Get Fluent worksheets, everything revolved around the concept of giving people exercises to do which they could make relevant to their own life. Learning Xavier's sister's name is pointless. Learning that your own sister is your 'chwaer' and your brother is your 'brawd' is far more likely to stick.
Over the coming weeks, I am going to repurpose as many of the Get Fluent exercises as I can for you to take away and do on your own. In the worksheets as they originally were written, I set everything up, ensuring you had the vocabulary you needed, the grammar, all that stuff, but as I have no idea which language you're trying to learn, I'm afraid you're going to have to do all that work on your own. Don't fret – it'll be good for you.
One word of caution about digging up new vocabulary from your dictionary – make sure that the vocab you learn actually means what you think it means. If possible, find a fluent speaker, maybe a friend or someone on a mailing list, who can double check any words that you're unsure of. I have many times been told 'oh, yes, but that's a dictionary word. No one really says that.' So be careful. No point memorising a word that's archaic or doesn't mean what you think it means.
Keep your eyes peeled for Exercise 1 – it'll be coming your way shortly.

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