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.

Anonymous March 23, 2005 at 8:10 am

On the other hand, I can still remember the Marsaud family from the Longman Audio-Visual French course I was taught wayyyy back in 1977.
I can't for the life of me remember a single word of French, but I remember the characters.
BTW, not all courses take the “family soap” approach. Certainly, the two separate sets of books I've used for German tend to concentrate on situations, and also expose the pupil to a wider section of German culture. For example, we had chapters on Berthold Brecht, on the Weimar Republic, Falco (!) and Herbert Gronemeyer (better known in the UK as the ginger bloke in 'Das Boot', but in Germany a very big pop star).

Anonymous March 23, 2005 at 8:22 am

Falco – didn't he die in a car accident years back?
Thing is, the fact that you remember the family but not the French is a case in point, really. Whether or not courses take the family soap approach, or whether they concentrate on famous people, you are still more likely to remember stuff that is relevent to you. We are just like that, as human beings. We like stuff that's relevant to us, we like to be the centre of our own worlds, and if we tap into that, we make language learning more interesting and easier.

Anonymous March 23, 2005 at 12:35 pm

Lloyd says:
Couldn't agree with you more Suw, I was talking to my mate Rufus about this the other day – we used to sit next to each other in 'O' level German. We were taught by Brian Dear – who grabbed our youthful attention with the surreal and the absurd and wrote his own stories to teach us basic Deutsch with the bonkers adventures of Kroko das Krokodil, the pet of die Familie Bumm (Bauer Bumm, Baeuerin Bumm, Otto und …goddamn I can't remember the Otto's schwester's name). I went on to 'A' level where I lost the will to live with endless lists of ridiculously arcane vocab and the need to read Kafka, Goethe and some picaresque 18th century nonsense all in the original and struggling both with not being able to understand wtf was going on withouth enormous effort (beer and sex was much easier) but also not having any ability for literary criticism at the age of 17 – I just didn't get it and I don't know how other people did – with hindsight I can see that I just didn't have any context to put it in – I'm still baffled at how people expect teenagers to say anything sensible about literature, let alone literature in a foreign language.
Phew! Anyhow, the moral of all of this is that despite having “studied” German and Latin for 5 years and French for about 10 and holding “Advanced Level GCEs” (albeit crap grades – I'm so hard) I can only just about make myself understood in France, am terrified of opening my gob in Germany (unless I have to purchase a regenschirm or some Habanazigarren) and last time I made a trip to Ancient Rome I ended up fighting for my life in the Collisseum armed only with a bucket of stuffed dormice (err… that may have been a dream)

Anonymous March 23, 2005 at 1:34 pm

LOL. Those stuffed dormice are a bugger, aren't they?
Slightly nuts language teachers are often so much more effective than the boring farts droning on about Kafka. I mean, I can't get my head round Kafka in English, let alone German. There is a definite place for reading books in language learning, but not stuff like Kafka. Sheesh.
But yes, I still fondlly remember Mr Briggs asking us if the word 'knackered' had the same connotations as it had when he was a youngster, a question which resulted in flustered reactions from all sides. But it was that sort of discussion that meant turning up to Latin classes was a highlight, rather than a chore.
In case you're wondering, I got a B at O Level, on the second attempt, after getting an unfair D first time round. I personally blame my crappy memory – nominative, ablative, *head a splode*

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