Thoughts on Language Learning (Part 3 of ?); Language Classes Update #3

*takes a deep breath* Okay. Here comes a stream of consciousness dump, but I will try to keep it semi-organized and emphasize the main points as I go or else summarize some things at the end.

The stream of consciousness starts with an idea that I’ve been turning over in my head for some time now: holding “office hours” once every week or every other week. Students would have the opportunity to ask questions that they’ve had, or get additional speaking/listening practice. To take this one step further, I could turn these into sessions of interesting lectures (e.g. the lecture on pronouns, which is more FYI and not strictly immediately practically useful). This last approach, however, has the downside of making office hours semi-required in a highly-recommended sort of way.

One student offered the response that I can always be asked random questions over zephyr, and additionally that it would be nice to have more conversation practice during class or after class, if class time might be better spent purely as a information delivery period. The thing is, I’m not really sure that practicing the conversations that we currently go over in class would be all that useful (except in terms of pronunciation, which can, of course, only be improved by practice), and I would much rather have time dedicated to free conversation so that people can talk about whatever their heart desires. (I am, however, still interested in hearing people’s opinions on how useful practicing the provided conversations is for getting material into your heads, or whatever other use y’all might find them useful for.) The problem with free conversation time, though, is that people either don’t or don’t think that they have enough vocabulary/grammar to pull such free conversation off for any length of conversation greater than two or three back-and-forth exchanges.

A response that was offered to this problem was to post a giant vocabulary list that people could study on their own time. Which brings me to my main point, I think….

The exact origin of these language classes has not been widely known until now: during this past IAP, I was talking about my language classes (”Learn Asian!” and “Introduction to Japanese”) with someone in the SIPB office, and she expressed an interest in learning one or more Asian languages, but couldn’t make it to my IAP sessions. Also, there was the point that my IAP sessions were meant to be a primer for learning on your own, and you weren’t expected to come out of them being able to say much, but rather you should’ve come out of them with pages upon pages of grammar notes that would hopefully bring grammar patterns to your attention that your textbook might have otherwise not explicitly mentioned or explained. So my response was that I would be delighted to teach a group of some minimum size (a group too small would feel like not enough results to show for time invested), provided that the group did not expect me to be super-organized about it (i.e. that I could ramble to my heart’s content in a semi-organized/coherent manner about interesting and useful grammar points). The idea was that we would all have an understanding that the class was meant to be low time-commitment and more for everyone’s enjoyment than necessarily really serious, where the teacher (mostly me) would be expected to have solid lessons prepared and the students were expected to have done the preparation and/or homework asked of them.

Well, the classes have evolved since then. And now we’re on the cusp of a decision, because I can’t realistically keep the classes up in their current state. In the spring, I mostly rambled about grammar topics, people took notes and asked questions, and while a low percentage of the material stuck, I think we had fun. This term, I’ve been trying a more steady approach, where I prepare some lesson plans and we slow down a lot in order to give people time to absorb vocabulary and be exposed to actual sentences/conversation during class time. As a result, I’ve had less time to information-dump about things like pronouns, which are not really explicitly discussed in the JSL curriculum, which is what I’ve been taking material from. It feels very slow to me, and yet I still feel as though I am pushing the limits on the expectation level of the students, because I, personally, have been spending more time on the classes, and it does kind of suck to not feel okay asking more of the students.

So my question is really this: how serious are all of you (my students) about the language classes? Would you guys be interested in having any or all of the following:

  • mandatory attendance or a requirement to make it up by scheduling an appointment with me during the following week (people missing classes has caused us to do a little repeating/backtracking when it comes to information-dumping);
  • more class time;
  • more-or-less-required free conversation time before/after class or at some other time during the week, possibly on a rotating schedule so that everyone can make it at least once every other week;
  • office hours, which would be different from semi-required free conversation time in that attendance would not be more/less mandatory;
  • more homework that you are actually expected to complete (mostly vocabulary memorization);
  • in-class vocabulary quizzes;
  • (other ideas?)

Reminder: these are not rhetorical questions that I’ve posed here. I really would appreciate any and all feedback (the main parts of the most important questions that would like responses are bolded).

More thoughts (added 7/22/2010, ~1400h): Basically, the question this all boils down to is this: how serious are you guys about learning this (there) language(s), and how much time are you willing to put in as a consequence of that? We’ve run into what I call “the time problem”: in the end, learning a language requires time, whether on your own or in-class. With the spring term curriculum, you got a lot of information but had to spend copious amounts of time at home studying things that we didn’t explicitly cover in class (such as vocabulary) if you wanted to develop useful speaking skills; if you don’t want to do independent work/studying, you have to commit to more class time; under this current curriculum, we’re spending more time in class per topic than we did in the spring but at-home studying is still highly recommended, if not essentially required. All of these possibilities, of course, assume that you guys are actually interested in acquiring some amount of conversational skill; if you are not interested in such, I am totally willing to back off in terms of seriousness and return to babbling about grammar. On the other hand, if you are interested in actually getting usable conversation skill out of this, I am totally willing and excited to help make that happen. We just need to all be on the same page about what our expectations of this endeavor are.

Book Reviews!

So I’ve actually managed to read two books recently, and am going to review them (gee, really? I’d never have guessed from the title of this post), especially because I feel, at least a little bit, as though I’d not have actually been able to finish the books if our gracious Skinner hadn’t allowed me to check them out from the library.

First off, Next by Michael Crichton:

If you’ve ever seen “Crash” or “Love Actually,” “Next” follows a similar structure of interleaving story lines every which way, although with slightly more focus on a convergence of a few of the stories, towards the end. The stories are fictional, but they are nonetheless grounded in varying levels of fact; each story centers around some issue of the current state of some aspect of biology research. One story draws attention to illicit organ-harvesting. Another brings chimerism to the reader’s attention. (Here, I would link to the wikipedia article about chimerism, but frankly, it sucks.) Multiple stories revolve around DNA testing and gene patenting, which was most recently in the news when the patent on BRCA1 and BRCA2 was overturned. Gerard, a talking African grey (parrot), raises the animal research issues, as does the story of a transgenic ape, and the idea of manufacturing transgenic animals for use in advertising or as pets, which was also recently in the news (check out the gallery). And perhaps one of the most frightening storylines tells of a mother and her son who are pursued by a bounty hunter intent on forcibly harvesting cells from their bodies because her father’s cells produce cytokines that seem to fight cancer; because his cells were bought (arguably illicitly) by a company, they then argue that they have a right to repossess those cells wherever they may occur, including in the source’s descendants.

Personally, I enjoyed the book, despite its abrupt jumps from one plotline to another, because it explores so many of the controversies that surround the field of biotechnology in this day and age. Some of the imagined possibilities seem quite ludicrous, but when you look at the news, it is disturbing to realize the extent to which some of the possible situations delineated in the novel are actually taking place around us. While is it true that the stories center around biology and people interested in such may be more interested in this book, I think that it has value both as a thriller and as a mechanism for bringing many current bioethics issues to the public’s attention.

And now, Feed, by Mira Grant — hmm, I just noticed that both of the books have monosyllabic titles…anyway! — the review:

This book was amazing. Totally full of awesome, is what I’d say. When I finished the book, I was in denial that the book was over, so I kept reading into the question-and-answer section, where Grant answers some questions about the novel and its sequel (to which my reaction was “OMG there’s a sequel squee!”) and the excerpt from the sequel. Arguably, this was a mistake, because it’s gotten me way too excited for the sequel because I thought this book was phenomenal. (Sadly, Deadline, the sequel, is currently slated for a May 2011 release date.)

Anyway, at this point you’re probably thinking to yourself, “okay, so you claim that it’s ‘totally full of awesome,’ but where’s the evidence? What’s this book actually about?” Well, it centers around three bloggers in the post-apocalyptic world, circa twenty-five years after the emergence of a virus that takes over dead or otherwise vulnerable bodies and causes them to mindlessly aid in its propagation. Bloggers have gained attention in this world because they were the first ones to report on the zombie outbreaks when everyone else was still in denial about the existence of the virus.

The relationships between the characters and the mystery in the story are only the topmost layer of what makes this book as great as it is. I found similarities to Joss Whedon, superficially, in the naming of one of the main characters after Buffy of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” but more deeply, in the juxtapositions of heaping helpings of humor in the face of serious situations and the very serious and evocative descriptions of the stark reality of the world that make it all too easy to conjure up images of the destruction and death that have become familiar to our main characters. It is, in my opinion, an original idea well-executed.

Please let me know what you think of the reviews; I plan to submit them for posting on the MITSFS website in the near future.

Language Groups Update #2

I’m going to be lame this week and kind of cop-out of a “more hardcore” post because I’ve been busy dealing with the weather, work, and language groups, which I’ve been investing a lot of time in over the last week and a half or so because of the new website. The new website, which is located in my www, currently features transcripts of the conversations that we’ve practiced in class, to varying degrees of annotation as I have deemed reasonable, audio files corresponding to those conversations, and vocabulary (although I have been slow about getting the Chinese vocabulary list up on the website). I’m planning to add links to youtube videos of the songs that I’ve translated in this blog and link back to my translations, for additional listening exposure. So here’s my new question for y’all: what else do you think you would find useful? Would it be useful for me to link youtube videos and accurate but not word-for-word translations that other people have done?

F.I.R. – “Fly Away” Annotation

It has been brought to my attention that while I’ve done translations of Chinese things, I haven’t done detailed translations, which might be useful for the Chinese learners. Thus, I shall endeavor to translate each word of the stuff that I have translated in the past, annotating the hanzi where relevant. I’ve decided not to do a word-for-word translation of Ten Impossible Questions because the grammar of those gets kind of atrocious at times, and y’all shouldn’t be learning off those. So, we’re starting with the next-oldest one: my translation of “Fly Away” by F.I.R. As in the original post, implied pronouns (to the best of my understanding/interpretation) are bolded.


The slight wind of the clear morning
So commonplace in this way
Looks as though it so simply
Disperses the fog

  • 清 (qīng)- “clear,” composed of the water radical (the three leftmost strokes) to indicate an association with liquid (e.g. “clear liquid”) and the word for “grue“/青/qīng as the phonetic component
  • 晨 (chén) – “morning”/”dawn,” composed of the sun radical (in this case the simplified version of the starry radical 晶/jīng) and the phonetic component 辰/chén (no longer in common usage, but was used with a set of words to distinguish between items in a given set, such as the year of the Dragon (the given set being “years”), 0700-0900h (the given set being “two-hour periods”), the 5th earthly branch (the given set being “earthly branches”), or the third solar month (the given set being “solar months”))
  • 的 (de) – indicates possession of the following noun by the preceding noun; composed of the characters for “sun”/日/rì, altered to “white”/白/bái, and “ladle”/勺/sháo
  • 微 (wēi) – “micro-”/”small,” composed of the following components: “step with the left foot”/彳/chì and a phonetic component (if you really want *coughirrelevantcough* details…)
  • 风 (fēng) – in the traditional, originally written 風, which is composed of the phonetic component “ordinary”/凡/fán and “insect”/虫/chóng (because insects are borne by the wind)
  • 如 (rú) – “as if”/”like”/”as”
  • 此 (cǐ) – “this”/”these”/”in this case” (I am neglecting to provide etymology for this word and the preceding one because I’m not convinced that my usual sources are accurate, and these words are commonplace enough that they’ve changed a lot and no Chinese person knows the etymology either)
  • 的 (de) – (see above: third character in the preceding line)
  • 平 (píng) – “flat”/”level”/”peaceful”
  • 凡 (fán) – “ordinary”/”common”/”any”/”every”
  • 看 (kàn)- “look”, representing a “hand”/手/shǒu shading the “eye”/目/mù
  • 似 (sì) – “resemble”/”similar to”/”seem” (again, old unclear etymology)
  • 简 (jiǎn) – “simple”/”succinct”, composed of the radical “bamboo”/竹/zhú, to represent what was written on in ancient times, and the phonetic component “(space) between”/间/jiān
  • 单 (dān) – “single” (don’t worry about the etymology)
  • 雾 (wù) – “fog”, composed of the radical for “rain”/雨/yǔ and the phonetic component “matter”/”affair”/”business”/务/wù
  • 气 (qì) – “air”/”gas”
  • 驱 (qū) – “expel”/”drive away”/”spur a horse on”, composed of the radical for “horse”/马/mǎ and the phonetic component “area”/”region”/区/qū
  • 散 (sǎn) – “scatter”/”disperse”/”break up” (I…have no idea how to interpret this etymology, therefore: “it’s not important, of course!”

Anyway, hope y’all enjoyed this installment.

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