Thursday, February 23, 2017

Put it in a loop!

I like to pretend that I don't like "meta" stuff, but the truth is, apparently I do. I spend a lot of time (A LOT OF TIME) thinking about the process of things. How to make them better. How to optimize them. What is not working. What should I do differently. In all aspects of my life, honestly, but especially in my study of Czech.

And it's never really satisfying until I pen it on paper (or...smash it into a computer, as it were).

About this same time last week, I was pacing around the kitchen while making grilled cheese sandwiches for my kids with one hand, and holding my phone to my ear with my other. I was talking with my favorite professor and mentor from college, Kirk Belnap. He is a great guy, and his exact area of study right now is foreign language acquisition in adults. Persistent Practice, Targeted Feedback, Small Victories.

I wanted to pick his brain about the targeted feedback. "Okay, so I have this system set up where I have these really awesome, kind, helpful collaborators giving me targeted feedback. WHAT DO I DO WITH IT?" We talked for about half an hour about it. The long and short of it is, "put it in an iterative loop."

He gave me examples of successful Arabic and Hebrew learners who consistently applied the feedback by redoing the task, be it interviewing sexual abuse victims or giving tours of historic sites - and then of course, he reminded me that this is basically the same model for LDS missionaries in a foreign speaking place. They have a concrete goal: bring people to Christ. They spend a lot of time practicing, and repracticing, and repracticing the same conversations, the same material.

I was getting frustrated because my approach was not in enough of a loop. Okay, thinking about it, maybe it actually was some kind of a loop, but the optimizer in me really was getting frustrated about the "management" of it. I had recently redesigned my study to incorporate more rote textbook exercises, but I found myself spending copious amounts of time trying to weave some kind of thematic unity between these varying books...and I was trying to find a way to apply it to my speaking appointments.

Really, the key to my Czech learning is my speaking appointments. I know that I'm an auditory learner. I know that communication is more than just verbal. AND I am totally an extrovert. I love people. Like, I really love people. I love to talk.

And guess what. Speaking appointments with adults who are not language-educators has to be authentic.

I think that it's a good idea for it to be authentic in a professional environment, too. I suppose this is one reason why all of my English classes get booked solid back to back the day that they open (talking about teaching ESL to Chinese kids): I can't stand "teacher talk! and I refuse to do it. It's so annoying. You can speak slowly without speaking down to someone. I was in a webinar this morning for my job about TPR, and I was a little bit surprised to see that the techniques they were talking about were just completely intuitive to me. Hand motions. Acting. Facial expressions. And it was really eye-opening to me to see a real life example of another teacher's classroom. I know that for myself, it is really important to be GENUINE. I can't help but think that condescension is a universal concept, and that it comes across nonverbally.

I'm also reminded of the feeling I constantly had in my ESL classes, as a French Teaching major (who had attained a high proficiency in Arabic). I was often frustrated with my peers because it felt like they should already know some of the concepts that were totally intuitive to me. I think the aforementioned condescension (or the avoidance of it) is one of those things. Honestly, I think that the best training an ESL teacher could possibly have would be to learn another language. The empathy factor is really important. What it's like to be on the other side of the learner-teacher relationship is not something that you can learn from a book. You can only learn this through experience, I think.

None of my cadre of Czech friends has training in "Czech as a Second Language." In fact, this subject has come up before at least twice: this isn't really a concept. It is probably why all the textbooks basically suck. They were written by native speakers of Czech who seem to have no idea what is difficult for an English speaker, and constantly throw too many new words in without warning, and the imperative direction language is really complex, and it's just...well...the way these books help me is as a collective whole, not on their own.

My Czech friends probably didn't study "the cooperative learning model" in school. It's this concept of language education that was drilled into us in our teaching methods classes and especially in our TESOL classes. It's actually funny to imagine it being "drilled" because the entire concept is quite, uh, "soft." I felt like tearing my hair out the first time I was in a class taught this way. We all sat at tables and spent a lot of time (the class was 3 hours long...) talking to each other about what felt like nothing. Chit chat. Really, we were collaborating to learn the curriculum, which was all this teaching meta stuff. I quickly learned that it was not necessary to prepare very much in advance for these classes. I also became extremely grateful for the fact that I was already a teacher. I had been hired to teach Arabic before graduating because they really needed an Arabic teacher, and I was skilled enough, in spite of not having my degree yet. I was able to apply the concepts in real life in my own classroom, which was very, very valuable.

And it also turns out that, in spite of thinking classes in a cooperative learning model were a piece of cake, I remember so much more from them. They actually worked to help me to learn the ideas, far, far better than other more traditional classroom models.

My point is that it really, really matters how you feel about your learning, and how you feel is directly influenced by the relationships you have with your peers/teachers. This is probably less true in some subjects, but it's almost universally true in language learning. Because what is language, if not communication with another person? Communication is necessarily all about relationships.

I have spent the past two months building some great relationships with some kind and willing Czechs. Each of them is different, and our relationship is different. The relationship matters a lot for my learning. It's why I allow myself to spend a little bit more time with the "side talk" in comments with my friend Tomáš, or why sometimes Milan and I don't focus our conversations on anything specifically, but rather we just "shoot the breeze." It's why I always ask, "And what do YOU think about _____?"

The relationship is especially important in an environment where I am not the teacher, and neither are the "teachers." It's actually much more comfortable and fun, that they aren't professional Czech as a Second Language teachers. Although, I will admit, it is really helpful that Tomáš has a very deep knowledge of both Czech and English grammar, and that Petr was originally a math teacher. But the fact is that I was really struggling to find a way to include our speaking time into my iterative loop of language learning - somewhere where I could apply the feedback I received.

After a lot of thought (A LOT OF THOUGHT), I decided to change my plan again. I've been working on this new plan for about a week, and I think it has been a huge success. Of course, language learning is cyclical and it is not likely that I will always feel successful. But last week, I felt so discouraged and depressed, and right now, I feel really optimistic and satisfied - I feel like I am making some headway.

Here is how I decided to put my learning in a loop:

Basically, I have between 1-4 (average 3...4 is really too much) speaking appointments per day.

I have a text that I listen to over and over (and over and over and over and over and over). Right now it is "bylo nás pět" because I have it in Czech AND English, and the English translation is remarkably good at walking that thin line between meaning and form. Usually this is when I'm doing chores or something: when I used to listen to Brandon Sanderson audiobooks, now I listen to Czech audiobooks. Rather, short sections of Czech audiobooks, over and over. Haha.
I read it out loud to myself over and over.
At some point during our speaking appointment, I read it to my friend. They correct me.
I explain what was going on.
We talk about it.
We talk about other things.
We usually do some kind of arbitrary drill that I prepared, but both in Czech AND then flipped in English.
I repeat this process with the next person I skype with. Our skype sessions are never the same, even if some of the conversation is similar. It's's not.
I keep listening to the text.
I record myself reading the text.

This is as cyclical as I can get for reading/speaking/communicative language. It is also the top down approach to learning, the part that I really excel at because I am an auditory, intuitive person.

I am totally not a šprtka (though, I am TOTALLY a nerd, and even more so a dork, to which my sisters will definitely attest without blinking an eye!). But I struggle with bottom up learning. Realistically, this definitely has to be a component of language learning, though. Remember that you do bottom up learning in your native language - what is most of school, after all! - and consider the sheer vastness of the mountain of words (not to mention concepts, phrases, idioms, etc.) that you have yet to learn...

So, my bottom up learning goes something like this:

I have a pile of textbooks about 8 deep. I decide the week before what I want to study/do for homework.
I put the words into Quizlet. It could have been any flashcard app. This was just the one I happened to find, and I like it. It has a nice free version, and to record sound costs like $20/year - totally worth it to me.
I beg my Czech collaborators to add their voices saying the vocab words. It is great to get a variety of male and female voices saying these words.
Oh yeah, by the way, it's a thousand times easier to memorize phrases than words...and this is REALLY IMPORTANT in a language with case! So usually it's not actually vocab words, but vocab phrases.
I listen to the vocab words, usually while I'm running. It actually is perfect for running/working out. It totally puts my mind in some other place where I'm not thinking about how obnoxious and tedious the run is, or how taut/sore my muscles are. And I know this will sound strange, but I actually look forward to running nowadays, BECAUSE it gives me some dedicated time to practice my vocab! I don't really say it out loud because that's a little awkward while running - which would, of course, be much better. But it's still a pretty good system, I think.
I do the homework.
My friends (really, mainly my friend Tomáš) corrects my work.
I try to write out my corrections x10. Or something like that.
Tomáš gives me a test.
I take it, and generally fail...
I should probably do test corrections x10 also.

This is really similar to my přepisy project learning, actually.
We get an interesting old Czech land record.
I start transcribing it verbatim: wysiwyg.
I try to transcribe it into Czech.
Lukáš corrects my Czech, and corrects my wrong transcription.
I plug the Czech into google translate and try to make sense of it. Usually it is like looking through a really foggy glass. This is archaic 18th century Czech we are talking about, after all.
I write my best guesses.
Lukáš corrects my best guesses.
Rarely, there is a word that Lukáš will not know, and after lots of searching online and in reference books at home, I might actually find the answer.
And then I jump for joy. Well, not literally. But I do feel a surge of pride. If we are keeping "score", then it would look something like L: 1,000,000,000 vs K: 10 - so of course I cling very closely to my handful!

In terms of top down learning related to my přepisy goals, Roman linked me to this book called "The Peasants" which I really should read. It was originally in Polish, but that is really close to the land of my ancestors. It is about the reality, customs, behavior, and spiritual culture of the people in my ancestor's part of the world in the 19th century. Imagine how useful this broad cultural knowledge would be when I come face to face with religious boilerplate in Czech land record texts? The point is, very useful.

Most similar books about Czech culture are not in English. It is so frustrating to me. It is the entire reason why I started learning Czech. I started reading Czech literature in translation and quickly realized that there were all kinds of rich cultural things I was missing. There's an author FROM MY ANCESTOR'S HOME TOWN of Trojanovice (and distantly related to me!) whose works I really want to read - but cannot! YET.

Třeba, "Besedy na staré valše" by Bohumír Strnadel, among others.

It turns out that Czech literature is very rich and interesting, and very motivating in and of itself for language learning.

There will always be ways to continue to optimize my learning. I find these optimization problems to be very frustrating sometimes, because they aren't ever "done." But the joy is in the journey, and really, it is a deep and lasting joy to me, in some very surprising ways. Here are the most rewarding things I have learned through this experience, and they aren't necessarily about Czech!

I am healthier.
  • I am happier if I go to sleep earlier, and wake up earlier. I have to wake up earlier to teach. I have to go to sleep earlier if I'm waking up earlier.
  • BUT...I can really only fall asleep earlier if I have worked out. So, now I'm getting up earlier, working out more often, and going to bed earlier.
  • I'm working so that I can earn enough money to return to the Czech Republic sometime this next year.
  • Also, I started working because I wanted to be more on the teacher side of the language learning experience, because learning Czech was really depressing. Because it's SO difficult.
  • My Czech friend Milan is really into working out. That's his hobby - really, it's more of his lifestyle. It was positive peer pressure to always hear him say things like, "Oh yeah, I just got back from krav maga, it was exhausting!" So, I decided to stop being so lazy and start running again.
  • ...and I discovered that I love listening to my flashcards while running. So now I actually look forward to it, which is something I thought would never happen!
  • ...and because I run, I can fall asleep...and because I sleep...I can teach...and because I teach, I can earn enough money to return to the Czech Republic...and because I do that, I can get closer to my dream of really understanding my history and myself.

I am less lonely.
  • I know this will sound extremely stupid, but since the ZOA matriky came online ~2011/2012, I have been researching in them. I have loved it. But I quite often felt very lonely, without even realizing that I felt lonely. Sitting at my computer, scrolling through pages and pages of scribbly text that I could barely decipher is a lonely job already. But this loneliness was exacerbated by the fact that I really had no mentor or guide at first.
  • My fifth cousin Roman contacted me via email and it was literally the first time I even thought, "oh! So...there are Czechs today too...and I can, like, talk to them..." It totally changed my life.
  • I started to blog, but it was still really lonely, even though I started to make some great contacts. Blogging helped me realize, "Oh, you know what, there really are people alive out there who are interested in these same things as me!"
  • Of course, my life totally changed again after going to the Czech Republic for the first time. And then again, after coming home, and developing a really close friendship with my fellow blogger, Lukáš, working on these přepisy. It was so liberating to have permission to share this interest with someone else. I realized that in spite of having many friends, I have also been pretty lonely because I hadn't previously been able to share this interest with someone else.
  • Through working on přepisy, and my friendships with Lukáš and Roman, I realized that I had a huge lack of cultural knowledge. And I finally came to the conclusion that the only way to gain it would be to study it. But guess what. The history of the Czech world is written in Czech. So...I decided to learn Czech. And for the second time I realized, "Oh, you know what, there really are people alive out there who are interested in the same things as me!" For a long time, I had been trying to get other collaborators interested in joining us in our genealogy transcriptions, but nobody really seemed as obsessive/interested/enthusiastic/dedicated. But there are at least 10 million people who speak Czech. And many of them are extremely motivated to practice their English. I'm lucky that I'm a native English speaker, I guess!
  • Because of what I know about language learning, and because of my personality, it has become really important to me to develop my relationship with these Czech collaborators. Basically, each of them has become a new friend, whom I really value and care about. Most of my friends in the real world right now are "friends for a reason" or "friends for a season" - we serve together in church, we have kids the same age, but they totally DO NOT "get" my love of Czech. But the Czechs do. It feels so nice to have deep friendships. 
  • We can also really empathize with each other because of the language barrier. It actually really helps boost each others' confidence, I think, to be "the expert" at least half the time. I really love doing subject-verb flashcards with Milan, Roman, and Petr. I really love reading to Tereza, and listening to her read - and especially talking about what we have read! I love Tomáš's hilarious sense of humor and wit, and I just really, really loved seeing the joy on Petra and Pavlinka's faces when they skyped with an American for the first time, and were in pure awe of that. It is really, really fun.  
  • Ale je to vlastně překvapení?? 

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