Jul 122008

I’m moving my posts about Russian movies to a separate blog at . It’s something I had thought about doing anyway, but when Alexander Sedov brought up some interesting comments and questions about them, I decided it was time. Most of my comments about non-Russian movies and language-learning in general will be there, too. But since the movies I watch are mostly Russian ones, that will be the dominant topic.

May 072008

Here are a couple of items that need reticulating.

The first is this article at Wired Magazine about Piotr Wozniak and how to remember things. No, it’s not all in the wrist. Instead, as with stand-up comedy, it’s about timing.

The second is this web site about block scheduling, one of the latest fads that’s ruining our secondary schools. Actually, the fad started some time ago. We had a big battle about it in our own school district several years ago, back when I still had a kid in high school. But the battle is still being waged — the educational establishment vs. actual evidence about how people learn.

One thing the Wired Magazine article didn’t mention was the Pimsleur language courses, which as far as I can tell are based on the very same principles that Wozniak is studying and promoting. It criticizes Rosetta Stone (which I’ve never used) but for some reason doesn’t mention Pimsleur. And I think the Pimsleur method does work, even though for me the switch from tape cassettes to MP3 has been a step backwards in getting the timings right as Pimsleur intended. MP3 players *could* be a huge improvement over cassettes, but… well, that’s a rant for another day.

There is one piece of the Wired article that could be guaranteed to draw jeers from the educational establishment. I’ve been there myself at a board meeting where the superintendent argued against me, repeating all the educational cliches about why learning facts doesn’t matter. So I was glad to see this article take on that particular canard:

The problem of forgetting might not torment us so much if we could only convince ourselves that remembering isn’t important. Perhaps the things we learn — words, dates, formulas, historical and biographical details — don’t really matter. Facts can be looked up. That’s what the Internet is for. When it comes to learning, what really matters is how things fit together. We master the stories, the schemas, the frameworks, the paradigms; we rehearse the lingo; we swim in the episteme.

The disadvantage of this comforting notion is that it’s false. “The people who criticize memorization — how happy would they be to spell out every letter of every word they read?” asks Robert Bjork, chair of UCLA’s psychology department and one of the most eminent memory researchers. After all, Bjork notes, children learn to read whole words through intense practice, and every time we enter a new field we become children again. “You can’t escape memorization,” he says. “There is an initial process of learning the names of things. That’s a stage we all go through. It’s all the more important to go through it rapidly.” The human brain is a marvel of associative processing, but in order to make associations, data must be loaded into memory.

And as for the Block Scheduling controversy, it’s not as though the traditional scheduling of high school classes was designed to get the spacing effect just right. (I hadn’t known about the term “spacing effect” before reading the Wired article, but I knew about it.) But Block Scheduling is a huge step in the wrong direction. When we were doing research on it during our local controversy, we came to find out that language and music teachers were some of the biggest opponents. They know how their subjects get learned, even if they don’t know about it to the degree of mathematical precision described by Wozniak. And that sort of learning also plays a huge role in other subject disciplines. But anti-intellectualism now rules in our schools.

Educators will tell you that education is about a lot more than memorization.   Very true.   It is more than that.  But it shouldn’t be less than that.

Apr 242008

Here are more questions that I wish had been asked of Anton and David Treuer:

  • You guys have both been published. Do you get any flak from people who think the language should be strictly an oral language?
  • Is it really possible for someone who speaks Minnesota Ojibwe from Leech Lake to understand someone in central Michigan who speaks Ojibwe?

One web site led to another while I was looking up some of their work, and I found this item at the Red Lake Net News. I liked number 3 the best.

Top 10 Things To Say To A Non-Indian Upon First Meeting

10. How much white are you?
9. I’m part white myself, you know.
8. I learned all your people’s ways in the Boy Scouts (Order of the Bullet).
7. My great-great-grandmother was a full-blooded European princess.
6. Funny, you don’t look white.
5. Where’s your powdered wig and knickers?
4. Do you live in a covered wagon?
3. What’s the meaning behind the square dance?
2. Oh wow, I really love your hair! Can I touch it?
1. What’s your feeling about river-boat casinos? Do they really help your people, or are they just a short-term fix?

Apr 242008

Tonight my youngest son mailed me a link to this page from NPR, “Letter Men: Brothers Fight for Ojibwe Language.” It was an interesting interview.

I have one of Anton Treuer’s books. It’s the one he read from during the interview: “Living Our Language: Ojibwe Tales & Oral Histories” (2001). It’s a bilingual book, with Ojibwe on one side and the English on the other. When I pulled it down from my bookshelf, I found that the page he had read from was bookmarked with a yellow sticky-note. But I don’t know why the bookmark was where it was. It has been at least a couple of years since I looked at the book. I did recognize a few Ojibwe words as Mr. Treuer read, but not enough to catch any meaning.

I do not yet have his book, “Omaa Akiing,” but one thing I already like about it is the title, because I know what it means just from what I learned on the Pimsleur Ojibwe course. At least I think it means approximately “Here on Earth.” Maybe it has some other, more subtle meaning, too, that I don’t know about.

I wish the interviewer had asked some additional questions, like what does Mr. Treuer think of outsiders learning the language? Do any non-Anishinaabe people take his course at Bemidji State? If so, what do the elders and other speakers think of that.

One reason I would ask is because I used to take part in a Ojibwe discussion group on Yahoo groups. But it seemed that the ratio of non-Anishinaabe to Anishinaabe was pretty high, and it was resented by some of the people on the list. There were those who thought the language should be learned orally, from the elders. I decided to withdraw, rather than contribute to the problem.

I would like to learn more Ojibwe, but right now I’m more interested in learning Russian. If there was anyone to talk to, it might be different.

I might also be interested in reading some of David Treuer’s books. I read very little fiction, but it was fascinating to read some of what I found on his blog, such as this:

Q: You’ve drawn some fairly critical attention for your nonfiction book, Native American Fiction: A User’s Manual. To what extent do you think Native American identity shapes your—or anyone else’s—literary endeavors?

A: Well, charting the exact ratio of “identity” to “influence”—that is, the degree to which the author’s identity matters and the degree to which the books we’ve read, the people we know, the schools we’ve attended, the jobs we’ve had, the TV shows we like, the tragedies (communal and individual) we’ve endured, the hearts we’ve broken, the times our own hearts have been bruised matters—seems kind of pointless after a certain point. Obviously one’s personal identity (largely a fiction of our own making “drawn from life”) is hugely important . . . to the person. As for books, as for literary endeavors, well that’s the strange magic of books, isn’t it? They somehow exist inside us and outside us at the same time. They are of us, but they are always “of” other books, too. I think it would be tragic to only or even mostly interpret Hamlet as an expression of “English-ness” or of Shakespeare’s identity as an “English man.” It would rob Hamlet of its magic and wouldn’t help explain in any lasting way why the play is important and moving to many people. The same goes for Beloved. And The Magic Mountain. And A Boy’s Own Story. And The English Patient. But this is exactly what happens more often than not to Native American stories. The result: “red-faced minstrelsy.” Speaking of the book I am working on now: it is as much a mixture of my self, my love, my ambition, my people, my tastes—running from Thomas Mann to Christina Aguilera and back again—and my devotion to my craft as anything I’ve ever written.

Fascinating to find him speaking of just taking the work for what it says. Seems to me that C.S. Lewis had some things to say like that.

Apr 112008

I’ve been wondering for some time what I was going to do when I finished the Pimsleur Russian course. I like using the Pimsleur language courses because they’re something I can do on my bicycle commute to work, or when I drive, or sometimes when I’m working out in the garage.

But Pimsleur can take one only so far. It doesn’t do much in the way of vocabulary building, and doesn’t do much to help one with the written language. I worked my way through the last of the 90 lessons a couple of months ago. I can review them some more, but even when I know them perfectly, it won’t be nearly enough.

I’ve done more than just follow the Pimsleur course — I’ve learned enough of the Cyrillic that I can more or less pronounce words I see, even if I don’t understand them. I’ve studied some of the grammar in Russian for Dummies and the Lonely Planet guide. And I watch a bit of Russian movies almost every day — sometimes with subtitles and sometimes without. I’ve learned a few things that way, but at the rate I’m going it’s not enough.

I thought of getting a Russian New Testament on audio from the Faith Comes by Hearing people. I have their limited-vocabulary French version on audio, a lightly dramatized one that seems to come from West Africa, and I thought it was very well done. I can more or less follow the Gospels when I listen to them while riding. (The Epistles and other parts without dialog are not so easy to follow, so maybe I don’t know as much of that language as I think I do.) But I don’t think there is a Russian equivalent. I could swear that at one time the Faith Comes by Hearing people had a more modern translation in addition to the Holy Synod one, but I don’t see any sign of it now. I’m afraid the Holy Synod version might be a bit much for me at this point, though it might be worth a try just the same.

But a few days ago I finally found what I need: Lingq. I signed up for the free version for now, but during some months when I have enough time, I’ll sign up for the for-pay version, maybe even for the one that gets me some real-time help from a tutor.

Lingq is orieinted towards learning words. Learning words is not the same as learning grammar and meaning, of course. But I think it will be just fine for me, having just learned some of the grammar and structure from Pimsleur. I do NOT think it would be a good way to start learning a language, and there may be a point when it’s no longer the best way for me to continue, but it seems just right for this point in my learning. I get to select dialogs to read and listen to. I mark the words I don’t understand, and they go into a flash-card system by which I can learn them. I’ll put some of the dialogs on my MP3 player so I can listen to them over and over while I’m riding.

We’ll see, anyway, if this helps me make some real progress.

Jul 042007

Paul Greenberg writes:

I’m all for the wonderful mosaic of cultures in this country – social, religious, linguistic, culinary and every other kind in this country of countries. Each contributes something to the way we all see things, think about things. We learn from each other. But here there is room for only one, indivisible, unhyphenated civic culture. A civic and civil culture that gives us a common tongue to argue in, and common ground to stand on.

Note that having English as the one official language of this country, the language used for government work, would be quite compatible with our being more of a multi-lingual society. It would be quite compatible with kids learning more languages in school, and perhaps ought to be accompanied by such if it were ever to be made official policy. It’s no threat to our having a multitude of cultures and languages — unless all aspects of our cultures and private lives become government business. If that’s the case, then government is too big.

This was in Paul Greenberg’s recent article on immigration reform : Me, Ma, and Ben Franklin. So was Greenberg for the recent immigration bill or against it? He explains in the introductory paragraph to the article in which the above quote appeared.

I didn’t much like the immigration bill that just stalled in the U.S. Senate. In fact, I disliked it. Intensely. And I was for it. You can imagine how the folks who were against it felt about the bill.