Tuesday, January 31, 2006

How to Learn Chinese

By way of taking my own advice about the value of learning languages, after last Thanksgiving I started studying Mandarin Chinese using Pimsleur Comprehensive Mandarin, Level I, which is an absolutely outstanding tool for anyone who wants to learn to speak a foreign language. You learn a new language the same way you learned your first language: by listening and responding to what you hear. The Pimsleur method paces the instruction to a very manageable rate, introduces new material, and reviews what you've learned seamlessly. It's really quite astonishing. In just a couple of months I was able to carry on simple conversation and I'm confident that my pronunciation and accent are very good for a western barbarian. The set is a little pricey, but for sheer effectiveness and ease of use it's worth every penny.

The trick with these kinds of "audio only" programs (Pimsleur is by far the best in my very well-informed opinion) is that you have to make sure you expose yourself to the language frequently; every day if you can manage it. You'll also do much better if you disallow any chance of interruption. Take the phone off the hook. Turn off the pager. Close the door and lock it. Disconnect the damn doorbell if you have to.

Another thing to remember is that this method demands that you respond out loud to the lessons. It's far more effective if you respond in a normal speaking voice. So if you feel self-conscious about babbling snippets of a strange language to no one in particular, you might want to do this where you'll have some privacy.

As of this writing, I'm about a week or ten days away from finishing Level 1, which consists of 30 lessons. I've obtained Level 2 (there are three all together for Mandarin), and if Level 1 is any indication, in another two months or so I will know enough to get around and expand my knowledge of Mandarin on my own to encompass my personal interests.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Our Language Barrier

Every once in awhile we start hearing--again--about how poorly American kids are doing in school, how they lag behind just about every other industrialized country in pretty much everything (or so it seems). I submit that one way to alleviate this problem is to offer or require more foreign language study. American balk at this idea because not needing to speak another language is almost a point of pride with some American. Let me clue you in: it's nothing to be proud of.

Data collected by the Admission Testing Program of the College Board show a definite positive correlation between Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) scores and the study of foreign languages. For example, in one test group students who had taken no foreign language in high school achieved a mean score of 366 on the verbal portion of the SAT, and 409 on the math portion. Students who had taken only one year of a foreign language had slightly higher scores (378 and 416), whereas students with two years of foreign language showed more dramatic increases (417 and 463). Each additional year of language study brought a further rise in scores, with students who had studied a language for five years or more achieving an average of 504 on the verbal and 535 on the math portion of the exam. Please take note that even math scores seemed to benefit from taking a foreign language.

Learning a foreign language is easier than you think, if you use sound learning methods. Besides helping our kids do better, at almost any age the study of languages opens doors; literal ones, figurative ones. Just getting a new window on the world such as a language offers makes it worth the very reasonable amount of effort. You learned one language. You can learn another. Or several.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

The Guerrilla Scholar's Manifesto

The pursuit of knowledge and discovery is one of the most characteristic of all essential human activities. It is far too important and way too much fun to be left to academics and professional scientists.

One of the greatest things anyone can do for humanity is to add to the common store of ideas. Many "ordinary" people do this outside the usual venues of learning. They piece together local histories, explore nature in home-built laboratories, participate in artistic and cultural events, or track planet-killer asteroids through backyard telescopes. I call these people Guerrilla Scholars.

Guerrilla Scholarship is my name for a philosophy, a frame of mind that is compelled to seek out new ideas through science, scholarship, or art, and use those ideas to make the world better. I am especially interested in those who do so outside of the college campus or corporate laboratory.

The purpose of this blog is to support and promote a community of independent scholars, amateur scientists, artists, etc. from widely varying fields. The Internet makes it possible for the narrowest specialists to exchange ideas with the generalist, the amateur with the professional. I hope to use it for a complementary purpose: to bring widely disparate bodies of knowledge together and promote the cross-pollenization of ideas.

Guerrilla Scholars use unconventional means to pursue the life of the mind. By the same token, they use intellectual tools to accomplish unusual or unconventional objectives. But Guerrilla Scholarship is more than invention in the face of necessity. It is a manifestation of our most basic freedoms: to speak, to think, to associate, to exchange ideas. It informs the essence of our Great Experiment in democracy; that the ordinary citizenry can be trusted with the great ideas that guide our political course. It acknowledges that ordinary people are capable of extraordinary ingenuity, the likes of which regularly incites revolutions in science, art, literature, social reform, and many other fields.

In today’s world the need for dedicated, feisty, dogged citizen scholars and scientists is keener than ever. We now live in a world where legitimate scientists finds themselves lumped together with nutjobs, where careful research is dismissed as inconvenient, and where politics trump facts in deciding what informs everything from our school curricula to national and foreign policy.

The act of learning is a pleasure that does not fade with age. It is the ultimate rebellion, the grandest subversion. It is enrichment that no creditor or recession can take away, and it is one thing that no sane individual can ever, ever come to regret.

I look forward to getting to know you, my fellow Guerrilla Scholars, wherever you are.