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Saturday, Jan. 24, 2009


The language game — here's what not to do

Life is full of stupid moves.

Like when Stewie Griffin is about to mesmerize the planet with a hypno-ray but suddenly realizes his handheld raygun doesn't have any batteries. What the deuce!

Or like when you chose a V.P. candidate who can see Russia from her backyard, but then maybe can't find South Africa on a map. Talk about a brainstorm to nowhere.

Or like when you feel you're going to solve your language problems by arranging a cost-free trade with a Japanese partner. You teach him English for an hour and then he teaches you Japanese right back for another hour.

Ha! Now that's dumb. You might as well pry some toast from an electric toaster with a fork. Why? Because the odds are you're gonna be dead before it works.

Yet, unlike with Stewie, who is fiction, and Sarah, who was larger than fiction, the language trade scenario happens every day. It is happening now, in fact. Somewhere in some corner of some dim coffee shop in metropolitan Japan, you have a guy and gal who this very minute are engaging in Japanese-English paddy-cake.

And whether they meet once, twice or two hundred times, I can tell you the winner of the deal right now. The coffee shop. In the end, our erstwhile students will imbibe a lot more caffeine than they will language.

Granted, on paper, the deal looks great. What are language lessons anyway? You pay through the nose to have some Bozo guide your practice, the way a real clown might lead circus dogs.

Can't you do just as well by pairing up with a partner? Where you can talk about real topics, not the silly platter of patterns they pass around in class?

And at a time that fits your busy life? With the location being any of a zillion and one convenient coffee shops?

Then there is that one further language school annoyance — money. But in the coffee shop, the trade is even-steven, fifty-fifty, tit-for-tat. Nothing to lose whatsoever.

Enter Witness #1:

"Uh, so . . . I sat there and started using my Japanese. I identified that I had a cup. That I had a spoon. That I had a plate. That I had two hands. And so on. Somehow I made it through 10 minutes. Then it was her turn. She told me she liked music. And movies. And cats. And . . . music. Then she was done. Then we leaned back and stared at each other.

"The funny thing is we met three times before we quit."

While lessons between raw beginners are rough, the boat rocks even harder when one learner is more advanced. For that speaker soon dominates.

Witness #2:

"I told him about my family in Ohio — my parents, my brother, and so on. When it was his turn, he talked about whether I had ever noticed Oedipal tendencies between my mother and brother and, if so, whether I felt clinical psychology might provide a reasonable therapy for such inclinations or if my brother should just give up and, like Oedipus, gouge out his eyes in advance.

"Once I figured out what he was saying, I taught him a few four letter words."

Uneven levels come on top of another problem. Teaching isn't as easy as it looks. Often at least one partner comes unprepared.

Witness #3:

"For my part, I would bring photocopies of English newspaper articles, which we would read through together, going over vocabulary and the meaning and so on. For his part, he would mostly make up spur-of-the-moment questions about my workweek. All the while his eyes were locked straight on my bosom."

Talk about tit-for-tat. Yet, it is not a coincidence that most coffee clutch language arrangements are boy-girl. While the lesson may be passive voice, the subtext is often much more active. And that can interfere with learning, as some partners get more involved in making eyes than making sentences.

It can also add extra costs:

Witness #4:

"When we first began to meet, we of course paid for our own coffee and goodies. After a month, I was buying for us both. Costs then escalated beyond my imagination, before I even understood what was happening. And now? Now, I'm paying a mortgage and college tuition for three kids."

That might be considered a happy ending, but . . .

"I still can't speak Japanese."

Meaning if you really want a good deal on language learning, be it English or Japanese, you'd be better off shelling out for a professional teacher. Some of those Bozos know what they're doing.

Or you can clown around yourself with a study partner. With the right attitude it might not be a total waste.

That is, if you get good coffee.

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