Take Chinese, For Example I
Bill Long 8/3/11
Towards a Theory of Learning Styles
All the rage in the 1990s and even up to today are Gardner's theory of multiple learning styles (he called them "multiple intelligences") and knock-offs of that theory. The basic idea, originally spelled out in his 1983 book, The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, is that there are multiple, identifiable and distinct modes of learning (whether, in fact, there are eight or nine or eleven is immaterial), and that the educational system ought to be set up to take those multiple modes of learning into account. While his insight is refreshing, and while entire schools have been set up to incorporate that insight, his insight doesn't go nearly far enough for those who are committed to the idea that each person has his or her own language, intelligence, and learning style within one or more identified intelligences. In these essays I will attempt two things: to clarify some terminology regarding learning and then to use my study of Chinese as a way to begin explication of a learning theory for today.
I have written elsewhere on the term "idiolect." My central point was that even though we have a common language in which we communicate, each of us has his or her own "language within a language" (a "languiola," so to speak--I formed this word on the example of Augustine's use of "ecclesiola" to designate a little church) that we use. But more can be said. As I have argued in my recent book, It's All The Basics: Teaching & Learning for the 21st Century, each one of us has his/her own learning style. I didn't coin a word for that, but let's try the word idioped here...formed off the word "pedagogue" or "pedagogy." Literally it means we each have our own "child" or "boy" (from Greek "paidos" rather than Latin "ped"--foot), but the definition of the term would stress that each of us is his/her own learner. This, I am convinced, is the central insight about learning for our century. If we truly understand it, then each aspect of our learning process will have to be revamped to accommodate it.
Let me illustrate how an awareness of my own learning style, my idioped, is affecting how I learn Chinese.
The 7 (8?) Habits of Highly Effective Chinese Learning
The major breakthrough in the ALM language-learning method from the 1960s was that language is a multi-faceted phenomenon and needs to be grasped in its four dimensions: reading, writing, speaking, listening. You don't really know a language until you have all those dimensions mastered. Start with dialogues, even before you know how to write. Listen to tapes and imitate sounds you hear. Put together simple conversations before you have seen a word on paper. Then, gradually, look at the words of the dialogue, memorize one or two, and then you are off to the races. That method underlies much of the more modern approaches to learning languages. Like weight-loss methods, there really is very little new under the sun in learning a new language--you have to imitate sounds, memorize words and constructions, recognize patterns, and learn to read and write.
But as I have been studying Chinese (I began in Feb. 2010), I am seeing that I am very much bringing my own method to learning the language, a method that suits me quite fine and will yield extraordinary and deep knowledge of the language, yet this method isn't one I have ever seen recommended or practiced. Thus, I use my experience with Chinese to emphasize the centrality of finding each student's learning method--even if the person is a "logocentric" or "kinesthetic" or whatever type of learner.
My Language Method
The beauty of the ALM method of language learning is that it highlighted necessary building blocks for mastery of any other language--you need to be able to understand it, speak it, read it and write it. But when I took up Chinese, I discovered that there were four preliminary, and very time consuming, tasks that not only will make those others a "snap," but make the learning fun and even easy for me. In fact, I am doing my four tasks at the same time as the "normal" or usual four, but I take much more delight in my own method. By discovering and pursuing these other four things, I not only am a happy learner but I am sinking roots in the language that are not only not understood by almost any English-speaker learning the language but, if I can believe what some native-speaking Chinese have said to me, aren't known by many native Chinese (at least the last two). The next essay describes these four "preliminary" steps.