Archive for January, 2011

the Colin Powell trap of language learning

January 25th, 2011

colin_powell_speaks_wellChris Rock did a really solid bit a few years ago:

"Colin Powell can never be president. You know why? Whenever Colin Powell is on the news, white people give him the same compliments: 'How do you feel about Colin Powell?', 'He speaks so well! He's so well spoken. I mean he really speaks so well!' Like that's a compliment. 'He speaks so well' is not a compliment, okay? 'He speaks so well' is some shit you say about retarded people that can talk."

Here's the bad news. You are probably Colin Powell.

Here's what you might have been thinking. In fact, almost certainly what you were thinking. You were thinking that here I'm going to study this language, learn to pronounce it right, learn to write grammatically, learn to use the correct expressions and after all that is done I'm going to be competent in the language. I'm going to go up to a group of these people and join in, like I'm one of them.

Unless you're some kind of extreme scholar whose only interest is ancient scrolls or something, you are learning the language to have the social benefits. To interact with those people, to have access to those new social groups. You might be thinking sure they will be able to tell that I'm not one of them; my pronunciation won't be exactly right; my use of the language won't be perfect. But it'll be close enough, and with enough practice I can get really smooth.

But that's where you might be in for a nasty surprise.

And no one told you about this. No one told you that it's not conquering the grammar that's really tough, it's not teaching your mouth to make those new sounds, it's something different.

It's that you're Colin Powell.

You will stand out in a crowd and people can tell. They will give you compliments on how good your language is. They do this because they know you need the encouragement. No one gets told that their language ability is good when it's actually good, that would be absurd. When it's obvious, there's no reason to say that.

It's common for people who have some kind of disability to say that they just want to be treated like everyone else. And therein lies the crux of the matter.

You're not "like everyone else" and everyone else knows that. So you get treated differently, good different or bad different, but always different.

Either people are trying to be helpful and treat you as if you understand less than you do. And over explain things to you. In which case you want to tell them "look, I understand more than that, give me some credit."

Or you get bad different. You approach someone with a carefully constructed message that you know for a fact is completely correct, yet you don't get the response that you expect. You get a short, dismissive response. You get treated almost as if you had said something slightly insulting.

It's that... what you said was understood and you basically made your point clearly, and yet... you don't sound authentic. There is something odd about you, reading between the lines, that makes people second guess themselves. As if you're speaking lines from memory that don't entirely fit the context. As if they're not sure if you know what you're saying. As if they don't quite know how to respond to you, how to interact with you. In short, you are an aberration, an exception to the rule.

And when people are unsure how to respond, they tend to seem a little cold and a little dismissive.

Is there any good news? Colin Powell really never did become president, but you're better off.

You can get beyond this. It's hard to say how long it will take, but if you stick with it there will come a time when your grasp on the language is smooth enough that you do sound like the real thing. Sure, you might still have an accent. And you might still be making mistakes. But your performance will be smooth enough to convince. Convince that you know what you're saying, and that he who is responding to you will be understood, that you can communicate as equals. What is the quickest way from here to there?

I wish I knew that.

state attenti nello spogliatoio

January 19th, 2011

Quando vai in piscina qui in Olanda, c'è lo spogliatoio, ma non c'è quello maschile e quell'altro femminile, c'è uno solo per tutti. Dentro ci sono cabine per ognuno da cambiarsi i vestiti da solo. Poi vai a prendere la doccia con tutti insieme, uomini e donne.

Questo sistema mi ha sorpreso, perché in Norvegia ci sono i due compartimenti per uomini e donne separatamente. Tutta l'area in qui c'è lo spogliatoio e le docce (e la sauna, che non manca mai) è dunque ristretta. Quando andai in piscina una volta a Roma era lo stesso.

Sembra che gli olandesi preferiscono una maggiore riservatezza rispetto ad alcuni dati personali. Paradossalmente, c'è la sorveglianza per telecamera proprio dentro lo spogliatoio, in modo che da un certo angolo si vede dentro alcune delle cabine.

curiosity mistaken for authority craving

January 5th, 2011

Is it true that man is curious of nature or does he merely crave a scapegoat? Is the diversion of his curiosity onto an authority figure a corrupting influence or is it the willful satisfaction of an urge stated in incorrect terms?

If I say to you "look, a pen on the table, it came into existence". And you express great curiosity about the pen. "But how, where did it come from, how did it come to exist, why did it begin to exist?". Then I say "Bill made the pen." And then you walk away satisfied. "Okay, Bill made the pen." What does your behavior suggest? You really don't care about the pen at all.

You might be thinking "Bill made the pen, if I ever want to know how he did it, I can always ask him later. The question is not urgent."

A person with genuine interest in the pen would say "the identity of the maker is immaterial, I still know nothing about the pen. I want to know how he made the pen, what did he make it out of, where did he get the raw materials, why did he make it?". That is an attitude coherent with the stated thirst for knowledge about the pen.

Does a believer who says they urge to know how the world began really understand and correctly describe their own urge? Is the answer that "someone did it, but you will never know how or why" an answer that such a person should reasonably find satisfying?

If the believer was troubled originally by such dilemmas as "how can something come from nothing?" and "why is there anything?", is he now cleansed from such thoughts? Has the wondering ceased?

What precisely has been gained in the knowledge that Bill is the maker of the pen, if nothing about the making of the pen has become known?

Maybe the urge was never about the pen's origin in the first place. Maybe the urge for answers about the pen was only a misstatement about the the urge to find a scapegoat, an authority. Someone who can take the blame if it turns out that the pen is causing us a lot of problems.

The predicament is, in both cases, of a similar nature. The urge for an answer stems from our human psychology, but for he who wants a scapegoat, science or philosophy, which are not in the business of inventing authorities, will never fill the void. Mythology is thus the last hope.

the year of reading 2010

January 1st, 2011

It has been a year of reading, no doubt the most bookish in all my life. I'm not really a big reader in general, but the impetus came from my language learning, where reading books is a pleasant way to learn.

Aside from the number of books, it has been notable for the languages. Previously I had only read in Polish, Norwegian and English, as those were the languages I successively had in my life. But as I embarked upon my first novel in Italian, the language I was actively learning, I also thought I should try Swedish and Danish. Later this year I also read my first book in Dutch, the second language I'm learning these days.

Perhaps I should make it a goal to read at least one book in each language from now on.

Against Intellectual Property ~ Stephan Kinsella
An Introduction to Twentieth Century Italian Literature ~ Robert Gordon
Anna Karenina ~ Lev Tolstoy
Avenger ~ Frederick Forsyth
Black Coffee ~ Agatha Christie
Bokhandleren i Kabul ~ Åsne Seierstad
Candide, ou l'Optimisme ~ Voltaire
Children of Dune ~ Frank Herbert
Code To Zero ~ Ken Follett
Cognitive Surplus ~ Clay Shirky
Compendio di psicoanalisi ~ Sigmund Freud
Crime and punishment ~ Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Dave Barry's History Of The Millennium ~ Dave Barry
De autobiografie van Kluivert ~ Mike Verweij
Den hedervärde mördaren ~ Jan Guillou
Dico tutto ~ Antonio Cassano
Dune Messiah ~ Frank Herbert
En landsbydegns dagbog ~ Steen Steensen Blicher
First As Tragedy, Then As Farce ~ Slavoj Žižek
Fontamara ~ Ignazio Silone
Gli indifferenti ~ Alberto Moravia
Gli invisibili ~ Nanni Balestrini
God, The Failed Hypothesis ~ Victor Stenger
How To Learn Any Language ~ Barry Farber
How to Talk to Anyone, Anytime, Anywhere ~ Larry King
I Am America ~ Stephen Colbert
I Malavoglia ~ Giovanni Verga
Il Gattopardo ~ Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa
Il contesto ~ Leonardo Sciascia
Il deserto dei Tartari ~ Dino Buzzati
Il giorno della civetta ~ Leonardo Sciascia
Il male oscuro ~ Giuseppe Berto
Il nome della rosa ~ Umberto Eco
Il pallone nel burrone ~ Salvatore Napolitano
Il sentiero dei nidi di ragno ~ Italo Calvino
Infidel ~ Ayaan Hirsi Ali
Io non ho paura ~ Niccolò Ammaniti
Io speriamo che me la cavo ~ Marcello D'Orta
JavaScript: The Good Parts ~ Douglas Crockford
Jeg forbanner tidens elv ~ Per Petterson
King Rat ~ James Clavell
L'Élixir de longue vie ~ Honoré de Balzac
La coscienza di Zeno ~ Italo Svevo
La fine è il mio inizio ~ Tiziano Terzani
Le comte de Monte Cristo ~ Alexandre Dumas
Les Trois Mousquetaires ~ Alexandre Dumas
Life of Pi ~ Yann Martel
Markens grøde ~ Knut Hamsun
Moby Dick ~ Herman Melville
My ~ Evgenij Zamjátin
No god but God ~ Reza Aslan
Nomad ~ Ayaan Hirsi Ali
Oceano Mare ~ Alessandro Baricco
Per la verità ~ Diego Marconi
Play ~ Stuart Brown
Polyglot ~ Kato Lomb
Shōgun ~ James Clavell
Siddharta ~ Hermann Hesse
Sult ~ Knut Hamsun
Tao Te Ching ~ Lao Tzu
The Cobra ~ Frederick Forsyth
The Day of the Jackal ~ Frederick Forsyth
The Good Man Jesus And The Scoundrel Christ ~ Philip Pullman
The Hades Factor ~ Robert Ludlum
The King of Torts ~ John Grisham
The Kite Runner ~ Khaled Hosseini
The Lazarus Vendetta ~ Robert Ludlum
The Loom of Language ~ Frederick Bodmer
The Matarese Circle ~ Robert Ludlum
The No Asshole Rule ~ Robert I. Sutton
The Odessa File ~ Frederick Forsyth
The Road to Omaha ~ Robert Ludlum
The Shy Child ~ Philip Zimbardo
The Sigma Protocol ~ Robert Ludlum
The Stuff of Thought ~ Steven Pinker
The Success of Open Source ~ Steven Weber
The Time Paradox ~ Philip Zimbardo
The Veteran ~ Frederick Forsyth
Trevayne ~ Robert Ludlum
Tribal Leadership ~ John King
True Story ~ Bill Maher
Tutte le barzellette su Totti ~ Francesco Totti
Utilitarianism ~ John Stuart Mill
Victoria ~ Knut Hamsun

3 dansk*
28 english
40 italiano*
3 nederlands*
5 norsk
2 polski
3 svenska*
84 Total

*debut in 2010