Some musings of a morning

by Bernard Brandt

Rumors of my demise being just a tad exaggerated, I suppose that I will have to toddle along. And, while I can not yet undertake the studies that I would like, I still seem to have made some progress.

It used to be that I loved reading in bed in the morning during summer vacation, when I was a boy. I have rediscovered that pleasure, and I am getting reacquainted with some old friends: H.G. Wells, H.P. Lovecraft, Jules Verne, and John Bellairs, among many others. If I can manage to excavate my old copies of Lord of the Rings,  that is next on my list. But I still have enough in the way of books that have not been packed away to keep me occupied.

I can’t write for very long on the computer, but I can think about what I’m going to write about while resting on the couch, and then go over to the computer and quickly type it down. This works, and so, another step forward. And whether from the couch, or from the computer, I can see the two trees of my garden through the French doors at the south wall of my living room. KUSC is playing calm and pastoral music on the Bose. And I’m enjoying black Irish Breakfast Tea and a strawberry croissant I baked for myself.

My morning croissants have been a work in progress for the past few weeks, and I think I’ve finally gotten them right, so I’ll share a little food porn here. I’ve had a friend drive me to the nearby Top Valu and Trader Joe’s, so I can stock up on food. While at the Top Valu some time ago, I discovered Indo-European’s whole wheat puff pastry squares. It’s a package of ten 5″ x 5″ squares in the frozen foods section, and thawed out, they keep in the refrigerator quite nicely, especially when stored in a ZipLoc bag.

I’ve been working at baking strawberry croissants for some time, but a problem has been that the jam I’ve used tends to leak out during the baking process. This has been in part because many jams are thin affairs, and will use corn syrup rather than cane sugar, and not have enough pectin content.

But the recipe that I find works is to take a square of puff pastry, remove the paper that separates the layers of puff pastry, and lay the square flat on a plate. Take a tablespoon of Trader Joe’s Fresh Strawberries preserve (which does use cane sugar and the right amount of pectin) and spread over most of the surface of the square, leaving a half inch or so clear at the edges.

Take another square of puff pastry and lay it on another plate, removing the paper first. Take a sharp knife, and score the pastry with the knife tip so that there are bars about 1/3 or so inch across the sheet. Then turn the scored sheet over, put it on top of the square with the jam on it, remove the paper, and press the edges of the two squares gently together so that the jam in between the squares is sealed in. Put the square on a small oiled cookie sheet or bread pan, and keep in the refrigerator for fifteen or so minutes.

While the square is resting in the ‘fridge, turn your oven on to 400 degrees F. When the oven is heated, put the cookie sheet or bread pan in the oven for twenty minutes. Then remove the pan from the oven, and, with a pancake turner or spatula, remove the croissant from the pan/sheet. Allow the croissant to cool until just warm before eating. WARNING: hot jam is not unlike napalm in its ability to scald or to burn.

When the croissant is cool, enjoy. And, as a matter of fact, it tasted so good with my tea that I’m going to bake and eat another. ‘Bye.

§     §     §

The croissant is cooling now, and I have a few more minutes before I have to lay down again. So, back to the keyboard.

One consequence of being interrupted from my studies on the computer is that I can better consider just how and why they were so successful.

Let’s start with math. I estimate that I spent five hours a week, forty weeks a year, and a total of twelve years in school allegedly learning math, from basic arithmetic, through algebra, geometry, and trigonometry, with a lot more time out of class in practice and anxiety. The result, I find, was a lifetime of fear and hatred of math, and when I started Khan Academy, the diagnostic test I took there indicated that I had a 10 to 15 percent mastery of first through eighth grade math.

All that time, and all those years, wasted.

This is all the more galling and painful, when I consider that after 100 days of working with Khan Academy, at between two and three hours of playing with it, I have developed 100% mastery of first through seventh grade math, 89% of eighth grade math, 42% of Algebra 1, 55% of Geometry, and 32% of Trigonometry.  In short, Khan Academy enabled me to do in less than a third of a year, and at one tenth the amount of time, what twelve years of schooling could not accomplish.

It’s even worse than that: a fair percentage of the time I spent on Khan Academy was spent in unlearning the math anxiety and phobia that appears to have been the only real legacy which I received from my schooling. In retrospect, it would have been far better for me if I had not received that ‘schooling’ to begin with. There would have been much less error to unlearn.

Likewise, my schooling in second language acquisition pretty much sucked. Even though people have known for millennia that it is far easier for humans to learn new languages before puberty than afterwards, standard American educational practice, for some bone headed reason, is to wait until high school to begin second language acquisition.

And so it was with me. I started learning French and Latin in high school, at the age of 13. Or at least, I was taught it. I had the advantage of a good professor, who had done his studies at the Sorbonne, and had taken a Parisian wife. As a result, I had the opportunity to learn a better French accent than most, especially as his wife taught at my high school for a year. I also learned a major part of the deep structure of English, based on the four major source languages.

But I never really learned Latin or French well enough to speak or read them fluently. I think that part of it was that I had no experience of learning languages until I was thirteen. Part of it also was that my teacher considered me to be like Winston Churchill: brilliant, but lazy, and with no gift for languages, and so he spent little effort trying to reach me or to teach me. Part of it also was that I was so browned off by the previous eight years of my alleged ‘schooling’ that I resisted the standard model of most schooling. So it goes.

And now it’s 9 p.m. I’ve been slowly working at this, lying down and thinking, and then getting up and typing, for the whole day. So little to show for it. Sigh. I’m going to bed.

§     §     §

It’s morning again, and I am sitting in front of the keyboard with a quart of Irish Breakfast tea and a freshly baked strawberry croissant. The sparrows are merrily chirping in the two trees of my front yard garden, and the hummingbirds are emitting their high pitched twitter as they sip the nectar of the pink trumpet-like flowers of one of those trees. Life is good.

But, to continue my thought from last night, I have long wondered whether my problems with language were as a result of my own inability, or because of some basic problem in the way that I was taught. And, in the past few months, I have received two confirmations that the problem lay, not in myself, but in the teaching method itself.

The first indication to me that there was a better was found soon after I started working with I found that my reading and hearing comprehension of the languages I was studying soon increased exponentially, as did my ability to speak Spanish, which is the one foreign language I use daily, in speaking with my neighbors. I also soon developed much more of a facility for thinking in those languages, as opposed to translating from English into the target language, or decyphering the target language into English.

The way that Duolingo does this is quite simple, but very effective. Each language course breaks the language to be learned into a number of skills or word groups. It provides small, five to ten minute mini-lessons for each skill. Only seven new words are introduced in each mini-lesson. Most if not all of those words are presented with pictures representing those words. The use of English is kept to a minimum, and that largely to present sentences to be translated into the target language. One constantly uses the target language, in the course of either multiple choice, translation from target language into English, or from English into the target language. Each course also provides reminders of lessons already learned, with review lessons which repeat and confirm the stuff already learned in the memory. One can go at one’s own pace, and do as little or as much as one has the patience or strength to do.

I managed to plow through the Duolingo course in less than three months, playing at it for thirty to forty-five minutes a day. As a result, I can converse far more freely with my Latino neighbors than I could in the forty or so years that I had been gradually picking up Spanish. What is more, I can now read Spanish newspapers and magazines with ease, immediately understanding nine out of ten words in any sentence or paragraph, and with the ability quickly to learn the unknown words either by context, or by looking them up, either on-line, or by the aid of a dead tree dictionary.   I am now literate in Spanish, for the first time in my life.

Once I manage to be free of the after-effects of both my abdominal bleed, and the incompetence of the ER and hospital staff who were allegedly treating me, I intend on continuing with the other four Duolingo courses I had been working on, before I was so rudely interrupted. I want to see whether I can achieve similar gains in them as well.

But the second indication I received, that there may be a better and easier way to learn languages, came when I started looking into how Duolingo worked, and why it worked so well. Apparently, the man who developed the Duolingo website had modeled his system after the language acquisition theories of Stephen Krashen. A good precis of those theories, written by Prof. Krashen, can be found here.

Those theories are too long to discuss here, and I shall be talking about them elsewhere. But a thumbnail sketch would be that Krashen distinguishes between language learning, which is basically the standard educational model, and language acquisition, or the natural process by which newborns and humans up to adolescence (and beyond) naturally assimilate a language. Krashen posits that if one replicates the conditions in which language assimilation occurs (which include direct engagement in understanding, low stress conditions, and play), that people might be able to learn additional languages more rapidly and easily than by the standard educational model.

It has been my experience that Krashen’s theories are fully vindicated by Duolingo’s success, and my success with Duolingo. But, for those of my four or five readers for whom anecdote does not equal evidence, I would suggest that they might want to take a look at this study (realizing, of course, that it was a study financed by the folk at Duolingo).

That said, however, I am of the mind that both my success with Khan Academy and with Duolingo, there is the vindication of another theory: that of Plato, who in his Republic suggested that young people be educated by means of games. I think that this is a theory well worth examining further. But that, as Scheherezade would say, is another story.