When my brain tells me that I’m a language-learning failure, then… apparently I treat it like an engineering project.

June 3, 2012 – 12:06 am

Thinking out loud.

I have fear-paralysis and need to keep gently resteering and resteering myself out of it. It’s not more books that’ll help; it’s not my reading that’s in need of working on. It’s my fear of not being able to communicate, of sounding stupid when I do. It’s the same fear that language-learners everywhere have, but I excuse myself with “but I can’t hear!” — since when has that been an excuse? It’s not something to ignore — I can’t just suck it up and deal by trying “the normal route” harder — but rather something to hack cleverly around.

I recognize that I’ll sometimes use overanalysis as an avoidance mechanism to actually jumping in. I’ll “learn about” in order to avoid “doing.” So instead of going “hm, phonology might help me with my German,” I should dive into trying to do something very, very simple in spoken German using ideas like “ooh, phonology!” as scaffolding to help me along. Otherwise I’m just wasting four weeks on fear.

But I shouldn’t beat myself up over this, even if what I perceive as my failures in the language-learning department bring me to the verge of frustrated tears even just thinking about it now, let alone when I try to speak. The voices in my head sound something like this: “well, they were right after all, the people who said your hearing loss would make language-learning too hard; you’re not good or brave or smart enough to overcome this, so lie down and give up.” Those voices say that sort of stuff about a lot of things, and I’ve become good at ignoring them, proving them wrong — but this… I keep smashing, determined, into brick walls. And I find myself beginning to believe them. And I don’t want that. I don’t.

So, quietly. Small. Slowly. Take one small step every day, Mel. One small step in doing, not talking-about. (This blog post is talking-about.) And lift the restriction of transparency on yourself; when it helps, use it — when it doesn’t, don’t. I don’t need to tell people what I’m doing for language-learning now, when it makes me afraid to step into the open; I can always tell them later, and it’s okay. It’s okay to have some of your projects not be open; you of all people know what the tradeoffs are to that, what you gain and what you miss and what it costs. It’s okay to decide that tradeoff is best left untouched, and that decision can always be changed.

Engineering brain: ENGAGE.

What have I learned from 6 (7?) nights over 3 weeks with Jen? Let’s see. Aside from some grammar and vocab (which I’m picking up really, really slowly), I’ve learned a lot about my failure modes in listening and conversing. I hit those failure modes very quickly (translation: I listen and nod, but don’t talk — or respond in English because I’m too proud to reply in broken German). Here are the hearing-related ones (as far as I can tell).

(Not a failure mode) I can produce the “sch,” ach-Laut (/x/) and ich-Laut (/ç/) sounds correctly and consistently! I… I couldn’t do that before, and this knowledge is hard-won because these sounds are both inaudible and non-lipreadable to me. Now, I don’t know yet when to pronounce those sounds — can’t always look at printed words and go “aha, mouth goes like this” — but that’s something specific I can work on. And going in the other direction, having someone talk to me: these sounds aren’t lipreadable, and I don’t have enough exposure to the language to be able to predict the right words in a sentence from context — this seems like something I can’t tackle right now but might be able to later.

I know much more specifically what other sounds are hard for me and why – what feedback others get that I lack.

  • ‘R’, because it’s un-lipreadable. I think I can hear it, but I can’t consistently produce it.
  • All the vowels with umlauts and their variations without umlauts (there are six: a, o, and u). I can lipread them, but the differences are subtle for ‘o’ and ‘u,’ and a-umlaut reads like the English ‘eh’ to me, and… basically, it’s unfamiliar visual input that I really, really need to drill.
  • p/f/pf/v/t are indistinguishable in German. For that matter, they (or their closest equivalents) are indistinguishable in English, so I’m going to work on this in speech therapy first before I try to jump it to a different language.

I see the gap between my reading and listening abilities more clearly. I’ll hear simple words I know full well from reading, but won’t get them – then when I’m told the English meaning, the word (and sometimes the full sentence) will snap into clear focus in my head. When I think about German, I see typed letters appearing in my head, because that’s what I’ve been exposed to. There are a few types of gaps:

  • Failing to recognize word boundaries, especially for short words that frequently appear together in a phrase. For instance, I think of “wie viel” (“how much”)  as two printed words, so hearing it as a single two-syllable word gets me searching in the wrong part of my vocabulary database. (This is not a good example. I’ve also seen it written “wieviel” with no spaces. But it’s almost 1am and I’m blanking on a better example.) I’m not sure what the solution to this is; learn commonly-blurred-together word groupings as one auditory unit that breaks into multiple words?
  • Mapping heard syllables to the wrong letter clusters. If I forget “v” sounds like an English “f,” my brain searches for German words beginning with the letter “f,” which… naturally does not find the right word. Solution: mini spelling bees.

The failure mode of both these bugs rely on one underlying assumption — which isn’t bad in and of itself, but would disable both these bugs if it were eliminated. That assumption is that “text” is my mental storage format for German – that is, I fundamentally think of the language as a written one (because I have primarily encountered it as such), so anything I hear gets translated into imaginary printed text in my head and then into English, and when I want to say something myself I type it out on imaginary paper in my head and then pronounce it out loud. (This is really what I do – a monospaced serif font will appear, black-on-white, centered in the upper part of my mental visualization space.) Maybe I need to learn how to not do that for a little while.

Okay. This helps me make a list of miniprojects I can tackle.

Be able to look at printed words and recognize when they have “sch,” “ach,” and “ich” sounds in them, and then say those words (or at least those sounds in those words) correctly. This is me spending time with the phonology book I borrowed from Jen, I think.

Be able to listen to a word in German and ask (in German, and understand and act upon the answers) to the following questions:

  • is there an ach-Laut in that word, an ich-Laut, a… <list other sounds I can’t perceive here>?
  • How do you spell it?
  • What sound does this part make?
  • Can you repeat that word/phrase/syllable again?
  • Am I pronouncing it right?
  • What do I need to do differently?
  • What does it sound like to you?
  • I can’t hear the <whatever> sound.
  • Let me see if I can lipread the <whatever> sound.

This is doable. I’ll ask for help translating these sentences, learn them, and then use them during a session of learning new vocabulary words.

Be able to ask questions about German phonology in German. Ok. I need some vocabulary for this: first, parts of the vocal tract, which I have in a book and should make flashcards for until I can go back and forth between the English word, the German word, a diagram (I should be able to draw this diagram) of the vocal tract, and feeling/pointing/using my own anatomy:

  • lips
  • teeth
  • alveolar (ridge)
  • palate
  • velum
  • uvula
  • velic
  • nasal cavity
  • oral cavity
  • pharynx
  • tongue
  • apex
  • blade of the tongue
  • front of the tongue
  • root of the tongue
  • epiglottis
  • trachea
  • esophagus
  • larynx
  • vocal chords
  • glottis

Then words about speech sounds. Flashcards. I need flashcards.

  • mode of articulation
  • point of articulation
  • stop/plosive
  • fricative
  • affricate
  • obstruent
  • consonant
  • resonant
  • nasal
  • trill
  • lateral
  • glide
  • vowel

And then words and sentences so I can say…

  • should my lips be more or less rounded/wide/apart?
  • should my jaw be more open/closed?
  • is the tongue touching/above/behind/below/in-front-of the teeth/lips/alveolar ridge/etc?
  • do I need more constriction/aspiration? Where?
  • where is your tongue/teeth/whatever?
  • what are your lips/tongue/teeth/etc doing when you say the <whatever> sound?
  • can you say just the <whatever> sound/word/syllable/part/sentence again?

If I wanted to tackle this, I’d make flashcards. Many flashcards. And then practice with Jen using these things, talking about difficult words and sounds.

Be able to tell the 6 umlaut/non-umlaut vowels apart through a combination of listening and lipreading. In other words, if someone sits in front of me and says one of the six vowels in isolation, I should be able to identify which vowel it is. More difficult: say one of the six vowels in a word. I think I should be able to do that too.

Spelling practice, which we’ve done a bit of before (bonus: I started learning the alphabet). This is for building my sound-to-text mapping skills – it’s simple. Hear a word, try to spell it; if I get it wrong, get it spelled out to me letter-by-letter ’till I get it right. I could try doing this a little by myself if I can find the right audio input — I could maybe use a book-on-tape, but might need something broken down into the word-by-word level.

I could think of more things to do, but let me not spec out too much, because then I feel like getting through the list is an obligation rather than an adventure. Let me put this out here, without obligation to do any of it, and then see where my fancy leads me between now and Thursday.

And wow. I’m feeling better now. Inspired, even. Engineering brain, you win. I am so glad I have you.

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