How Much Is Enough? I
Bill Long 1/15/12
Chinese Learning, That Is...
How much money is enough for us to live comfortably? How much exercise? How much food? How much love? All these questions indicate our interest in what you might call rational maximization. We want enough money to enable us to live well; enough food to enjoy the variety and piquancy of a broad gastronomical fare; enough exercise to keep the body looking and feeling good; enough love to keep us soft enough, optimistic enough, charged enough and rooted enough in the arms of mother earth, and mother earth's products, to realize and embrace our humanity. Some people obsess over these things--spending hours in the gym per day; hours and hours making money, even beyond what they need; hours exploring and eating all kinds of food that are too much for us. Over the space of our lives, we learn what is the right amount of each for us to live the kind of life we want to live.
We rarely ask the question, however, regarding how much learning is enough for us before it, too, might start to overwhelm or engorge us. Learning is like food--it has its blandness and taste, its different textures and nutritional values. Just as we seek to eat an amount that fuels us but doesn't fool us, that suffices without stuffing, that satiates without surfeiting, so learning theory and practice ought to take into account two things: what is "enough" learning for a day and how can one "use" the learning each day to make it work for us. Like good food and exercise, the twin towers that keep the body healthy, so we need the proper interplay of ingestion and expression of learning in order to keep us mentally alive and intellectually attractive. Just as we can get along on some days with less food or exercise, so we might be inclined to different schedules of learning at times. Yet, on balance, we should be able to identify not just our learning "style" with respect to a specific subject but also the amount that can comfortably be taken into life on any given day.
How do we establish this proper level of learning? Like with everything else in life, trial and error is the method, with great attentiveness to the state of our mind along the way. Just as we develop a dietary sense of when we are "full," if we are alert, and don't mechanically eat everything on our plate to satisfy some unspoken fear of our Depression-era grandparents regarding when the next meal was coming, so we can develop a sense of when we have learned "enough." Of course, some authority figures might object to this whole line of thinking--at first. Just as parents stood over me until I had finished the last bite of spinach or broccoli, so there will be teachers hovering over us to "finish" the lesson or master the content they or the textbook has prepared for us. Yet, though I am a great believer in honoring parents or teachers or other knowledgeable authority figures, I ultimately want to listen to and obey myself on issues of food, learning and other basic issues of life.
Hence, when we turn to the subject of learning, we ask ourselves, what is enough learning for a day? We can ask the question in general terms like that or we can narrow the focus by looking at a specific area in life--like learning Chinese or history of the Civil War or some scientific topic. The remainder of this essay and the next will give you my approach to "learning enough" Chinese in a day to make me happy and satisfied. I say this even though there is a lot in me that really wants to have it all right now.
What is Enough Chinese For Me?
Before getting to what is "enough" for a day, I want to reflect for a minute on the way to learn a language. Like all other learning in life, you need to develop the method that works best for you. Often this isn't really given as a possibility, with the reality of language instruction and classroom needs. We learn in ways that "fit" with the overall method of the class. Normally this isn't a problem, since speaking, writing, listening, reading are all important to learn in a language, and there is enough variety to fit most learning styles.
But when we get to know ourselves better, we might come to more helpful conclusions about how we best learn--so as to retain more of what we study and find the subject useful for us. As I look at my learning of Chinese, it includes some of the following: (1) listening to lessons from Chinese Pod, which help in my aural and oral skills; (2) making long lists of cheng yus or four-character statements that express and capture the richness of life in, usually, vivid statements; (3) reviewing all these; (4) meeting together with a friend once every other week to do another lesson in a textbook--focusing on reading and pronunciation. I may begin soon some oral training through Skype with a native speaker so that I can try to get some tones down as well as learn to speak with greater fluency. Yet one of the things I find useful and even powerful for me in learning a language is occasionally just to "wander" in the dictionary, or to take a distinctive portion of the dictionary and simply to work through it so that I understand each entry. If I do the latter, it is enough that I perhaps cover five or six words or phrases, with sentence examples, and then call it a day.
The next essay tells about today's "dictionary" learning.