Sunday, 20 January 2008

Countering the View that We All Have the Potential to Learn Everything

At this time of year when people are trying to carry out new year's resolutions you often see advertisments for foreign language courses saying something like 'in just x months you can be speaking y confidently'. The implication is that anyone who buys the course will be able to develop a reasonable grasp of the language. My experiences suggests that that is not at all the case and everyone should tread a little carefully before parting with their money. I have just abandoned my evening classes in Chinese which I have been doing since September. My company has increasing links with various parts of China and it seemed sensible that I learn the language so I could be polite to visitors and not be completely lost if the company sends me out there. I find it challenging to learn alone so signed up for a face-to-face class with an enthusiastic teacher and students. A couple of them were older than me but most were in their 20s and I should have realised I was going to be facing problems when all the older students left throughout the early weeks. However, I will always give things ago and not abandon them quickly.

The reason I have abandoned the course is that a week before the exam my grades have slipped very badly. At first I was getting over 70% which I thought was reasonable given this was a beginners' course. Even when I did the listening comprehension with flu I scored 64%. However, I realise this was just a 'honeymoon period' and this week I was unable to scrape more than 5% in two written exercises (despite having spent hours over last weekend revising this particular aspect) and only got 48% for the oral part (40% is the pass mark). It is clear that I have the capacity for a few words and phrases of Chinese but nothing more. The teacher of course, in line with the usual attitude that if you try hard enough you can succeed. No, that is not true, each of us has mental and physical capacities which we cannot exceed and these deteriorate rapidly after we turn 30. I remember reading a comment in which a man said (bizarrely) that you know when you are still young when if someone wiped out your family you could go to a remote monastery, train in martial arts and come back and avenge them. By the time you pass 30 you are the one who stands on the sidelines as some hero comes in and does the avenging. Unfortunately for me that is what is likely to happen in my company environment now that I know I will never have even a child's grasp of Chinese.

I am not a person to give up easily, but as I look back on my life, it is not so much with a sense of shame, as with growing humility (and maybe a more realistic outlook on my abilities). When my father was at school in the 1950s, if a child was no good at something s/he was told outright. Being educated in the more woolly 1970s there was a step away from that, I think partly with the general move in the UK of schools away from the so-called 11-Plus exam which segregated children for life by ability at the age of 11 (ability was not the only factor, the number of children who got to the higher class 'grammar schools' depended on how many places there were in the district so in one area with many grammar schools you could get in with a much lower mark than you would need in an area with only one grammar school. Given that these schools were often single-sex, there was often also an imbalance for boys and girls) towards the comprehensive school system (which covers the bulk of the country, bar Kent and Buckinghamshire, but is now under attack from more school selection processes). As a result we were all told that we could all achieve anything we wanted. Having that lesson pressed into us from the age of 5 through to even 21 at university, it is difficult to shake, but my life has proven that it was a lie.

So what have I signed up to, to find that I was incapable of getting anywhere:

Aikido, I studied this for 12 years at 4 different clubs each with a different approach because I moved around the country. I saw people achieving black belts after 3 years and for my 12 years of effort what was I? A yellow belt, the one just off the bottom and I have the suspicion that one club just gave that to me because I turned up every week and they felt sorry for me.

Canoeing, I tried canoeing and embarrassment there was quicker as they would not permit me to join the club as I did so badly in the lessons. Again it was portrayed as a sport that all can do and after 6 weeks of almost drowning as I could not lift my head from the water one week and legs covered with bruises it was deemed that I was too much of a hazard (I almost ran over a scuba diver training in the same location) which did not help.

Fencing, I thought well, if I cannot do the intricacies of Aikido maybe something a little more straightforward would be better. I did fencing for 2 years and had reached the level of ability when a woman 20 years older than me could hit me in the same precise spot 6 times out of 10 (causing a very painful bruise on that spot). Again, even people older than me passed me into competing in competitions. Again the sport had suggested that it could be done by anyone with average fitness and I was not seeking to be world champion or even just district champion, but as with Aikido it became apparent that I could not attain a level good enough to function effectively at the club (this is effectively what happened in Chinese, I was so below the ability of the other students that I could not do conversation or pair work exercises with them).

Go, you can see an Oriental theme developing here. I have always been interested by games from around the world, but despite reading about them, generally I am poor at them (the 6-year old son of my housemate is almost at the level he can beat me at chess; he develops his structures too slowly, otherwise he would win, given how easily he puts pins and forks on my pieces). I thought Go would be an interesting, elegant game. One trouble was that in the club most of the members were of high level, one was also a Master (the level below the better-known Grandmaster rank) in chess already and the other players competed at national level. However, you would think that this meant some of them would be good teachers, especially as at least one of them worked for a local university. One week (by fluke it seems) I almost defeated the head of the club, so I was confident that for once I was actually improving. I had been playing at the club for 2 years by then. When I commented to another of the skilled players that I felt that I was actually improving, he said I was deluded, it was just that they had stopped beating me so comprehensively so that I continued to come and pay my club fee, and that in fact I was not better then than when I had first started. Of course, I left.

So, physically and mentally it is clear that I should be very suspicious when anyone advertises anything as being something that anyone can learn. I know that it is in their interests not to be honest about the fact that most people will get nowhere as they need members/students and the money they bring. There are people out there who can do these things. As I have said, I have seen people in a matter of months get to a national level. However, I think these people are rare. I have known people who can grasp languages quickly. In the 1980s I met a (British) man who spoke every language in Eastern Europe and said his Hungarian was poor but them demonstrated his knowledge of poetry rhythms in that language, something the bulk of us could not do even in our own language let alone one were are 'poor' at. He went off to lecture in China. In the 1990s I knew for a time a man (again British which counters my point made in an earlier posting that the British cannot do languages, but maybe these exceptions prove the rule) who taught himself Korean. He bought one of these book-and-CD (in those days it might have still been cassette) kits through the post and proceeded to teach himself Korean. It was interesting that when he got to the cassette for Part 4 (the final section of the course) he found it was identical to the cassette for Part 3 and it was clear that the company had been sending out the wrong cassette for quite a while but clearly no-one had ever got to the final stage to find out the error. He ended up keeping his diary in Korean and the last I heard he had moved to Seoul, had married and had two daughters.

So, there are people out there who can achieve these things, but I think they are a tiny fraction of the UK population. Whilst I would never want to dim the dreams of young people, and I know from friends that poor performance at school does not bar you from success or from picking up subjects later (one issue about sending children to school so early in the UK and making them choose which pathways they want to take at 14 or even 11, is that some people have no idea of their strengths at that age and only find them when they become adults) and the UK is good for adult learning, I do think we need to present a realistic picture of people's abilities to them. It is not healthy to keep saying to people, in a very American way 'you can achieve anything you want to achieve', just look at the USA to see how that is not the case even in the 'Land of Opportunity'.

In particular as is becoming apparent to me, abilities do deteriorate quickly and even if it is accurate to say to a 20-year old that they can achieve big things if they try, this is no longer true at 40, let alone 50 or 60. By the time you reach stage you have to be given the attitude of a woman I worked with who joined a gymnastics club in her mid-20s and they told her bluntly that she would never achieve anything more than she had achieved as a child doing gymnastics. That principle should be emblazoned on every club or course brochure.

Why is it important to have a realistic appreciation of our capabilities and the level they have deteriorated to? It is because 'humility' and 'humiliation' come from the same source. I have learnt that humility this week, that I cannot achieve what a 20-year old student can achieve, but it comes at the price of humiliation and I feel completely useless this week. That is one reason why I blog, to cast off the bits of lead from my life and also hopefully this will be a warning to myself when I am tempted to sign up to a course promising me a new skill.

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