Saturday, October 06, 2007

Chinese Learning Process, Level One: Infrastructure

Following on from a previous blog entry, I'm going to continue to kick my analogy with software engineering process while it's down. Let's start with the layer that I call Infrastructure. In software, the tools and libraries that populate this layer are such things as source code repositories, build scripts, dependency management tools and continuous integration engines, as well as less concrete things like internal standards on project directory structure and granularity.

WAIT! Don't go away. I'm done with the techobabble.

What these tools do is give a basic workbench on which something may be built. My Chinese language workbench is these days composed almost entirely of Chinesepod, augmented by reading other learners' blogs, and occasionally indulging in a little grammar on the side.

This lowest layer of the pyramid is the necessary-but-not-sufficient condition for being productive and creating something of quality. Pretty much all students will have constructed this layer for themselves. But if this is all you have as far as process is concerned, then you have a reduced chance of learning well and quickly. It's just the starting point and there are more wrong turns from here than right ones (even allowing for multiple 'right' directions). It's like having a car and a track, but no idea of the race line, no pit-stop strategy, no tyre choice, no team instructions (tip of the hat to this weekend's Shanghai F1 race). But I'll write more on the other layers in later blog entries.

What constitutes a good choice in Infrastructure? Something that you don't have to think too much about. Something that serves you, rather than something that you have to continually service. It should be an almost invisible workbench, that makes the tools visible to you when you need them, then fades into the background again. It should remove as much drudgery as possible, automate what can be automated, and above all, it must be stable and broad enough to support the layers that come next (hopefully this will become clearer from later blog entries).

I've outsourced my Infrastructural needs almost entirely to Chinesepod. In this build-or-buy decision, the alternative would have been to get my hands on a whole bunch of learning material, integrate it with a selection of teachers (assuming they were both available and compatible), store new vocabulary by hand (and generate flashcards and memory games from them), cross-reference the lessons with other lessons based on topic, vocabulary and level, and then constantly keep developing the workbench to make it more complete and more invisible.

My guess is that I wouldn't have any time left to actually learn much Chinese.


Chris said...

I think the software analogy works better than the oft quoted "learning a musical instrument" analogy (which seems to fall down in so many places).

It is worth remembering the hardware that is our brain. To some extent we are stuck with the place where the fruits of our build will execute. However there is no harm in doing things like attempting to improve our memory. Some people say "I can't do it the easy way I am a visual learner". There is no harm in brain training a little to remove this apparent impediment.

Bottom line, if you haven't got enough umph in the hardware then you are not going to be able to serve up language in real time (especially if running on J2EE / Java EE ;))

Brendan Lawlor said...

Hi Chris,
The analogy I'm trying to make is not so much with software as with the process of writing software. I'm comparing how we might go about learning a language with how we go about developing software. I might just as easily have chosen how we go about producing widgets in a productive and quality way (I just chose software as this is my own particular compentancy).

I think that we all posess the necessary combination of hardware and software required to learn a language - it's part of our biological endowment (and luckily not based on Java EE technology ;-) ).

How we go about using that innate capacity dicatates to a large extent the quality of the results of any attempts we make. And that 'how' is what I'm feebly trying to express in these recent entries.

owshawng said...

Can you ask your tutor to do some lessons based on your hobbies or interests? Like learning to discuss football, rubgy, cooking, hiking, etc, whatever you like to do for fun when you are not learning chinese?

Brendan Lawlor said...

Sure - my tutor is very flexible in this, both in terms of lesson content and in methodology. In fact these days, my study partner and I pretty much set the content ourselves.

But more on that later.