Sunday, February 9th, 2014

robinturner: First lesson: stick them with the pointy end (pointyend)
[This is something I wrote for the MOOC "The History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education"]

Of all the skills which are hard to learn and harder to unlearn, household tasks have to come fairly high. For those of us who live on their own all their lives, or, as in a traditional marriage, take sole (or no) responsibility for housework, this is a minor problem; however, anyone who lives with someone who has strong opinions about the correct way to clean surfaces or prepare vegetables, for example, will either have to do some unlearning or face some serious arguments. I did a bit of both.

Fortunately, I had a little solo practice before plunging into married life, initiated by a reading of William Burroughs' quirky story “The Discipline of DE.” The DE stands for “Do Easy”, and it is the philosophy of the story's hero, a retired military man who relearns everything in his domestic routine, from cleaning to cooking to organising his wallet. The principle is simple: the best way to do something is the simplest way and the easiest way; if something seems difficult, you're doing it wrong. Our hero unlearns his previous sloppy domestic habits by breaking them down into their smallest components and practising them extremely slowly so as to eliminate even the slightest error or inefficiency, then putting them back together and speeding up until his displays of domestic skills seem almost magical. As I was at the time learning t'ai chi, which has very similar principles, this method appealed to me. I applied it first to vacuuming, and realised that I had been expending far more energy than I needed by using my arms rather than my hips and by pushing down into the floor. I also spent hours lobbing pieces of paper into the waste paper bin; this is the kind of thing you do when you are young and unemployed. After a while, though, my interest waned, and for the most part my home reverted to its bachelor-pad clutter.

The real test came with marriage to someone who not only had much higher domestic standards than me but also came from a different culture. This brings me to the second point about unlearning: we do things in a less efficient way not only by learning sloppy habits, but because we have been brought up to believe unthinkingly that the way we do them is right. Of course you wash up by filling up the bowl with hot water and dumping the plates in them. Washing them individually under the tap is just inefficient—unless you're Turkish, in which case it is the only way to get them clean. Of course the best way to dust is with a feather duster—unless you're Turkish, in which case it is a damp cloth. Since my wife takes cleaning far more seriously than I do, it ended up with me being the one to do the unlearning, and unlearning not just my own ways of doing things but my family's and sometimes even my culture's. Unlearning and relearning, then, is more than just hacking. With hacking, you know what you want to do and why you want to do it, so it's just a question of finding a more efficient way of doing it. But perhaps sometimes what we have to unlearn is our criteria for efficiency.
robinturner: Giving a tutorial, c. 2000 (tutorial)
I recently returned from a trip to Rome. We'd actually been planning on going to Paris but changed our minds for reasons I can't quite remember, which meant I suddenly stopped learning French to see how much Italian I could learn in two weeks. The answer to that question was of course “Not a lot” but also perhaps “More than you'd think for two weeks.” I learnt a little Italian while we were in Deruta for a month for Nalan's ceramics course, but that was 2005 and I'd since forgotten almost everything, so this was an experiment in learning pretty much from scratch. This time I tried three learning methods, the main one being Duolingo, which is cheesily but entertainingly gamified and flies in the face of modern communicative pedagogy. Ignoring the current wisdom that you need to learn language in context with realistic examples, Duolingo relies heavily on translation and seems to generate sentences randomly. My favourites include “Je suis une abeille” from my French course and “Ho un serpente nello stivale” from a recent Italian lesson. Duolingo thus seems as useful a preparation for visiting a foreign country as the language textbooks of yesteryear that gave us such classic (and probably apocryphal) sentences as “My postillion has been stuck by lightning.”

In combination with other methods, however, Duolingo is great way to get the basic structure of a language. To supplement vocabulary I used my old friend Anki with a deck of flashcards that claimed to be “427 Common Italian Words”. They may be common, but they certainly aren't the most common unless Italians spend a lot of time watching war films and are even hornier than they're made out to be: words I've learnt so far include “capitano”, “colonello”, “cullo” and “cazzo”. (There may also be a bias toward the letter C.)

For some practical and rather more realistic Italian communication I discovered the course “La Mappa Misteriosa”, which was bradcast on BBC 2 and still hanging around the BBC website (I had to log in through a British proxy server to get the videos to play). This is a story in which you help a couple of Italians to follow a cryptic map to find a lost recipe - a very Italian quest! It's shot in first person perspective, which given my background makes me want to click on things with the mouse to shoot them ... “Mi dica?” “Vorrei un kilo formaggio RATTATTATTATT BOOM BOOM!!!” On the other hand, close up scenes with the sexy Italian lady who is leading me all over virtual Bologna tend to put me in mind of different POV experiences, but let's not go into that ;-)

So did all this concentrated learning prove to be of any use? Actually, not so much, since unlike my experiences in Deruta, where hardly anyone spoke English, Rome was filled with English speakers. I managed to follow directions and do a little shopping in Italian, and found an excuse to say “Mia moglie รจ insegnante di ceramica” in a conversation with an artist from whom we bought a couple of nice landscapes, but for the most part all conversations were in English. I would justify this by saying “Ho solo studiato l'Italiano per due settimani,” not because an apology was called for, but because I wanted to use the Present Perfect tense. Other than that, it was English all the way. I think I'll continue my studies, though, because I love the quirkiness of a language where eggs are masculine and the polite way to address someone is “She” regardless of gender, plus I quite like the idea of being to understand opera.

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Robin Turner

June 2014

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