Massaging a text

Massaging a text is the fundamental activity of the later stages of the Growing Participator Approach. This is a short description of how to do it. But before we jump into the nuts and bolts of massaging a text, I want to consider some of the problems that come up in our language lessons.

The Problem

Maybe you have a great conversation with a teacher… but you can’t remember the words that you learned. You were able to get the gist of the conversation at the time… but you don’t have anything to carry forward from the lesson. You’re able to talk fluently with your teacher… but it doesn’t seem to help you out in the “real world.” You’re getting charming cultural stories and having interesting interactions with your teacher… but you don’t have the vocabulary you need for work, or for talking to friends.

The Solution

These are challenges that we all face. They are challenges that we can overcome. Here’s what we need to do:

  1. Make sure that the subject matter of our lessons is relevant to our needs. Everything you do in your lessons should be contributing to developing proficiency in real-world language use.
  2. Make sure that you really learn the new material that comes up in your lessons.

The first point is addressed by being intentional about what we study. When we work from a text—and by text I refer to a spoken text, a written text, a video, etc.—we’ve got a fixed starting point. If I want to learn about weddings, I can ask my teacher to make me a recording about weddings. If I want to learn about the work of a baker, I can go to a bakery and ask the baker to tell me about his work while I make a recording. If I want to learn vocabulary related to my work, I can ask my colleagues to make me a recording about what they do for a living, or about what I do. Depending on where you are in your studies, you could bring in a newspaper article, or a television show, or a book. It’s impossible to overstate the importance of this: study what you want to learn.

The second point is addressed in the procedure of massaging a text.

How to massage a text

Once you’ve got your text recorded, start listening to it with your teacher. As soon as you hear something you don’t understand, stop the recording and discuss it with your teacher. Perhaps the whole first sentence was a blur. In that case, you may want to listen to that portion again. (I will often listen to a difficult portion four or five time!) You can also ask your teacher to repeat the sentence for you more slowly.

After a while you should be able to pick out some words you know, and some words you don’t. Write down the new words. Write down the meaning as best as you can determine it. Also write down any unclear phrases or grammatical things you didn’t understand at first. Here’s an example from one of my own Uzbeki lessons:

xatʃir    mule
kemɛ    boat
wʊtʃramʌɣ    to meet, encounter
kuldɛrmʌɣ    to trick; also to make laugh?
qʊlaj    easy
qurɛlmʌɣ    to be made
denɪz, deŋgɪz    river
tʃet    unknown, remote, other
tintʃɛlik    peace
bɪlɪmdʌn    wise person
bɪlɪm    learning
asri    new
ʃun-da (-ga)    here
juqa     narrow, thin (not of people)
wʊzgarmʌɣ     to change into (with -ga)
wilanmʌɣ     to marry ([bɛlan])

Most of these are just new words. I’ve been able to make some preliminary notes on usage: [juqa] can describe a thin stick, but not a thin person. And when you use [wʊzgarmʌɣ] to mean “to change into” the thing it changes into is marked with [ga]. (I only wrote enough so that I could understand my notes later. Write as much or as little as you need.) I also noted that [kuldɛrmʌɣ] means “to trick,” and that I wasn’t sure if it also could mean “to make laugh.”

Later on, I checked the pronunciation and meaning with my teacher, and then typed the new words into my flashcard program (Anki, which I recommend; it’s described in more detail here). Usually in a list of 20 words, I’ll have misunderstood the meaning of at least one of them the first time around. Going back over them a second time helps to clear those things up. It’s also a chance to check my pronunciation: if I had a nickel for every time I’d mistaken [q] for [k], I could retire and travel the world.

Later on, by myself, I’ll also listen to my recording again to reinforce my understanding. Over time, as the vocabulary firms up, I’ll be able to use that recording to build listening fluency: practicing my ability to understand speech in real time.

And that’s it.

There’s nothing more to a massaging a text.

Let me anticipate your thoughts: “That’s too simple. I don’t need a recording! I don’t need to write down all the words.” No, both are crucial!

Why is the recording important?

The recording is important for two reasons. (1) In normal speech, there’s too much new information to catch everything the first time around. You need to be able to stop the recording at every new word and every new grammatical point. (2) You want to take something away from the lesson. You can listen to the recording later to reinforce your understanding of the text.

In the above text I’ve used a recorded spoken text as an example. If you’re working from a written text, then of course you can just hold on to that to practice later.

Why is writing down the words important?

This is again so that you retain the information from the lesson. Some words get reinforced so often that you don’t need to take care to memorize them. In Phase 1 (i.e., the beginning of the long course) many people can just absorb those words “naturally.” By the time you get to abstract topics, or infrequent topics of conversation, you can’t rely on everyday speech to reinforce words. You need to have a plan to build your vocabulary.