Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The "rule" of three

When I learn a language, I have a rough rule that I follow to measure my progress.

It can be easy to get discouraged when learning a language and start to think "I haven't learned anything!". But I think we are often so focused on the final outcome and not the process.

As a result we become very critical of ourselves and then give up before we get anywhere. Language is like a building. We have to build a foundation, and at first it seems as though we are progressing slowly. But then when the foundation is secure, the rest of the building goes up quite quickly.

So when I try to get an idea of how well my foundation is doing, I use these 3 steps:

The first step: Recognition
This is the ability to be able to pick out a word or phrase in natural conversation, regardless of whether you understand the word or not. This is what I have been doing with my Chinese language experiment. After 50 hours I can pick out words if they are spoken clearly at a reasonable pace, for example like how a newscaster speaks. I can follow along with Chinese subtitles and if I know the characters I can learn words this way. This is a step that a lot of people underestimate the importance of and try to bypass. But without building a solid foundation in listening skills, ability to converse in the language is seriously diminished.

The second step: Familiarization
This is the feeling of "I know what that word meant the other day!" and can feel a little frustrating. But this is a good stage. It means that you not only can recognize the sound clearly, but that you also are starting to connect the sound to a meaning. The reason that you cannot recall it is simply that the connection isn't strong enough. With more exposure to the word, the connection between sound and meaning will become stronger. If this feeling of frustration increases, it means that you're progressing.

The third step: Comprehension
This is what everyone looks for straight away. But only when you can easily recognize the word, and it becomes familiar enough to you can you understand it properly and use it in an appropriate context.

Most formalized systems tend to try and get the student to step 3 without taking steps before it. Partly I feel this is because we can measure comprehension much more easily than the other steps.

If taught in an acquisition way, with lots of exposure to comprehensible input, this explains why people will listen for hours and hours, and then finally "get it".

It is important that all these steps are covered when learning a language; that a person can recognize the sound, become familiar with it in natural speech, and comprehend its meaning. But also can be a good measure for a student as to how well they are learning the language. Especially for those that try to use natural approach methods, it can make them less critical of themselves, and it can give them more confidence in the method.

Because even if they aren't "getting it", they may still be progressing anyway.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Moral vs economic choices

In a previous post I touched on thinking of morality as a form of capital. I'd like to talk more about morality in the context of economics.

The general goal of economics is to increase overall welfare for members of a society. So how we define welfare sets the foundation for how economics is used.

Generally, economists use the phrase "standard of living" to differentiate from quality of life. Standard of living refers to the level material comfort available to a person. This is different from quality of life which has many definitions, but for the purposes of this article I will define it vaguely as "what makes life worth living".

Economists usually use this differentiation to stay away from the arena of philosophy and religion to focus solely on material factors of life. Economics is essentially a study of scarcity and choice, and has a much broader scope than just money or material wellbeing. It just isn't often used this way.

Life does not separate easily into little boxes, and sometimes we are faced with choices between what is profitable, and what is right.

What does this mean?

A trick we can use in economics is to redefine phenomena under economic terms and use the science to look at regular problems from another perspective.

The idea of thinking of morality in terms of moral capital help us to understand choices we need to face often in our lives. Just like on a national level, when policy makers need to sometimes choose between social and economic development, sometimes we need to make choices between economic and moral investment.

Let's forget about the other points on this recurring graph and just talk about points B and C.

Here economic capital refers to what we own and can measure; Our tangible goods, such as clothing, gadgets, a house/apartment, a car, etc. Moral capital refers to the immeasurables; how much regret we have, our pride, our peace of mind, our joy of life, etc. We can define what is "right" from the question above as what increases our moral capital.

If we are a salesperson for example, selling a car that we know will break down to a person that cannot afford it. We have the choice to sell the product anyway and convince them it is good, or advise them against buying the product.

Choice 1: Sell.
Incentive - We get commission, perhaps improve our chance for a promotion.
Cost - The regret from taking advantage of the customer, reinforcing the idea that other people are our enemy, and that we must take from them to advance in life.

Choice 2: Advise against.
Incentive - Clear conscience, reinforcing the idea that people are there to help each other.
Cost - Loss of commission, possible problems with our boss, risk losing our job.

This is an example of a choice we can make. Choice 1 increases our economic capital and is a choice at point B on the graph, and choice 2 increases our moral capital and is at point C. Most of us might like to think that we would make choice 2. In reality most of us would make choice 1. Why?

If we are honest with ourselves we would probably admit that getting commission and the chance for promotion is clearly worth more than the small pang of regret we get from selling to this one customer. We might even have convinced ourselves that we feel nothing ("if they're stupid enough to buy it, it's not my fault!").

Part of the problem with this view is that it looks at each choice in isolation. And here's where the economics comes in.

Economics defines the difference between consumption and investment, short-term and long-term. Namely, that consumption increases a persons short-term welfare, but investment increases long-term welfare. If a country spends less money on cars now and puts that money into car factories, in the future it can produce more cars.

People are the same. We can look at our choices in the short-term, as a type of consumption. We think we can "consume" our current peace of mind for economic gain, because we can just get more later. But it doesn't work like that.

Our emotional state is very much a case of long-term investment. Who we become is a result of where we have "invested" our choices. When we chose the moral choice in the example above, the result may not be big now, but we are increasing our moral capital. If we save just $20 a week, it might not seem like much, but it can accumulate to a lot over time. Individual moral actions may not seem to create a big result, but over time we can accumulate a great emotional stability, peace of mind and a sense of joy with life.

Sometimes it is not so easy, sometimes we need to make an immoral choice to survive, but whether we normally reach for point B, or C, or D throughout our life will determine what our life becomes.

We can be materially rich and morally poor, we can be morally rich and materially poor, or we can be somewhere in between.

Where do you want to be?

Monday, August 15, 2011

How to teach a language wrong

After sitting through 8 weeks of some of the worst language teaching I've ever experienced in my life, I have been inspired to write a post about how you can maximize your students mistakes and demoralize them from future learning.

This ironic post is designed to highlight all the wrong things I've seen one person do when teaching, so if you want to do all the right things, I would suggest something close to the opposite of this. Follow on to see how you can "Maximize your Mistakes"!

Firstly, you need to seriously limit how much time students spend practicing. Because language is best trained like a sport, you need to steer students away from anything that will actually improve their skills.

But if you have all this scheduled class time with your students, what should you do?

You need to spend as much time as possible explaining unimportant nuances of the language elements you are teaching. For example, explaining how a single Chinese word is pronounced in different dialects, and the trivial details of how a character is written. But limit this to the unimportant details, or you may be in danger of teaching your students something. Another important point: Never, ever, give examples of how these words might be used in a real life sentence. In fact, never use realistic language with the students at all. This way, when they hear a native speaker talk, they will be completely unfamiliar with it.

Using the language in class is a dangerous slope as you risk putting real information into your class, so as much time as possible should be used for talking about things completely unrelated to language.

So secondly like our teacher you can spend a lot of time talking about your past issues in class. It's a captive audience. Therefore it's like free therapy, isn't it? Furthermore, you can spend extra precious minutes boosting your ego about how much you must know to be teaching a language to all those students.

Thirdly, to ensure the students don't start doing dangerous things like asking questions or experimenting with the language, you need to demoralize them. Here's some of the great ideas used by the teacher in question:
  1. Tell students that because they haven't studied linguistics or phonology, they are at a serious disadvantage in learning a language
  2. Tell them that because they are learning a language at a later age, they will never been really good at it
  3. If their language is very different to the one they are learning, tell them they will never understand the grammar or the nuances of vocabulary fully
  4. Tell them that if a sound doesn't exist in their native language it will be impossible for the student to make the sound correctly in the future.

Finally once the students are demoralized and bored with your personal rants, then you can tell them you will teach them one thing, and then continuously change your mind. This will have them second guessing anything that comes out of your mouth and even the most dedicated student should be giving up by now.

So if you follow these 4 simple steps; teach trivial details, keep conversation away from the subject, destroy your students hopes, and make false promises, then congratulations! You have Maximized your Mistakes.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

How morality creates happiness

I tend to refer to morality a lot in my posts and in my discussions in life. To me, it is very important. And so I felt that it would be necessary for me to explain what I mean by the word "morality".

Many traditions and religions have their own set of moral rules. It seems the intention of most of these are to ensure social harmony by having everyone follow the same rules.

My idea of morality is different to this.

In a long overdue post on economics, I should talk about consumption vs investment. I'll mention it briefly here. Imagine for example, we are in a community that can only spend its money on pizzas or pizza ovens. The basic idea is if we spend most of our money on pizzas, we can enjoy the benefits now; If we invest most of our money on pizza ovens, we don't get to enjoy it now, but we get the benefits later (namely, being able to make more pizzas).

Morality is about long term happiness. Its short term equivalent is hedonism.

Hedonism is the near instant gratification of our senses. I don't consider hedonism an "evil", but I believe many religions have long warned against hedonism because of it's long term limitations.

From the economics viewpoint, we can have pleasure now, or invest our energy into something pleasurable later. So we have hedonism vs morality. The problem with a hedonistic attitude to life is that while it may be fun now, we adapt to it quickly, and it consumes all our resources. A hedonistic person may enjoy life until their 40s or maybe even their 50s if they are lucky. But the quicker we are gratified by something, the quicker we adapt. Eventually it becomes too hard to find pleasure this way.

It's like reaching the top of a hill. One day we will reach it, and then we can only go downhill. It can also backfire when all the time, money and energy we have put into our life no longer satisfy, and we have spent no time building anything long term. All we can do is look back at the top of the hill and remember how far we have fallen.

Another negative effect of hedonism is that we often see others as a barrier to getting what we want, or the source of what we want, and we seek to take it from them. A whole life of hedonism creates the perception that life is about how much you can take, and that other people are your competition. Life becomes a game you play to win.

On the other hand, investing in morality is like building a staircase. It is slower than running up Hedonism Hill, and in the short run it may seem that you're behind. But there's no upper limit to the staircase. You can just keep adding steps. So when a hedonist has hit their peak, you are still quietly working away on your happiness.

In this way, living a moral life is like investing in your happiness. Moral rules can sound constricting and boring, but they are time tested rules for your long term happiness. Most moral rules are based around the ethic of reciprocity aka the Golden Rule which says to treat others like you want to be treated.

When you want to build long term happiness, you can't create enemies. You need to find a way that is sustainable. And the only way to do that is to find ways to make both yourself and other people happier.

This is different to gratifying what your senses demand in the moment. It is about finding your set of unique skills and talents and how they can be applied to make the world a slightly better place.

In other words, to building happiness long term, you need to seek a life of purpose. When living a moral life, you don't play to win, but you play the game to discover the reason you are playing.

This takes time. I've been spending almost 10 years looking for my purpose. But I'm getting there, and I've learned a lot along the way. As I slowly narrow down and refine my understanding of my place, I've become happier and more content. And each year presents an opportunity to discover something new and try something different. Each year I get to add a new step to my staircase of happiness.

And I'm still looking towards the sky.

Monday, August 1, 2011

What Thailand needs

After my time in Thailand, it feels like home.

Like anyone who feels positive towards where they are, they want to see the place flourish and thrive. I've started to love the country more for what is good, and be saddened by the problems that it has.

Thailand is a middle income country, not a "developing country" (see no more western and developing countries). What this means is that that poverty is becoming less of a concern. Many Thais are starting to be able to buy cars, and even take holidays in places like Korea. They have functioning roads, hospitals, banks and some good universities.

But the country still has a lot to improve.

For one, the country tends to look poorer than it is. If you go to Bangkok or Chiang Mai, the sidewalks are in bad condition, if they are there at all. There is often garbage everywhere. And there are people living in slums (more in Bangkok than up here).

Part of the reason is a lack of community spirit. Most people here tend to think of the problems of themselves, friends and family. Anyone else is considered not their problem. Those that have money will move to a "mu baan" (gated community) and think little of making their city beautiful, clean, or safe.

I think this needs to change. The majority of Thais are generous by nature, but this generosity is not always planned, and usually goes to family and community seniors (such as monks) instead of the common man.

But this I believe will change in time. In fact I'm much more concerned with the Thai attitude to education. And with the ASEAN community in 2015, this will only become more important.

In general, not many Thais tend to value learning as much as other nations in the region. Education is seen as a way of gaining status. Getting the degree is more important than what you learn during your time studying. And there is very little serious commitment to lifelong learning.

I'm not saying that there are not very intelligent Thais working in the country. There are extremely intelligent people here. But often they are marginalized, and unless they come from upper class families, those that would become very well educated are discouraged by society from doing so.

This has lead to the unfortunate stereotype that Thai people are stupid. For the love of this country, it is a stereotype I hope one day will be broken.

Many of Thailand's neighbors such as Cambodia and Vietnam are starting to take education much more seriously. This is not just the government, but the people as well. If Thai people don't change this attitude with the lowering of economic barriers in 2015, the country may lose its high value well paying jobs and revert to low value manufacturing and agriculture.

It's not just education. Thailand has a reputation for some good quality specialized products (such as car components) in south east Asia, but in general there isn't the same attention to detail here that is displayed in countries like Japan and Korea. This combined with a lack of planning for the future makes Thailand reactive, rather than proactive.

The country has the base to be a key country in the region and an important country in the world. But if it wants to grow, it needs to do some things, like:
Celebrate intellectual heroes. Running contests, televised debates, and giving awards for significant academic achievements can give people the social reinforcement they need to educate themselves, if that is their interest.
Develop community spirit. By creating a pride in the quality of ones neighborhood and community, the Thai spirit of generosity could become a very powerful force in tackling many of the social problems in the country.
Become more future focused. While many residents are focused on having fun now, the problem is that many big problems get left until too late. By encouraging people to think a little more into the future they will start to fix problems before they get too big.
Read!. Find ways to get Thai people to enjoy reading more. It doesn't matter what, it can be whatever they are interested in. But more reading leads to more information in the heads of Thai citizens, and to more authors producing original and creative works in the language.

There is a cost to economic development, but in Thailand's current position, I believe many social problems can be positively impacted by economic development. By raising income levels, the incentive to traffic drugs and people decrease. Less expats who come here from the wrong reasons will be able to afford it, improving the quality of the foreigner population here. And more money available can help the government improve its welfare policies like health care and the old age pension, which is currently not sufficient. And, as the other countries around it are growing, Thailand will actually devolve if it remains stagnant.

The Thai culture has some great things to show the world, and I would like to see the people get richer and the country prosper economically, so that internationally people start taking Thailand more seriously.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Can people Vs Should people

In this world there are two types of people.

We come into this world not knowing what is acceptable and what is not. We don't know that it's not okay to poop our pants in front of everyone, or cough in somebodies face. But as we grow older this is the kind of stuff we need to learn in order to get along.

We start by relying on external measures. When mom or dad is angry with us, we know we have done something unacceptable. We learn over time to do less things that make mom and dad (and other people) angry with us, and do things that make them happy.

To an extent.

The limitation to this method is that we only base our actions on what is immediately reacted upon by others. We place ourselves at their mercy and disempower ourselves. But worst of all, we ignore the results of our actions that have far reaching effects.

People who think like this I call "can" people. They are mostly concerned with what other people think of them, and act on stuff they think they can "get away" with.

People like this are dependent on external rules for their morality. With social and explicit systems, such as laws and the threat of social rejection, people in the extreme end of this spectrum will simply act on their own gratifications, and only consider their immediate situation.

Most people, while not as extreme as the example above, fall into this category.

It is why so many of us around the world feel so much pressure to follow the majority. We are concerned with the external values presented around us because we feel weak to fight popular opinion. The idea of creating a more moral society for someone with this viewpoint is to create an external system of behaviors that cannot be corrupted.

The modern system of morality that focuses on behavior morality has encouraged this view.

External measures can never be incorruptible, nor are they the only method used to evaluate the morality of our actions.

As we develop an understanding of social norms, we start to develop the capacity to critically analyse these norms. We can pattern match our moral rules to outcomes in the world and use wisdom to refine our morality.

This creates an internal sense of morality that belongs to the group I call "should" people. Should people are focused more on developing character than on behavior. They ask themselves, "should I do this" before they act. They refer to their internal sense of morality before they act on something.

While in reality most people will fall on a spectrum between can people and should people, it is my experience that very view people sit firmly in the should category, at least in the time I have been alive.

We like to focus on what is easily measurable and so we like behavior modification. But not all aspects of life are easily measurable, including very important things like respect, happiness, and honor.

An extremist "can" person is morally bankrupt, only concerned with what benefits themselves, and mostly in the short run. We are encouraging this attitude when we ignore the importance of developing moral character.

An extremist "should" person can be as harmful, considering their moral feelings superior to all others and can sometimes be destructive to others. They are often concerned with the long run benefits to themselves and others at the expense of the now. We moved away from an old system of this, where a person of honor was considered incapable of doing harm, and would have a leniency in the law that allowed at the extreme abuses of authority to occur.

We need both external and internal measures to define our morality. It is important to consider the groups values, especially in the short term or we may bring harm to others. But long term, it is important for us to build character, a sense of what is beneficial and what is harmful. And to strengthen our desire to act in beneficial ways, and weaken our desire to act in harmful ways.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Greater fear theory: How nations are changed

My last culture post was about Greater Fear Theory. This post extends this idea to nations.

I think we are often concerned with the world around us. Changing ourselves can be scary, so we look at changing our situation so it can avoid setting off our negative triggers, and can set off our positive triggers.

But there are times when changing society can be beneficial. Especially when it is done for the needs of others. (See next post on What Thailand Needs, coming up in 2 weeks)

There's no doubt that sometimes the collective values we hold can cause suffering to others, or even ourselves. Having lived in Thailand for 3 years now, I can attest that the western drive to always be somebody "special" and better than others has led to an erosion of community. It's more unusual for people to be lonely here and much easier to find people to support them and help them. Many people are also happier with a comfortable "average" life leading to less stress and all the problems that go along with it. I think modern countries should do better than dismissing countries like Thailand as "less developed" and try to learn from what is good here.

But in Thailand there are major problems, and part of it comes from an unwillingness to confront the uncomfortable things in life (the Sabai Sabai life). There are 1000s of illegal abortions, domestic abuse cases, drink driving deaths and emotionally based shootings in this country every year. And that's partly to do with the fact that many Thais don't want to be a buzzkill.

No matter what country you are from however, there are problems to face. And sometimes they get avoided because the populace fall into a comfortable complacency. And here greater fear theory works on a national level.

This can be initiated by people, or as "unintentional events".

Often when it is initiated by people (normally politicians), the results are bad. Nazi Germany was founded on the fear of inferior races like Jewish people and tried to eliminate them. World war 2 imperial Japan was founded on the fear of inferior Asian cultures that needed to be cleansed and educated in Japanese ways. In both these cases, the average German or Japanese wouldn't have committed the atrocities they did. But they were afraid.

The USA went to war in WWII and this ended the great depression. It's a tactic that has been used by American presidents ever since. Unfortunately they are starting only now to realize that a war is only stimulates the economy if that economy is based on manufacturing.

People know these events and so rightly are very concerned the use of fear in politics. But can fear be used for good?

In my last post, the death of my mother through cancer was a shock that pushed me into a life where I am now much happier and more joyful than ever. It was not an "intentional" event. Let's look at unintentional outcomes in some nations.

Germany has rebuilt itself on the concept of co-operation rather than dominance. WWII was horrible for German citizens as well as other Europeans. This memory has created a collective fear about centralized political control and propaganda. They now have one of the freest medias in the world and are deeply focused on getting EU members to co-operate.

Japan has recovered from the devastation to become one of the world's leading trading nations. Together with Germany, they are the worlds top advocates for nuclear demilitarization and global peace initiatives.

They do this because the results of war have been real and immediate to them. In the US, the battle ground has always been somewhere far away, and so this hasn't prompted a change in behavior there. We can see the result of the twin towers attack, which while tragic, it was a tiny number of casualties on their soil compared to what happened in Europe or in Asia (the Japanese are believed to have massacred over 20 million people in North Eastern China during WWII).

These have all been events that were never intended. But the reality of them and the immediacy of their results told the population that change needs to happen, and it needs to happen now.

I don't advocate that any of us seek to create some horrible event to initiate change. We have a remarkable gift for imagination that allows us a preview of events without having to "buy the ticket". But it does help understand why some nations don't appear to want to change. They're comfortable.

Many of the nations that have undergone great changes have had some horrible historical events. I believe this is what has kicked people out of their complacency and on a move towards a better future.

Some countries never get out of this change and suffer from repeated atrocities, like ethnic conflicts in some African countries. Which shows that fear is enough to initiate change, but benevolence is needed to use it for good.