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Do you have trouble concentrating in language class?  Maybe you learned vocabulary through a book or an app, but have trouble following a conversation.

Maybe you think you understand a language when you read it, but when you hear it, it seems like people are mumbling.

Of course, sometimes you might get distracted.  If you need the toilet, are unsure whether the door is locked, or have something on the stove, or are driving, deal with that first.  Mental multitasking can be difficult and sometimes dangerous.

I began to learn Romanian through books, “scientific shortcuts,” and apps.  Some were better than others, because they used real sentences and human voices.  I’ve learnt more relevant vocabulary through “17 minute languages” than other apps, but all of them have weaknesses.

One is linguistic variation.  There are at least 8 Romanian words for “this” (the proximity pronoun, singular) and another eight for “these.”  Some linguists might say that those 8 words are only two words, but to me if you spell and say it eight different ways, then it’s eight words.  Apps that are designed to teach multiple languages generally do not devote any time to cases, noun genders, word order variations, or other “peculiarities” of the language.  They just translate all sixteen lemmas to “this” or “these,” (and often incorrectly).  They do this for hundreds of words.

A second weakness is that apps tend to be limited to short sentences, and do not help you to build your attention span in a language.  (I heard a monk say that meditation, or mindfulness, is not keeping attention, but rather “returning to attention.”  But I prefer the word “attention span” rather than “mindfulness” because my goal is not to reach nirvana but simply to communicate).

Native speakers use rhythm as much as vocabulary.  Certain phrases can be mumbled, and native speakers will still understand.  The English, “uh uh uh,” in the right tone, means, “I don’t know.”  I know what “uh uh uh” means, it means “I don’t know.”  Of course, “uh huh,” which sometimes sounds like “uh uh,” can mean “yes” if it is toned differently.  Or, “uh uh,” toned in a third way can mean, “that’s bad news.”  (Although that is usually written and pronounced “oh oh” it can also be “uh uh uh!”)

These little things can make non-native speakers lose their concentration.  Sometimes, it isn’t that you don’t know a language, it is that you lack an attention span in that language.  Or maybe it’s confidence.  Or maybe a bit of both.  When you do get lost, do you know how to “return to concentration,” or do you just give up?

If you are reading this, then you probably don’t want to give up.  You want to increase your attention span, to increase your understanding, and to be better understood.

What technique can you use to increase this attention span?  There is something that is used by Baptist preachers, Catholic monks and nuns, and almost all the “wisdom traditions.”  It is called “passage meditation,” but I have adapted it to engage multiple senses, in order to improve our attention span.  (And maybe I was influenced by Olly Richards).

Have you ever heard the expression, “meditate upon the scriptures?”  For some people, this means reading or listening to a sacred passage over and over again.  Or, sometimes, it means thinking about the words you already memorized.

Eknath Easwaran discovered that “passage meditation” can reduce stress and help build moral character.  He tested this technique on people in high stress professions by using works from Christianity and Eastern religions.

Now, when I tried it out, I “misunderstood” Easwaran’s instructions.  I found a fairy tale by a person of good moral character, the Christian-Orthodox Romanian poet Mihai Eminescu. I have a book of his fairy tales, and to “save time” I picked the first one.  (It also happened to be the longest one.  Perhaps I should have skimmed the book first.)  I listened to it while I read it.  Once a day, every day, for 30 days.  (Okay, 28 consecutive days.  Then I missed a day and came back to it.)

This “new month resolution” was exhausting, but it paid off.  I did not improve my number-of-word vocabulary as much as I might if I simply used a vocabulary app, but it improved my understanding much more than any app would.  People don’t normally use one word sentences, or have one sentence conversations.  And, you can usually learn new words from their context if you know how to listen.

This is the method I used.  I played the audio for the fairy tale while I read along in the book.  If I didn’t understand, I just kept reading (it is a long fairy tale, most recordings are slightly longer than 50 minutes).  If I lost my place, or lost concentration, I just listened and searched the page until I could find where the speaker was. (“Returning to focus”).   Instead of trying to understand the entire meditation perfectly, I just followed along.  And I occasionally looked up a few words before or after the “meditation.”  Or, if we are in kindergarten, the read-along.

I learned this, I suppose, from the Lutherans or Baptists.  Or maybe it was elementary school.  Sometimes, congregations or Sunday schools are encouraged to follow along while the Sunday School teacher or a member of the congregation reads scriptures or recites them from memory.  We had similar assignments in school, especially when reading poems or Shakespeare plays, where we read along while listening to someone in the class.

However, in school or Sunday school, most of us tend to read along to a work only once, or once in a while.  We only tend to reread the same passage if we want to memorise it (to recite it in front of an audience, or perform it in a play).

Eknath recommends memorizing texts and recalling them silently.  Luckily, I “misunderstood.”  Or maybe I was just listening to Ollie Richards.

Why is it lucky that I didn’t memorise the texts?  Mihai Eminescu’s works are performed by great artists, who bring in multiple levels of meaning.  As I listened to audio and video recordings, I improved my understanding of rhythm, tonality, and pronunciation.  With great speakers, I focused my attention better.  Had I already known what they were going to say, I would have been reading it in my own voice instead of theirs.  But I listened to them, and they taught me how to say the words on the page.

And, I increased my attention span in Romanian.  At the end of the month, I could follow entire sermons and short plays with very little mental interuption, and I could read for longer periods of time.

Would I recommend it?  Partly.  For most beginners, I would recommend a song, or very short story or poem that is no more than five minutes long.  If you have B2 level vocabulary, then aim for about half your attention span in your native language.

There are other things I would supplement it with, not apps, but vocabulary and grammar practice or a formal class if you can find one.

Did it improve my character?  I don’t know.  I do not think it turned me into a fairy tale prince, but I only fear two things now, Dumnezeu și Mama pădurilor.  And after visiting the botanical gardens, I am ready to face Mama pădurilor.

Now, I need to find a fairy tale about someone discovering a buried treasure.  Eminescu’s work is a treasure, of course, and my increased understanding has helped me find more.

If you are interested in using mindfulness techniques to increase your understanding, and would like guidance, you can reach me on LinkedIn and I also hope to have classes listed here on Hey Cluj.

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