Basic Skills as Basic Tools

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Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.
– Confucius

 

Everytime I share some kind of trivia in family gatherings, my sister S and my father M would always ask, “How did you know that?”. As an adolescent I would always reply, “Because I’m smart!” But now as an adult I realized that I really am not all that.

True, I have been blessed with a very good memory which helps retain anything of my interest (it has also allowed me to win a few quiz bees back in the day). For the longest time, I counted on memorization to gain information. However, pregnancy, motherhood and all the hormones involved must have done something to my brain: I can feel my capacity of recollection slowly wane. This is how I came to see that there are other methods for learning and they are actually very much within my reach!

Somehow, somewhere along the way I discovered that a few basic skills could be turned into very dependable tools for my continual search of knowledge.

Reading

I first learned how to read when I was 5. I will never forget the first story book I read with my mother E- Pamilya Ismid. Papá will unbelievingly shake his head if I told this to him, but I swear I could still remember the awesome feeling I got when I became aware that I COULD READ! It was as if a whole new world opened up before me- a world made up of endless halls decked with numerous doors waiting to be opened.

So I read and read and read some more… my parents would insist on diversifying my library while I pushed for my preference to simply complete my collection of a certain series about twin sisters. Thank goodness my parents were persistent and did not give in! You see, I didn’t know until several years ago that there are actually two kinds of literacy:

Simple literacy is the ability of a person to read and write with understanding a simple message in any language or dialect.

Functional literacy, meanwhile, is a significantly higher level of literacy that includes not only reading and writing skills, but also numeracy (the ‘rithmetic that completes the ‘three Rs’), which leads to a higher order of thinking that allows persons to participate more meaningfully in life situations requiring a reasonable capacity to communicate in a written language.”

– Juan Miguel Luz, A nation of nonreaders

It was only in college where I found out that the kind of materials you read actually mattered- a lot. I met many fellow students who may not be very eloquent, yet their arguments had structure and logic (and sense, of course). I envied them but I just associated it with the superior Spanish educational system and never made any connection with what type of reading they did. Because of this, I continued with life without really developing the functional aspect of reading.

Although something inside me was already aware that it’s not the same to read Nancy Drew mysteries or Noli Me Tangere or a Trigonometry Manual, at the time I simply didn’t care. Consequently, it took me quite a while to reach a “higher order of thinking”.

Come 2008 when I was admitted to my Master’s Degree. Reality struck quite hard: knowing how to read matters even more. There were so many interesting materials to be studied and of varying subjects, too, that it overwhelmed me at one point.

This made me recall how much I laughed at my parents (I was 14, alright?) and told them how funny they seem reading a book entitled “How to Read a Book”. I remember finally admitting to myself that the idea wasn’t silly at all. Ah yes, the joke was on me because had I known then how to effectively read, I would have been more productive and perhaps I would have better contributed to past debates and brainstorming sessions. (Although, I can’t help but think that perhaps the author could’ve entitled the book “How to read effectively”?)

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Fast forward to the present time… I find myself in a new country, under totally new circumstances, but with the same childlike eagerness to learn how to read. Say what you want about the French, but these people READ. If you’re a book lover/hoarder just like me, come to Paris and you’ll see more than a couple of bookstores in one street as well as specialized stores for classical, hardbound editions. Likewise, you could find used books at more than half the price, and some really old ones that are worth 50 cents of a euro; plus if you’re lucky enough, you could find free books in the streets or in bus stops (you can also leave your own pre-loved books for others to enjoy)!

I used to wonder what made them read so much*. From what I’m seeing, for them reading is a habit borne out of necessity. In the short time that I’ve been acquainted to the language, I observed that the French grammar is so complex, one must read and re-read anything written so as to avoid any misunderstanding. Now, this is only my opinion, but I recall “complaining” to my French teachers before because it seemed like there were more exceptions than there are rules, concerning the written language**. Thus, reading is a basic, vital skill for one to thrive in this setting.

Back in the Philippines and even in Spain, I never once stopped to mind any notice on cork boards or almost any type of announcement. People just find a way to get hold of the message through neighbors and peers. Not in France. Maybe it’s because this is a more individualistic society (something to be certainly be discussed in another post). The thing is, now I read EVERYTHING, ANYTHING that is posted in the walls of our building, the grocery glass doors, the vandalism on the streets… just in case. And more often than not, I actually learn one new thing before I go to sleep.

Listening

I speak 3 foreign languages and in all of them, there is a clear distinction between: hearing and listening, oír y escuchar, and écouter et entendre.

The first words of each pair  mean “to be aware of sound through the ear” while the second ones mean “to pay attention”. The former seems to be a passive activity, the latter requires a more active involvement.

As a child and a teenager, I didn’t really excel in listening as much as I could have done. I talked a lot. I talked so much, I got chosen as one of the Northern Mindanao representatives for a national extemporaneous speech contest.During the moments I did listen, I filtered between interesting and uninteresting, and only tuned in to what caught my attention. And then almost immediately, I would go back to talking.

Adulthood has taught me that as a responsible citizen, it is my obligation to listen to many things, including those that don’t necessarily interest me. It is informative, it is enriching and it gives a clear basis for any argument I may wish to express. For this to be possible, it is imperative to know how to listen.

Eventually, I learned to listen when I was 28 years old after I enrolled in a Bikram Yoga class. This exercise, based on active meditation is only feasible with open ears and a clear mind. It is not always easy to clear the mind, but opening the ears is achievable. Listening, just like any other skill, could be enhanced through repetitive practice. So after one year and a half of constant training, I was finally beginning to listen.

Strange as it might sound, thanks to this, I’ve never enjoyed going on job interviews as much as I am doing now. For some topics I thought I knew fairly well, I discovered so many fine points that are easily overlooked. As a result, two of those meetings have given me several ideas for future blog entries. It’s a pity I won’t get to work with such bright people, so in the meantime I’ll make myself busy by diffusing what they shared with me.

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Online, I found heaps of guidelines and principles for effective listening. Let me share those that I consider indispensable if we want to increase understanding:

Stop talking

If we were supposed to talk more than we listen, we would have two tongues and one ear.

-Mark Twain

Clear enough. Next.

Be patient

In Spain (at least from the Central Plateau southwards), Germans have always been viewed as very polite and formal people. The reason being that they patiently wait for the other person to finish talking before they speak. This is of course very unlike the Spanish, who are known for their passionate nature (well, some of them) and who would cut the other in mid-sentence to prove a point.

Well, my very knowledgeable friend J (I call him the “Walking Encyclopedia”) told me that Germans do it actually out of habit. I don’t speak German but according to him, the grammar is such that the verb is located at the end of the sentence!*** So logically, they would have to know what entirely happened before they could even form an opinion inside their heads.

(Pause for polite laughter)

Whatever the reason is, it doesn’t mean that patience should be taken for granted. A true seeker of knowledge would apply this principle for the sake of being taught something new.

An everyday affair

Needless to say, one of the many things I am grateful for at this time of my life is the opportunity I have to practice reading and listening. The fact that I’m living in a foreign country, that I have to hone my ability to speak its native language and most of all, that a tiny person’s life depends on me forces me to:

i) read, re-read and read again as many times as I have to, and

ii) to listen very intently to whatever anyone says to me

These are exciting times, indeed. And I can’t help but insist on how thankful I am because I’m not sure I’d be doing the same if motherhood and unemployment simultaneously found me in any of my comfort zones (geographically speaking)…

 

HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME!

 

* Here, let me echo host and blogger Lourd de Veyra, “We read not because of the message, but because it feels good to read. It’s ‘delicious’ to ‘feed’ on words. It feels good to drown in sentences that are very well sewn together. There are words that could make you drunk, or worse. Is it too much? I don’t think so. Some people get addicted to Candy Crush. You could also get addicted to words and written words. Everything could be developed.” (Translated from Tagalog)

**For an easier explanation, let’s just say that spoken French and written French are like two dialects of the same language. If you believe that the spoken French is beautiful, then you might just cry tears of joy if you get the chance to read the “masters” in original version (Hugo, Dumas, Camus, etc…)

*** According to Wikipedia: “The main sentence structure rule is that the conjugated verb is the second element in a main clause or the last in a subordinate clause. Verbs in the infinitive are generally placed after their respective objects.”

 

Sources:

  1. “A nation of nonreaders”, by Juan Miguel Luz, available at: http://pcij.org/stories/a-nation-of-nonreaders/
  2. “Hoy, basahin mo ‘to”, by Lourd de Veyra, available at: http://www.spot.ph/this-is-a-crazy-planets/53357/hoy-basahin-mo-to
  3. “Spoken vs Written French: The 5 Differences You Need to Know”, available at: https://frenchtogether.com/differences-written-spoken-french/
  4. Quora: Why are written and spoken French so different? available at: https://www.quora.com/Why-are-written-and-spoken-French-so-different
  5. http://www.merriam-webster.com/
  6. Listening Skills, available at: http://www.skillsyouneed.com/ips/listening-skills.html
  7. Wikipedia
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