Monday, January 18, 2010

Learning a New Tongue

While preparing to go to Senegal, I told people that I enjoy learning languages. I’m feeling now that this is statement must be revisited. While I like learning languages in theory, in practice the exercise is endlessly frustrating. And while it’s frustrating constantly, it’s also full of rewards. Let me explain.

Language and the act of living are inextricably intertwined. In America I think that we overuse the word indescribable. Very few things in life are indescribable. In fact, language is developed and evolves to fit every experience that we might face so that we can communicate it to others.

Now suppose that the English language was constrained to one tenth of the words that exist now, and it could not grow. How would we describe the discovery of new biological processes or a new sport? Every conversation would be one long process of describing one object and then describing another using simple language.

This is my life right now. It feels sometimes that because the way I can describe my experiences is limited, my experiences are also limited. Somehow not sharing them devalues them. One perspective is not enough to learn and grow. (Not to mention it’s hard when I average 1 word/2 seconds.)

I’ve also been thinking about memory and language. If I experience a conversation in French, will I remember it in French? At some point in learning a language, you begin thinking in the new language. But what if you forget it, like I’ve lost most of the Spanish I learned 2 years ago? Do I also lose those memories? I don’t think I have, but I wonder if they’ve been recast in the English words that describe them differently than Spanish would, thus changing my memory.

In the great debate over the merits of immersion versus grammar in learning a language, I doubt I have anything new to say. I’d only note that I’m trying to use a mix of the two. Learning new vocabulary or new words in immersion is difficult and slow because you do not have an English translation for the word. But maybe that is best so that in your mind the word is categorized by experience rather than letters. Perhaps this sticks better in the brain goop.

To end, I’ll note that I think I hit a low point in my French when I mistakenly said yes when someone asked me if I liked Lady Gaga. This mistake led to a Franco-Senegalese accented rendition of Poker Face. I then tried to recover by telling the joke “How do you wake up Lady Gaga?” It took about 5 minutes for them to understand the correct answer. (Poke her face.) It’s all up from here folks.

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