Friday, June 17, 2011

Chewing Your Tongue: Learning Another Language

One of the things I learned as a psychology major in college was that the brain consumes calories like any other organ—much more when it's doing lots of work, almost none when its watching America's Got Talent.

The first time I noticed this firsthand was years ago watching my niece and nephew for a weekend, ages three and five at the time . I remember having previously talked with my sister who said she was exhausted every night from the kids. I thought, right, from doing what? The kids, of course, were running around like free electrons, but she wasn't chasing them around all day or wrestling or anything else particularly active.

Then that first day of watching them I got them down for bed at 8pm, sat down for some Me time in front of the TV, turned on the TV…and was asleep before the TV had warmed up.
I have kids of my own now and can attest to the brain sucking qualities of the little angels at that age when they require constant vigilance. And so it is with language learning at the beginning. I believe you can actually gauge your progress in learning a language by how long it takes before you just want to step off the metaphorical racetrack and fall to your knees. " guys...keep going...I'm just going a litt...braAAAAAppp."

When we first got here neither of us could comfortably go more than 20 or 30 minutes before our brains would actually start to hurt so much that we just wanted to drop them into a nice, warm bubble bath for a long soak. But the brain is a diva. It really just gives up and shuts down under this duress, leaving your tongue and mouth to wrestle mushily around together, leaderless and embarrassing. We looked like we were doped up and chewing on our tongues. Or at least we felt that way.
Just last night, after a two-hour visit with our downstairs neighbors talking Spanish, Diana was lamenting that she could sure use a breakthrough or milestone to tell her she's been progressing. But as I look back on it now, that's it—2 hours of embarrassing ourselves in a foreign language without our brains feeling exhausted. Triumph!

Now, we could probably even be past the embarrassment right now had we more language interaction. That was difficult the last six months in our last home in the campo (the country). The critical thing there is not just country mumbling—we are gringos and therefore automatically get a free pass to a high class. The reflexive shyness and deference makes the campesinos, particularly younger ones, bow their heads and buzz like bees (to our ears, anyway) instead of speak.

Language classes were also tough to commute to from out in the sticks, but we used the Rosetta Stone computer program, which is good but still needs the supplement of real people for practice.

So after 8 months grilling on Spanish here are my recommendations on learning a language (and just because I have learned it, doesn't mean it's right or true.):
  1. Spend at least two hours a day, six days a week learning the language (software, classes, etc.)
  2. Spend 30-60 minutes a day speaking with a representative* native speaker
* For example, we are most likely to be talking with urban, sierra folk, not country folk or coastal folk, who speak differently enough that urban Cuencanos have trouble understanding them. So we are not seeking those others out while learning.
Other tips
  • Watch TV or movies in the language with the subtitles for the language on (both listening and reading in the language at the same time). Soap operas are particularly good, if you can stomach them, as they speak clearly and slowly with lots of pauses (for close up, fade-out shots of distraught heroines).
  • Listen to talk radio in the language.
  • Read the newspaper
If you stick to that discipline (which we didn't upon first landing) I believe you could learn many of the common Western languages in six months. Up the daily to four hours and I think you could learn any language in the world in three months.

Next up, Arabic. Honey, pack 'em up…We're movin' to Yemen!

No comments:

Post a Comment