Feb 282013

I’m visiting France for the first time in 10 years, struggling to get my French skills back up to the moderate fluency I’d had before. In thinking about foreign languages I wanted to repost something I’d first blogged when I was still a law student at the end of my semester studying in Germany.

I recently read a cute blog post written by a law student whose toddler son just uttered his first sentence.

“I am struck, as I march wearily through Evidence, at how effortlessly Nathaniel learns. We adults, we must choose to learn something new. We dedicate ourselves to learning consciously. If we didn’t want to learn anything new for the rest of our lives, we could. Plenty of people drift unresisting along that route through life.”

Certainly there is something marvelous, as she goes on to describe, about how children are so inexorably drawn to learning new things, and how they do it so easily. But for grown-ups, maybe it’s not that we’re any less adept at learning but that what’s left for us to learn is things like Evidence. Something that’s learned in a much more mechanical, deliberate, and less-rewarding fashion than the really cool, substantive stuff like walking and talking.

The other day I went back to the bike shop I’ve visited several times since I’ve been in Germany, including in the first few weeks when I had almost no German skills whatsoever. Back then I had to make the staff speak to me in English, since there was no way anything would get communicated otherwise. But on this day I strode in confidently. I asked my German friend for just one word, the particular one for the part I needed. “Why don’t you just ask them for it in English?” he asked. But I couldn’t do that. Not here, anyway. I needed to do this in German. It was a matter of pride.

So armed with my word I went up to the counter and asked for what I needed. The whole conversation only consisted of a few sentences back and forth, but it was indeed back and forth. I asked for what I wanted, the clerk responded with a question, I answered it, and then he provided the information I needed. By the end of it we both understood each other perfectly.

Outside my friend marveled at how quickly I’d learned to speak that well. Now, let’s not kid anyone: I’m only barely functional in German, and my conversational ability is strongly limited by my tiny vocabulary. And what I can say I may not always say quite right, or quite smoothly. But I can communicate in this language, that is clear. And maybe my friend is right to be impressed.

The thing is, it was easy to learn. Surprisingly easy. And much easier than learning things like Evidence. Because unlike rote, mechanical things like Evidence, learning a language is a dynamic process full of reinforcing affirmations. It wasn’t something I learned abstractly and then took a test for, after which I needed to wait days or even weeks for feedback on whether I’d learned anything at all. Learning German in Germany meant that I got feedback immediately, on the spot, with every word I uttered. That dawning look of understanding on the other person’s face, it helped to immediately cement in my brain everything new I’d absorbed.

It does matter, of course, tremendously, that I learned German in a German-speaking place. Learning a language in a rote form, far removed from anyone you could connect to with it, is much like learning Evidence. I gave up Latin in high school for that very reason — it always felt like learning algebra, something with memorizable formulas but no spark of life. But I switched to Spanish in an environment where, although it is a living language, I was so detached from anyone who lived in that language that the educational experience was just like learning Evidence too: a discrete set of material to be learned and memorized, but nothing more than that. And so while I can truthfully say I’ve learned Spanish – I studied it quite a bit over several years – it’s still not a language I can (so far) in any way say I truly know how to speak.

But in the right environment, somewhere where you can explore and decode language with each breath you take and be rewarded for your discovery almost immediately, language is amazingly easy to learn, no matter how old you are – whether you’re toddler in your parents’ arms or a grown-up in a new neighborhood.

Or at the very least, it’s much easier than Evidence.

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