Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Language Lab of Life

La plume de ma tante est sur le bureau de mon oncle.  ¡Hola, Paco! ¿Qué tal? ¿Cómo estás?  Amo, amas, amat, amamus, amatis, amant!”

Seven years of high-school French and four each of Spanish and Latin had me convinced that learning languages was for others.  The equations of physics, the formulas of chemistry, or the language of math were more to my liking.  My love affair with human languages might well have ended before it begun.

However, I surprised myself by giving it one more go.  Thinking I might end up studying theoretical physics in the land of Einstein, Planck, Heisenberg, and Schroedinger, I signed up for a college course in conversational German.  That’s where I learned my first principle of linguistic success:  always put something else at stake.

I’d seen lots of children grappling with English.  Making themselves understood and understanding what is said to them is of paramount importance.  Satisfying their hunger, their needs for affection, their very lives depend upon it.  Compared to those ends, worrying about appearances is not even on the scale.  The gentle verbal corrections of a well-meaning adult will be brushed aside like a bothersome fly until the message – or the milk – is delivered.  They have something much bigger at stake than avoiding mistakes.  So I had my clue about the first principle I needed to follow.

Always have something that’s more important than my fear of opening my mouth and looking foolish.

In German 101, that something came in the form of two agreeable young German majors.  By October, I was spending my lunch hours trying to keep pace with their lively conversations “auf Deutsch”.  My relationship with the two women deepened, and soon I was good friends with one of them – and more than friends with the other.  I now had much more at stake than I’d ever had in the language lab.  By spring all three of us had joined a local German choir, whose rehearsals and socializing were never in English.  By end of term, I was glad that my new girlfriend would be studying in Germany.   My keenness for the language landed me a spot in a student summer exchange program in the German Alps, and that’s where I learned my second lesson.

Cut off all escape routes.

As a young child learning English I had little choice.  Either I made myself understood in my prospective mother tongue, or I didn’t get what I wanted.  There was no easy out by reverting to my first language.  Thinking that if I could do it once, I could do it again, I resolved to speak or read no English for my entire summer’s posting at a small Bavarian inn.  Had the “gasthaus” been on a more traveled route, I might have had more temptations to break my vow of English silence.  However, few Anglophones stopped by the small town of Schwangau, and those who did could usually get by in my adopted language.  On one occasion, I stood dutifully by a table where a family of American tourists juggled several phrasebooks while they tried to find their favourite dishes on "die Speisekarte".  My expression of studied incomprehension must have missed the mark, for, at one point, the father looked up at me and exclaimed, “You understand everything we’re saying, don’t you?”  Lucky for me, they were good sports.  I briefly broke my vow to explain myself – Goethe, forgive me! – and we continued the conversation in halting German.  A couple of fellow student workers in town were less accommodative, and by summer’s end, I had alienated them by my continued refusal to engage them in English.

Reading presented a few challenges as well.  At first, I found my German abilities not quite up to the writing style in many German original novels.  I struggled with sentences that ran on endlessly, piling up all the verbs to spill out at the end.  I discovered that German translations of novels from other languages often had shorter sentences and were easier for me – more so if I’d already read them in English!  So I picked up some old favourites by Jules Verne and Robert Heinlein, as well as a popular contemporary book on mathematics.  By the time my stint at the restaurant was done, I had more than once surprised myself by hearing those stacked-up verbs spill out of my mouth at the end of a long sentence – almost without my conscious guidance.  I could scarcely recall thinking in English, and I was even able to keep my background a secret for short conversations with native speakers who came by for beer and schnitzel.

During that summer, I had also learned a third important lesson:  stop trying to translate everything.

The habit I’d had drilled into me in high school had the form of endless translation exercises.  When I arrived in Germany, I’d brought the usual travel accessories:  a German-English dictionary, and a German-English phrasebook.  While these might be helpful for getting started, I thought I might do better learning the language as the Germans did.  So I threw away my English crutches and replaced them with a “Schülerduden” – the German-only dictionary that every German schoolchild would have at their desk.

At the outset, my every attempt to look up a word was time-consuming and frustrating.  Starting with one word I didn’t understand, I’d soon have half a dozen.  But by following enough chains far enough, the meaning would eventually emerge from the fog, and the process or uncovering it always taught me a lot more than I would have learned from an English translation.  Avoiding the temptation to frame every word and phrase in English terms propelled me more rapidly towards my goal of thinking in German.  And as long as I knew what I was saying, and understood what I was hearing, I knew I would be able to put it into English if and when I needed to.

Another book I learned to rely on far less often was the grammar book.  For, I discovered that grammar is descriptive, not prescriptive.  And what it describes is music.

Through engaging in numerous conversations, I came to trust the “music of the language.”  I developed a sense that one way of phrasing something sounded right, while another did not.  Our brains seem to possess some sort of patterning ability which allows even very young children to pick up and use the correct patterns of speech.  Children often absorb and follow the rules flawlessly – before they learn the exceptions.  But their understanding of the grammar that describes those patterns comes much later.  In my own case, I only came to understand English grammar in grade school, years after I’d learned to speak quite well.  In other words, the grammar described how I already spoke; it wasn’t an engine for producing speech.  While trying to speak German, I found that focusing on the grammar and filtering all my conversations through it just got in the way of exchanging meaning.  Once I had achieved some fluency, understanding the grammar was helpful in clearing up certain mysteries and fine tuning my speech.  But it then described how I was already speaking.  And that way of speaking came from my musical sense of “what sounds right” – just as it does in English.

Throwing away the grammar book and the phrase book made it a lot easier to learn my next linguistic lesson.  Relax and have fun!

On my third day as a German waiter, I discovered that it was easier to set aside “looking good” when I was relaxed and having a good time.  The restaurant system made individual waiters financially responsible for the food and drink orders they placed at the kitchen and bar, whether or not the customer paid up.  The names of thirty different schnapps had not appeared on the syllabus for German 101, and most were incomprehensible at first.  I dutifully repeated at the bar what I thought I’d heard at the table – “Asbach, Bärenjäger, Doornkaat, Eifeler, Goldwasser, Jägermeister, Kümmerling, Nordhäuser, Schinkenhäger, Steinhäger, Uerdinger, und Underberg” to name but a few – and often ended up replacing an order.  Since I’d paid for the mistakes, and seeing no point in pouring them down the drain, I poured them down the hatch instead.  “Prost!”  The day soon became a blur.  The night too.  I finished my shift with my purse cleaned out, but much to my surprise, my German had advanced several grade levels by the following morning.

Another way I learned to have fun was to unleash my natural mimic – the one that every child seems to have, but which is often scolded out of us by age three – “It’s not polite to copy people, Paul!”  By mimicking the accents I heard around me, in a manner I first thought “over the top”, I came to sound much more like a German.  Even mimicking the facial gestures helped.  As my sore jaw attested after the early days at the restaurant, speaking German places different demands on the muscles used for speech, and those differences are visible – as my inner child knew.

I ended the summer with reasonable fluency in German – and had a lot of fun in the process.  My earlier distaste for languages had been banished forever.  Within a couple of years, I enjoyed a similar process in Portuguese – together with a new set of adventures involving Brazil and the Carnival of Rio.  Still later, I finally learned to speak the Spanish that had tormented me in high school, while putting it to good use in Mexico and Costa Rica.  Perhaps someday, I’ll tackle French ... on the banks of the Seine!

The lessons of childhood proved to be the key.  I’d always heard that it’s much easier for children to learn new languages.  Maybe that’s because it’s much easier for children to act like children.  By acting like a child, I’d made the process much easier for myself.

I’ve been pondering these language lessons again of late:
  • Put something at stake that’s more important than looking good.
  • Don’t translate everything.  Learn how to think in others’ terms.
  • Trust the music.  Don’t let the words get in the way. 
  • Relax and have fun!  Enjoy the game!
These lessons have much wider application than learning a foreign language.  They’re crucial even when speaking to someone who shares my mother tongue.  In truth, none of us speak the same language.  We all bring our own meanings, understanding, connotations and emotional associations to the words we use.  Truly hearing someone else’s message requires me to commit to understanding – even when I may look foolish in the process.  It requires that I relate to what they are saying in their terms, not just mine.  It works when I give myself over to the process of communication and “trust the music of the conversation.”  And life in general works out best when I just relax and have fun!

Ludi incipiant!”  Let the games continue!


Most of my language learning has been done on the road, so I didn’t have any Internet resources close to hand.  A quick search turned up a few starting points that look interesting:
I've written more on this topic at "Learning Languages for Fun, Travel, & the Fountain of Youth"

Regarding the more general topic of understanding each other:

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