Brian's Blog

…one man's contribution to the Weeeeerly Wild World

Languages and me


It wasn’t until I was 11 or 12 (I’m now in my 30s) that I began to learn a second language at school, French. Shortly after it became a standard part of the curriculum for those at a younger age, so I had just missed out. I’m sure it’s true that it’s better to start younger.

Anyway, I struggled with learning French. I learned some basics but I couldn’t really string a basic sentence together. We visited France on a school trip – it was fun, but that was nothing to do with it being France. I remember that my teacher tried to persuade me to go into a shop and buy something by speaking French, but I didn’t have a clue where to begin, so I didn’t.

Then at high school with a few different teachers over the course of the four years I still struggled. You’d think that having spent a year or more with a different teacher I would have found one that was right for me, but even though I can recall a couple of different approaches (there was one that refused to speak any English in the lessons, and others with more friendly and casual approaches, but I don’t think it made any difference). I think part of it was that I was lazy, which wasn’t recognised by anyone because I was well-spoken (in English) and came across as bright. When it came to the GCSEs (the final exams at the end of the four years) I barely scraped through with a grade – I’d put in some extra hours with lunchtime classes as well. Another thing that didn’t help was that the final year’s classes deteriorated with classes being disrupted by students, and while I wasn’t ‘one of those’ I probably didn’t knuckle-down and get on with my work.

My time at high school was to see the last of my language lessons for a while. Then some years later I moved to Wales where the English are faced with names of places that seem to lack vowels and contain too many L’s and Ds, but for all intents and purposes, you can live quite happily hear with only speaking English – it just feels a little ignorant to do that. For this reason, I suppose, I actually voluntarily borrowed some books from the library to teach myself some of the basics of the Welsh language, at least so I could read place names, but then a few years later I was invited to some free Welsh classes. The first year was pretty good – I pretty much kept up with the others, but when the second year began I seemed to hit a wall. In my head I just seemed to be stuck going over what I had picked up in the first year, and none of the new stuff would go in or mix with it, that and, admittedly, I became lazy again – I stopped keeping up with the homework and then after the second year I admitted defeat and stopped going.

I say I became lazy but I think the problem is that I have never found the learning method that works for me – I’ve seen this with other subjects I’ve tried to learn, like where I’ve had to learn a list of terms; they just don’t go in, they seem detached from the real world somehow, and because I can’t will them to stay in my head, I feel lazy. At school everyone is generally taught the same way – teachers will teach how they’re used to teaching and how works best for them, and how they themselves were taught, and because they have to teach to a mass of students I can appreciate that they have a declining interest in (or a lack of time to) looking for new/different approaches that might be what very a small number of students need (find the best approach for the majority of the students and you’ll meet your targets). Or perhaps, as I think may have been the case with me, the teachers just didn’t notice that a particular student like me was really struggling – I never felt like I was struggling to the point where I could recognise my own difficulties and ask for the help – I don’t think I ever voluntarily put my hand up to ask a question or to say I was stuck – I probably (or at least in hind sight) just felt like I was a little lazy and I was finding more interesting things to do than my homework, I’m also a shy creature when it comes to standing up in front of a group of people.

non-local_universeMaybe I’m just not smart enough – I do only have an average IQ, even if people think I’m smart(er). I’m currently reading The Non-Local Universe by Robert Nadeau and Menas Kafatos (about “the new physics and matters of the mind”). On page 128 about language it says the following:

Research in neuroscience has shown that language processing is a staggeringly complex phenomenon that places incredible demands on memory and learning. Language functions extend, for example, into all major lobes of the neocortex: Auditory input is associated with the temporal area; tactile input is associated with the parietal area; and attention, working memory, and planning are associated with the frontal cortex of the left or dominant hemisphere…[link]

I guess my brain just didn’t get wired early on in the way necessary for the general methods for learning stuff. Perhaps it’s something to do with the link between attention and working memory – I’m sure if I concentrate on things in a certain way then they get absorbed into working memory and then find their way in to the long-term memory. But alas, it’s a case of knowing that ‘certain way’ and automatically approaching the things I want to learn like that.

The problem, or annoying thing, is that some subjects I actually find fascinating now, subjects that I had little interest in learning for myself while I was at school, while they were being thrust upon me, but now I have stumbled upon them in later life and I have gained a genuine interest in them, but it’s like my brain just isn’t wired right for them. And that feels like a real shame.

Because I hang out in the virtual world that is Second Life I have friends from different parts of the world, and I often try to get Google Translate to put a sentence together for me (I love responding to strangers in their native language – it feels only polite to do so). There are a few basic things I have managed to remember and recognise, like ‘privet’ in Russian (and however it looks in their alphabet), and gute Morgen/Nacht, bitte in German, and I like that I know these things, and my friends and I find it amusing for me to try, but it’s pretty pathetic and at the rate I take these things in and actually remember them I’ll never be able to hold a conversation.

Aside from those languages I find mathematics fascinating too, and quantum physics (I read books on the subject but really absorb very little – it mostly goes way over my head). I wonder if perhaps the technique I would need to address any one of these things, foreign languages, mathematics, particle physics, would aid me in all of them – it’s the approach I need. Thankfully there are some things I can grasp and learn, sometimes without seeming to try, some things naturally have a different approach, and some things I have “taught myself”, somehow, sometimes myself and others are a little impressed by this, by what I have “just picked up” – such as “fixing computers” – I mean, I know useless things like what ASCII stands for, and the difference between RJ11, RJ12 and RJ45 connectors, and what battery you need if your computer stops remembering the date and time – I didn’t sit down and “study” these things (ok I did study IT, and that’s where I met with ASCII, but technically I failed at the course), these things just went in and stayed in, which is handy because it means I have a job!

Just recently I started playing piano again and I loved how it felt in my head to go from not having a clue with a piece of music; my fingers not knowing where to go at all; my brain telling me when it didn’t want to try any more because it was stuck on a particular part and so I would take a brake and come back and just play it; or I would go to bed and dream about playing the tune (obviously using the time that I was sleeping to good effect); sticking at a piece for a few hours and having time just pass by and the learning not feeling in the least like a chore; and in the end being able to play a piece… and then looking back and remembering the whole journey and struggle my brain had been on. It was quite beautiful. It was thrilling to witness my brain and subconscious in action in this way.

Why can’t everything I ever consider learning be like this? Perhaps I need to somehow convert the approach I try (and fails) to an approach that has worked with the things I am good at – but for some reason they don’t seem compatible, or I can’t see how that will work; like putting a square peg in a round hole – how could I possibly learn a language the same way I have somehow learned how to assemble a computer? I don’t even know how I learned it to be honest, to the many of us that know, it’s often straightforward, but to those that don’t have a clue, it’s like black magic, I suppose! Could I maybe repeat and remember some useful sentences in a foreign language with the same ease I can sometimes listen to a tune and then play it out on the keyboard or guitar?

It’s almost like there is a deep part of me that doesn’t agree with the part that says “I want to learn this” and instead it says “no you don’t” and throws all the stuff I’m trying to absorb back out. This blogger [link] made the point of “…when the problems become real, and need to be solved, everything seams to magically click.” and I agree because as soon as we think: “what’s the point?” our mind is (or at least mine seem to be) surely answering with “there is no point” and ceases to absorb what we are trying to learn. Some students seem to have it easier and the process of learning seems to be reason enough.

I’m pretty content with accepting this state too – it’s an easy option I know, to give up. I have developed the mindset that, perhaps my brain will be better wired to suit these things (I think I want to learn) in my next life! It gets me off the hook in this life so I don’t keep beating myself up about being lazy-minded.

After writing all of the above I discovered this blog post [link] and four key/important/essential points to learning:

  1. Become single-minded about the subject.
  2. Take notes as you read (mind-maps).
  3. Explain the concepts to anyone that cares to listen.
  4. Start to implement what you’ve learnt.

I can see now that I don’t always utilise all four of these points, but with learning a piece of music I become single-minded. Whether it be a piece of music or a book I’m reading I often take notes and research further when I get stuck or find a particular concept intriguing (although this can be distracting and break one from the single-mindedness). When I read or hear about topics I find interesting I like to blog about them, and sometimes I find like-minded people in the real world to discuss them with, which covers point 3. Points 3 and 4 are quite naturally implemented when learning a piece of music because the act of learning involves actually playing, albeit slowly at first and section by section, but you hear what you are doing, you are already implementing, even if it’s only yourself that you’re performing to, and then finally, perhaps the final rendition can be recorded and shared, even online through services like Youtube. I can see that if I want to learn a language then I need to become single-minded about it and actively incorporate steps 3 and 4.


3 comments on “Languages and me

  1. fencer
    12 February, 2015

    Hi Brian,

    Thanks for coming by my blog and thought I would return the favor. Enjoyed reading a few of your posts. I too have a ‘problem’ with learning languages… but probably if we were dumped into an environment where we had to learn to converse we eventually would.

    I also appreciate what you say about the struggle to learn a piece on the piano (in my case, the guitar). The learning process is amazing. In the case of a musical instrument it’s a total body-mind thing.


    • Brian
      12 February, 2015

      Thank you very much.

      I agree – I’m sure being dumped into an environment where we’d have to converse the native language, we would learn more efficiently through necessity.

      I think the body-mind thing you mention regarding learning an musical instrument is a key aspect to learning in general – perhaps we can somehow incorporate more ‘body’ (such as with gesticulation) when it comes to learning a language.

  2. Pingback: My attention deficit… | BMH Online

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