The Rigors of Learning a New Language

Posted 4 months ago | Originally written on 24 Oct 2006

What are the challenges that one will face when learning a new language? Given that I am presently learning (or relearning) French, I have put some thought to the matter and I would like to now put them down on paper (on e-ink).

I have identified three main challenges. I will call them The Framework Problem, The Translation Problem, and The Cognition Problem.

The Framework Problem

When you learn your first language as a toddler (I've never heard of anyone who learnt their first language any later than that!) the prevailing conditions are different from what you will face when you learn any language later on in life. You are beginning with a clean mind that has never held any data. In fact, as you age, you will rely more and more on determination and diligence rather than natural affinity and intelligence when learning new skills. This is primarily because you already have a framework upon which you base your understanding and you therefore attempt to "understand" the new framework. Consciously trying to understand the "why" behind a phrase can be helpful but developing the habit of trying to understand everything can lead to frustration. Some answers are only found once several elements of the language have been taken by faith.

This is what forms the primary challenge in learning a language. However, the beautiful thing about the mind is that it can be subdued by repetitive thought. Continuously asserting that you should not understand can, with time, result in the mind releasing its grip on the need to understand all the time. I guess this is what Jesus meant when he said that our faith should be like that of little children!

The Translation Problem

One must appreciate a very fundamental, obvious and easy to dismiss point: that a language is an independent framework upon which one builds ideas and expressions and is NOT a translation of your primary language. This is related to the need to understand. It makes one think that if only they could build the required vocabulary and master the syntax of a few sentences then that would be enough to "know" the new language. I imagine that nothing could be further from the truth. A language cannot be summarised into a small collection of rules and formulas. It represents a way of thinking. As one will readily attest, there are always exceptions to any rule. Every language has its own way of putting across ideas. This is why something can be funny in one language but have no humorous value when translated. Learning a language is thus facilitated by gradually immersing oneself into the corresponding culture so that one can "see where they are coming from". Any teaching of a language that ignores this is bound to prove unsuccessful.

The Cognition Problem

I think one of the most important ideas (that I am unable to prove but I believe resolutely) is the fact that our cognition processes have a life of their own. It is a faith I maintain in my mind that there are things that it is able to do provided I simply provide the right environment – like any famous black box. Do I need to know how it does what I ask of it? No! I just have to give it the ingredients it needs and it does what I want it to. Really simple, huh? I applied this to my learning of Mathematics. I realised that if I could understand a concept and solve several problems and then, believe it or not, forget about it, I could "integrate understanding" deliberately. Usually, my revision entailed solving one or two problems and, as if by magic, my "understanding" would be awakened. I would then "feel" the solution. I could tell when the answer was not right because it didn't feel right. I strongly believe (for a later discussion) that genius or prodigiousness is the ability to supplement thought with feeling. Feeling is faster, more instantaneous than thought. (Maybe the computers of the future will work based on feeling solutions - ∞Hz!) This means that you cannot think up every sentence you need to say to communicate. That would take up cognition resources (much the same as in a computer) and would be a slow process. You would have to first check if you have the sentence in your database of ready-to-use sentences; replace any words that you would need to replace, change the tense; add the required emotion and sense of urgency, and if all these do not exist, try to translate from your primary language and if this fails again you will need to use a pitiful combination of your primary language (in fits) and a supposedly-global body language (another language!)

Success in learning a language is thus embodied in one’s ability to supplement the thought process with a process that relies of feeling.

Having said all these, I am in no better position in learning (or relearning!) French. I still want to understand, translate and think. However, I know that the learning process is dynamic. I will one day get to a point when I will seek my understanding in French as opposed to English explanations. I try to subject myself to as much French as possible by listening to Radio France Internationale (RFI – free marketing!) and read Tintin in French. And who knows. Someday I will (by my own ability – not Bill’s prowess) translate this thoughts to French!