The mechanics and science behind language learning

Now I’m sorry but this is going to be a slightly technical article based on neuroscience and psychology but I believe if we understand the underpinnings of how we learnt and the children of the world learn their first language then this will be able to empower us to learn any language that we wish to in our adult lives.

For those including myself who wonder why everyone in the world talks to a baby in a very babyish manner. It is because that babies become very disinterested in normal speech very quickly. To anyone who has children or been in contact with them this may seem obvious but the why is the interesting bit here. Neuroscientists conducted experiments using the latest brain scanning techniques on young children assisted by paediatricians and they found that the pitch, the rhythm and the sound was what the babies were responding to. If it was slow, repetitive and lyrical then it kept there attention hence lullabies work. However, normal speech is rather flat and unemotional as we tend not to accent our words. Especially not in English, in our normal accent.

This is also why babies like music as it’s soothing to them and then like to dance. If we harness this native ability through song or movies then we are broadening our exposure to sounds that would not normally be part of our soundscape. Babies can distinguish the difference between all the sounds in the world and this is how they can learn any language of the world. This magical opportunity starts to be pruned back by 12 months as they are now learning what sounds make up their native language and to exclude all others. They still continue to about 8 years old to be easily pick up a language. Do not despair though due to recent advances in brain imaging and other experiments that have been exploring the human brain; they have found brand new neurons growing in adult brains. This previously undiscovered neurogenesis is astonishing as it demonstrates along with neuroplasticity the capability of the adult brain to change, regrow and develop in ways that were thought not possible until very recently. Therefore your brain is more malleable than you think it is. It is not set in stone when you become an adult. You can improve any of your previously learnt skills and learn new ones well into your later years.

How to win at language learning

When learning a language it is possible to try too hard. It’s a very good thing to be passionate and motivated but not such a good thing to be obsessional. This is difficult for me as that’s what I am by my very nature. I’ve had to learn not to be a perfectionist as language is about communication first and foremost. Not about having the best grammar, pronunciation or vocabulary. You need a lot less than you think but a basic standard is still necessary. Don’t get hung up on what you can’t do and concentrate on what you can do as that will give you confidence and inspire you to learn more and to practice with people without fear as this is a thing that I struggle with greatly.

As a friend once said to me, relax and it will just happen. I’d spent enough time learning and now I had to let my brain give the words to my mouth so that I could practice using them. I needed to form connections which can only really be done in actual conversations.

I tried to learn without people by recording myself so that I could get real time feedback and later sending it to people for their assistance but this is still removed from how you will use the language.

What Morpheus says to Neo in the Matrix “You have to let it all go, fear, doubt and disbelief.” Is what is required to speak freely but I had to overcome an innate fear of offending others as I’m some what controversial in my thought patterns and conservational style. Lucky for me Greeks are very straightforward people who tend not to beat about the bush with their words.

A lot of the common Greek phrases  seem rude to English ears so we are reluctant to use them as we think that they will think is impolite but it’s really because we have been indoctrinated with political correctness and they have kept their common sense.

There are 2 main ways to learn a language. One is if your main focus is going to be on talking to people and you have no desire to read, write or do anything else in the language; then you will be able to pick up the language relatively quickly but you may not acquire that deeper understanding until much later if at all.

The second way is much more intensive because if you wish to be able to read and write it as well as to be able to speak it then you have to be committed for a much longer period of study. You have to dive down to discover the bones of the language because only then will you uncover how the language is built using which particular grammatical structures etc. Languages are like houses you see as some you have just for limited use like a summer house and others you intend to live in so you have to spend the appropriate resources on their construction. It will benefit you in later life or it will stifle your productivity depending on how you went about building your knowledge.

Of course the first foreign language is the most difficult as we have to establish what works for us and possibly cast off bad habits that we have gained from education or life. It is most certainly worth the effort though so stick with it and you will be rewarded. The most difficult time is usually just before your about to make a breakthrough so remember this if you want to quit as you don’t seem to be making any progress.

Literature

I am a keen reader of books of all kinds as I love words. This makes it fitting that I also have a love of the Greek language as so many words in the English language originate from there. In a bid to help me learn all about the Greek culture I read every book and watch every movie that I can get my hands on to further my knowledge of this fascinating culture.

To acquire this bounty it includes such classics as Zorba the Greek (book and movie), as well as Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres (so far only the movie); and some of the vast media catalogue on the Durell’s for instance, the TV show about their lives as a family on Corfu and books like The Bitter Lemons of Cyprus by Lawrence or the well known My Family and Animals by Gerald. However, no list could be complete without also adding in more recent books like all of Victoria Hislop‘s books and to have another Greek point of view, I’m going to start on Panos Kanezis books, The Maze etc shortly.

I can usually be found with my head stuck in a book and since I read at an astonishingly quick pace if the book is well written, I’m soon to be found in want of a person to tell them all about the book I just devoured with great relish. These are my latest interests but I do have a book on how Virginia Woolf et al fought to learn the Greek language as it was the language of the learned people and an anthology of Greek poetry from the last 2000 years as Lefkás has Sappho and the poet Aristotle Valaoritis island nearby and his shrine.

I wish to have a balanced viewpoint of people and their cultures through time hence there are books by the English living in Corfu and various other Greek Islands from the 30’s-50s (Durell’s), some of whom could speak Greek (Lawrence in particular) but there is also Victoria Hislop who has written on many aspects of Greek life as she can also speak Greek. It helps to lend an authentic air to her stories when you know she has mixed with the locals to gain inspiration for her stories. There is nothing quite like reading a Nikos Kazantzakis novel though with the gravitas that he lends to his writing. It is truly a spectacular talent that he had as he lifted all that read his masterpieces to a higher plane of thought. There should be greater appreciation of his work outside of his native lands but if I praise him too much that means the books will go up in price and I will not be able to buy them so cheaply anymore 😉

Best wishes

Angela