Wednesday, March 23, 2005

The process of learning a foreign language

Process of learning a language:

Step 1. Learn key words and phrases. 
At this stage one feels rather satisfied with what one knows and is impressed by his or her own ability to already carry on a conversation (usually based around a staged subject such as how many brothers or sisters one has or asking for directions).

Step 2. Learn bits of grammar, 
Which are hard and usually have rules with many exceptions. Feeling discouraged but with an urge to continue as learning how to say more complicated things is kind of fun.

Step 3. Realize you know nothing. 
This usually happens when one is expected to converse with a native speaker or is placed in a situation where skills are actually needed. (It is important to note that this is the point where American university requirements end.)

Step 4. Slow climb out. 
During this stage every word seems new because it was just memorized and had no attached sentiment of meaning or emotion, or, most importantly, how it fits into the melody of the language. 
While talking to people, one works really hard at deciphering what they're saying. People who are talking to this student of language, in attempts to be nice and helpful, break down the words of an unimportant sentence, or repeat the part of the sentence that was easily understood. This results in conversations that sound like this to the student:

"I'm going to the *ffeo#el* to buy some *qfjl* for dinner tonight. But then I figured you could buy it."
"What?"
"I figured you could buy it."
"Okay, but what did you say before that?"
"I'm making dinner."
"Yes, but.."

And so on. This also results in the second annoyance of this stage. After spending so long figuring out what was said, it is almost always something rather mundane and unimportant that one wonders why he or she spent so much time figuring out what it was. This particularly happens when native speakers try to start a new topic of conversation. Like this:

"I saw Mary at the *fedeoqa& today."
"What?"
"I saw Mary at the mall today."
"Ok..."
"I saw Mary at the mall today."
"No, I understood..."
"Okay, well she had a new shirt on."
"Ok..."

And the student is left wondering "So what?" because both parties were so concerned about getting the meaning across that they forgot the goal of the conversation. Being that most human conversations are on nonessential subject matter, this feeling occurs quite frequently when one is paying so much attention to what is being said. (Most conversations I have with people back home are like this. The awareness that the phone call is costing one or both of us money or that since we haven't talked for a long time it should be on matters of consequence, usually renders one speechless.)

Step 4. I can understand!! No, I can't. Yes, I can! No! I know nothing! Ahhh!!
The brain is a funny thing. It seems to stop working whenever one is really trying to make it work. In this stage, one experiences brief periods, from an hour to a day or two where everything seems suddenly easier and he or she can understand seemingly anything. Students may even encounter someone with a lower comprehension level than them and suddenly realize that they are now that someone that they admired earlier in their development.
This elation is ended by a writer's-block-style brain stall in which one is thinking so hard about being able to understand that they can no longer understand. (This happens to me up to this day during news transmissions because I heard from so many people that once you can understand the news, you have mastered the language. Understanding PPDA [the affectionate name given to Patrick Poivre d'Arvor, the top French newscaster] is therefore psychologically impossible.) Brain function goes something like this:

~The weather tomorrow will be sunny and 22 degrees in the Rhone-Alpes region...
"Oh my god, I understood that. That is so rad. I am sitting here, watching television that everybody else watches and I understood that PERFECTLY. Wait a second. Shit! What are they saying now? Damnit! Shut up, I can't concentrate on what they're saying! Crap, what did she just say? Be quiet! I can't understand!"
~ Three hundered schoolchildren were xvn;wqed today in Russia.
"What?? What did she say? Damnit! I can't understand anymore! Will you shut up, I'm trying to listen!"
~ Government officials are in negotiations to release the hostages as quickly as possible.
"Oh god, what's happening!? Hey, I didn't know 'negotiation' was feminine... Shut up!" 
And so on.

Step 5. How did that happen? 
I know it sounds like some sort of fairy tale, but seriously. One day, after many months and lots of work, one just sort of wakes up and realizes he or she can express and understand nearly everything that goes on in a normal day. Yeah, there is one foreign word or more per article in the morning newspaper and the nightly sitcom used some weird slang that leads back to brainstalling, but for the most part, you've got it.
This stage also leads to awkward situations between people who have two or more languages in common. Which to use? For example, a classmate of mine from Maritius, by way of the UK, and I went out for coffee after class one day. We'd known each other for about a month but always in the context of class or with other classmates around speaking French. So when we no longer had any real reason to continue speaking in a foreign language to each other, it was actually hard to switch to English. It felt like opening a forbidden door, or that we somehow wouldn't be able to understand each other. Same thing with my Russian friend. She speaks fluent English and French but has taken it upon herself to help me with my Russian. So she usually texts me in English, greets me in French but speaks Russian as much as possible so that I can learn. It's all very confusing.

Step 6. 
Not sure because I haven't yet attained it. Depending on which route you take, I heard the knowledge just grows along in manner of Step 5, or if you actually want to continue higher studies or work in a foreign country, you find yourself back at Step 3 – the "I know nothing" stage – and work your way out.

Monday, March 14, 2005

Life is happening at this very moment. Right. Now.

With the purchase of my ticket back home and preparations underway for my upcoming summer in Russia, I've been thinking a lot about home. I wouldn't call it homesickness necessarily, because I think the definition of homesickness includes sadness associated with nostalgia. I don't feel sad; I just have random memories that keep popping up in my daily life. Sometimes I relive those memories as if they only just happened, and then it feels weird to come back out of it to my current life, which is so disconnected from that. It makes me think a lot about what it will be like to come back. Will my life now disappear like smoke, when I come back and everything around me is so familiar? All this around me and all these memories — so disconnected, will they seem only like the half-lived experiences from a dream?

Time is funny that way. Well, maybe not time, but memory. The big people always told me that my age "seems just like yesterday," or that they couldn't believe "how big you've gotten." In an effort to avoid this common pitfall with the only children I really know, my cousins, I think of them every once in a while as the 9- and 11-year-olds they will soon be, probably by the next time I see them, instead of the 8- and 10-year-old people as they are imprinted on my memory. But I can see that as I get older, as life gets more complicated and as the people I know become more numerous, some will slip through the cracks of my mind and suddenly I'll be faced with a person whose mental image I totally forgot to age.

My grandmother just turned 93. I was with her in Montana for her 90th birthday and I thought a lot about time then. I was so young (and still am in many ways) that the idea of being that old ranged from unfathomable to frankly amusing. Think about it. Imagine being 70. You have lived through most everything that anyone expects to experience in life. School, jobs, weddings, children, friends, houses, cars, political events, grandchildren. You have lived through thousands and thousands of days and seen many things. You are very old.

Now imagine you live another 20 years.

At that point in my life I hadn't yet attained 20 years and this concept blew my mind. What on earth would it be like to live that damn much? You would have to just spend all your days sitting around not believing how old you are. I'm still only just 21 and I can't imagine living through the totality of my life's experiences another three and a half times. But that's what my grandmother's done. And if I have any luck, maybe I will too.

But maybe it becomes easier. As the big people say, life seems to go by faster and faster the older you become. Of course, as brain surgeons would say, this is because memory has no inherent time meter on it. There's no reason certain chemicals which mark memory would feel "older" or "younger" than certain other chemicals. What really counts is the paths your brain makes to get to the memory. If it takes a path past marker-memories, concurrent events that could have only happened during a certain time period, that's how your brain figures out how old the memory is. Otherwise, the memory could have happened two hours ago or it could have happened thirty years ago, or hell, it could have been a dream. It's hard to know.

Taking into account how relative time is, one night three years ago in my aunt's Montana ranch house I decided to try an experiment. I made a distinct memory of me sitting in my bedroom there and referred back to it periodically to see how long ago it seemed. The next day, when I thought about every second which had passed already between now-me and then-me, it already seemed like a lot of time had passed. When I think now about how much has happened in the time span between now-me and then-me, it seems like a ridiculously long time ago. Or does it? I can still remember the feeling of the quilt top on the bed in that bedroom in my aunt's house. And yes, many things have happened to me since then, but do I feel like a different person? I'm still here, contemplating time and memory. Was that really so long ago?

My mom has a good expression that I find useful when I start to feel time slipping away from me. "Life is just made up of days." It's true, too. Every day, you wake up and that's life. The French have an expression: metro-boulot-dodo. It rhymes and means "subway-work-sleep." That's it, folks. Sure, it's punctuated by vacations and certain unforgettable experiences, but most people (myself included) wait for life to happen and forget that it's happening at this very moment, at this very second. Right. Now.

And why do people forget this basic truth? Simply because its too much to handle. If life is really so immediate, then that means this very instant is consequential, and oh my God, what am I doing with it? So we forget. Forget that time is passing by so that the things we enjoy, which, incidentally, make time go by so much faster, come sooner. Then suddenly we see a marker, like a grown child or a changed landscape, and we realized how much time has passed while we were ignoring it. We are shocked by this and, depending one's temperament, we either forget again or go into a mid-life crisis, trying desperately to hold on to old memories. 

It's sad letting go of the past. That's certain. But I try, as advises Desiderata, to "take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth." I force my nostalgia to be content with good memories and noteworthy accomplishments. I hope that will be good enough all the way until I'm 93.

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