40.000 hours of language learning

Today’s blog post Robert Dupuis – an avid user of LearnWithOliver.com – writes about his fascination of language and his unique view on language learning.

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Forty thousand hours. 40,000. That’s my (conservative) estimate of the total hours I’ve spent working on and with languages. By “working on” and “working with” I mean participating in grammar and conversation classes, studying (at school, home or, imprudently, while driving), reading (books and newspapers, Wikipedia articles and letters, and even instruction manuals), writing and translating, teaching and correcting. And that doesn’t even include the nocturnal sleepless spells during which, for example, I recite German verbs or try to label every object in the room. Even now as I write I’m eyeing a German novel splayed open at the side of my computer. In it I spot a word I don’t know, a strange word which, given the context, has me intrigued. It’s taunting me. It’s driving me crazy! I’m desperately tempted to look it up in one of the hundred dictionaries I have under Favorites but if I do I, immersed in the voluptuous sea of words, may never surface to finish this essay. Why this passion? After all, I’ll never use the vast majority of the fourteen languages that have obsessed me during the last four decades. Why this addiction? This I’ve recently asked myself and these are a few of the answers that, surrounded by a million words up there in the Realm of the Synapses that bounce around like pinballs before falling into syntaxes that hopefully won’t induce snickers, I’ve come up with.

Language fascinates me. It is astounding that we make sounds that express so many thoughts and feelings, some of them very specific. Indeed, I see language as a tree on top of the head which is rooted in the brain, our brain. These roots, thick and twisting and mysterious, grow according to their own organic logic and as they do, the tree grows too. The individual languages are the tree’s branches, the twigs their syntaxes, the leaves their words. A few of these leaves, aged thus susceptible to the winds of change, fall gently to the earth and eventually disappear. New leaves appear from seemingly nowhere, inventions of the mind striving to label, describe, and communicate new things, new things that are themselves inventions of the mind that creates even as it sleeps. Now and then an entire branch falls but, still intact and beautiful, takes eons to disappear. And we are the children that climb this tree. We fight and play, love and hate, flourish and founder, before drifting to the ground to disappear as well. But the tree remains sturdy, tingling and vibrating with life, the indescribable and nameless invention of life, the great miracle.
Knowledge is power. It may not be the power of Obama o Putin but it is undeniably power. Twelve of the fourteen languages I’ve studied are European, nine of which I know fairly to very well. This means that if I ever tour Europe (which I’d love to do), I’ll be able to communicate with most of the people I meet from Greece to the North Pole, from England to Germany. I’ll be able to read menus, order food, and ask where the bathroom is. Why I can stop any passerby on the street and say “Excuse me, if love had feathers and tasted like dog food, then I suggest you wear shoes with your banana pudding.” You know, if I really had the urge. If I never do tour Europe, I’ll still have a foot, maybe both feet, in the cultural door. Language is one of the major constituents of culture, the knowledge of which lets us into the mind and heart of a people. While it’s true that in a rough sketch all of us across the globe seem pretty much the same, it’s also true that the knowledge of language is a zoom lens that allows insight into nuances, colorings, and other details that, all told, increase our appreciation of life. The myriad wonders of existence.

Language learning is simply fun. Of all the activities that have consumed me, I can readily say that language learning, along with playing music and writing, is way up there on the list. Boredom has virtually been non-existent when I’m at it, instead I’m often very excited. Reading and writing a language that holds mysteries are especially exciting. Reading is a Sherlock Holmesian adventure. First I read the pages open to me, the verso and the recto. I use the words I do know to deduce or try to deduce those I don’t. Then I reread them, looking up all the new-to-me words. Then I reread once again, reviewing these new, helping them settle into their new home, while paying close attention to the grammar. Work indeed, but very enjoyable work. I’m in the middle of my first novel in German right now and I, well prepared by my intense study of the last four months, find that I have in fact deduced the meaning of about half of the sought words. “Elementary, my dear Watson!” I scream with each hit, giving my beloved dog a minor heart attack. The misses and the no-ideas? I enjoy learning their meanings and reading their many uses. Writing? Before I write a language I remove the double-billed cap, slip into my Bart Simpson costume, and become a spy. Languages are codes and writing them property is a beautiful if not crucial to clear communication and may just save humanity from some fiend with a foreign accent (Russian? Swahilian? Eskimoan?) To sum up this paragraph: Learning is fun and, to me, language learning is great fun, the ultimate adventure. A journey into the center of the mind.

Language learning also broadens one’s horizon. We linguists constitute an immense international club, and communication with members of our extended family as we help each another improve is not only a great pleasure but puts in practice what’s undoubtedly the most beautiful human trait: the ability to cooperate. Our horizon, already broadened on the borderless Internet, is broadened even further by good will. Speaking of, what is more mind-expanding than reading? Nothing. Of the four language skills (reading, writing, speaking and listening) it’s reading that most expands the mind. Literature is created in reflective solitude thus as intimate as thought itself. When we read we are in the author’s mind, in his or past and present, shoes and country, reality and fantasy. Samuel Johnson, the 18th century English lexicographer and man of letters, rhetorically asked if it were possible to not read and be wise. My answer is no. Reading is the key to wisdom. Reading open doors.

We enjoy physical exercise so it’s only logical that we enjoy mental exercise too. In fact, mental exercise is physical, we just can’t see the movement, and even if we had, like Dr. Frankenstein’s monster, a removable skull cap, we wouldn’t see movement. But there’s plenty going on down, or up, there. Language study entails memory, gobs and gobs of memory, during the exercise of which millions of synapses are putting on a huge fire works display, billions of nuclear organelles are whirling and spinning as if there’s no tomorrow, and strands of DNA are assembling themselves in accordance with extremely inflexible syntaxes. Doesn’t it feel good, honey? Gee golly Mom, it’s almost orgasmic!

Somebody once told me that learning languages I’d never use was “a complete waste of time,” a philistine thought if there ever was one. At the time I had no ready retort, but I do now: Since “Use it or lose it” is the wisest thing ever said, using it, especially to fathom something as complex as language, is never a waste of time. In fact, applying the mind to language learning seems to me optimally conducive to keeping gray matter in flying colors. Math too, namely algebra. But aren’t languages and algebra connected? I believe so. Both have vocabulary and grammar and in order to use them well we must learn the logic behind them, the logic that connects them as if they constituted an immense spider web. To me however a language’s logic is more complex than that of algebra. In the latter, whose roots are not thick and twisting and mysterious but extend into the brain like welding rods, rules are rules. In languages there are exceptions to many rules, exceptions that are bewildering to the learner ― two examples are irregular verbs and noun plurals ― and require, often demand, a flexible brain. Here’s another reason for learning languages: You never know. When I began serious Spanish studies way back in 1975 (not long after the wheel was discovered on a snow drift-buried tractor in upstate North Dakota), I had no idea that one day I’d have a Latino family, friends and employees with whom I’d speak it every day. We can’t foresee life’s bumps and curves. So the next language I’ll learn is Martianese. You never know.

2 thoughts on “40.000 hours of language learning

  1. Lynn Henriksen

    Love your take on exercising the mind, the death of boredom, and the undeniable mental power unleashed through the study of language. Wow! I congratulate you on what you’ve accomplished. You might consider writing a ‘learning language’ children’s book complete with illustrations of how you see (described in your 2nd paragraph) the brain grow and expand through learning…could be another interesting & exciting exercise for you in the doing. Thank you!

    Reply
  2. Oona

    Loved reading your article. I don’t know as many languages as you do but I agree with the fun of learning languages whether or not I know when I will use them. Language totally fascinates me and is one of my favourite subjects to talk about

    Reply

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