Saturday, November 1, 2014
Why You Cannot Be Taught a Foreign Language. Part 9
The Physical Process, or Your Black Belt
Studying a foreign language is a physical process as much as it is intellectual. In its primary stage, this process should be even more physical than intellectual. What happens at this stage is the development of the muscle memory for your speech apparatus and the muscles of your face in the course of repeated articulation of the new and unfamiliar combinations of sound—a completely novel algorithm of motion. This must be clearly understood.
This process is parallel to learning martial arts, playing musical instruments, dancing, typing and other kinds of somatic activity that require persistent and copious training in the memorisation of complex motor algorithms. What must come to mind is practicing scales (so dear to your neighbours), working on dance moves in front of a mirror and perfecting Kata in martial arts. Learning a foreign language is a physical process that demands physical efforts and, moreover, unaccustomed physical efforts from us and our muscles. Unlike math or computer programming, a foreign language cannot be mastered by the sole means of logic and cognition.
Remember it, learn it by heart, get it into your head; studying a foreign language is radically different from studying math, physics, or computer science.
You can spend years and decades trying to figure out how to drive a car, reading with dedication various manuals and instructions about what you need to do with your right hand and what with the left hand and what your feet and eyes are supposed to do. Now get behind the wheel and try to drive a car in reality! How far do you think you are going to get having ‘learned’ to drive this way? Exactly!
We can fully study the anatomy, physiology and biochemistry of the process that is taking place in our muscles; in the same way, we can learn all the names for all the movements and poses in karate but that would not get us a black belt. In fact, it wouldn't get us any belt in karate. The road to the coveted belt lies through actual physical work through real sweat, blood and pain; and though learning a foreign language doesn't usually go as far as making you bleed, you, my dearest friend, are guaranteed to experience strong emotional discomfort, extremely close to the physical sensation of pain. Remember this and be prepared!
However, I must say that it is impossible to be entirely ready for this kind of pain because the sensation will be completely new and unusual for you, and sensations cannot be explained—they can only be felt. You cannot explain what an avocado tastes like to a person who has never tried one. A child cannot comprehend when he is told, ‘Do not touch a hot stove—you’ll burn yourself.’ He will only be able to understand what it means to ‘burn yourself’ when his rosy finger touches the forbidden red-hot object. That's when an empty word becomes full of real sensation, but no sooner than that.
And you will understand what I'm talking about only then, when you experience the ‘burns’ of a foreign language on yourself. As for now, you and your ‘tender rosy fingers’ will remain in a state of blissful ignorance.
[Via Language Tai-chi, or You Cannot Be Taught a Foreign Language, by Nikolay Zamyatkin]