Language Learning and the Human Brain

Posted on 27. May, 2015 by in Language Learning

Itchy Feet: Refined Vocabulary

Part of the reason I love learning languages is that it teaches me so much about the human brain and human interaction.

I’ve never studied much neurology or sociology or epistemology or anthropology—I was more of a travelology and daydreamology type of student, myself. But with languages, that social glue unique to humans (at least until someone translates dolphinese), I feel I’m getting a constant informal education on the way the brain absorbs information, restructures it, efficiently uses just what it needs and puts aside that which it doesn’t. I have front-row seats to these insights because language-learning happens purely in the brain. Learning other skills, like pole-vaulting or the ukulele, can teach me a lot about my body, but wrestling with adjective endings, figures of speech and unique grammar rules teaches me about my mind.

For example, in taking on two different languages, Italian and German, in two different contexts, I’ve observed my own brain choosing what’s important and what isn’t, and sticking to it. This is much harder to notice from within one’s native language, but with two foreign languages at roughly the same level yet used for different purposes, I can compare and contrast.

I learned Italian without studying it at all, believe it or not—it was absorbed during the years spent living abroad and traveling with my then-girlfriend-now-wife. At the time, she didn’t speak much English, and her family and friends spoke absolutely none. I had no choice but to pick up the language, or else be damned to rely forever on a third party to translate. Because my only inputs were from social occasions—dinners, outings with friends, etc—my Italian, even today, is extremely informal. Imagine having learned your language just from parties and mealtime conversations and you’ll have an idea of my abilities. Like the comic above, my internal dictionary is quite capable at expressing my feelings about that slice of prosciutto or what kind of risotto would be good for tomorrow’s lunch—but sit me down at a business conference or government office, and I’m as helpless as a beached whale.

With German, the opposite is the case. Despite living here in Germany’s capital, I’ve learned the language almost exclusively in classrooms, and my most common real-world application for the language has been a thrilling variety of bureaucratic offices—town halls, local councils, tax offices, housing agencies, phone companies, law firms—as well as reading and responding to letters, warnings, and notices from the aforementioned administrative organizations. I know my way around Bescheinigungs, Bestätigungs and all manner of Schreibarbeit, but toss me into a pub and watch the wallflower bloom. I simply don’t know how normal people talk in everyday situations, because until fairly recently I haven’t met many Germans patient enough to ignore their perfectly fluent English and practice Deutsch with me.

Observing this difference in the development of the two languages has been fascinating. It’s as though the brain considers any “new” knowledge or skills to be a vast, tangled thicket, and it can only hack through if it knows its destination (i.e., “communicate with human beings”). Then, it searches for the easiest way from A to B. Once there, the brain treads the familiar path it’s already cut, because why would continue to hack at the thicket if you’ve already made the way? Why would you keep anything that didn’t serve the immediate goal at hand?

This brings me to my favorite discovery, and the most interesting thing I’ve observed from my attempts to pick up foreign languages: we humans can choose the road less traveled. All other organisms on this planet, from dogs to trees to microscopic fungi, choose the easiest route to accomplish their goals, and then never stray from that path unless forced to. That’s how evolution works. When’s the last time your cat challenged herself to try something new, just for the heck of it? When’s the last time you saw a centipede try to better itself, or a bacteria weigh the pros and cons of a new approach?

Never, because they can only learn by accident, where we are free to march into the thickets of the unknown and force ourselves to become learners again. We don’t have to be imprisoned by the comfortable if we don’t want to. I will throw myself into German festivals and picnics and dance parties for the sake of science and self-betterment, I tell you, for the sake of all that’s unique and beautiful about the human condition! And that’s just what I intend to do!

*Storms the Biergarten in a blaze of glory*

What about you? What has learning languages taught you, if anything, about the human mind?

Speak Fearlessly – With a Little Help From Your Friends

Posted on 25. May, 2015 by in Language Learning

Itchy Feet: Le Linguistíque Nerves

At the end of April I was fortunate enough to attend the Polyglot Gathering 2015, where I heard talks from many luminaries in the language-learning business, made scores of new multi-lingual friends, and for the first time ever, met fans of Itchy Feet in the flesh. Who knew that this goofy little bug-eyed bean-shaped stick figure was recognizable around the world? Apparently all you commenters out there are not just robots living in my computer, you have actual limbs and hair and teeth and are very friendly.

The best part about the Polyglot Gathering, however, which I imagine applies to any meetup in which learners of languages can get together, is that nobody was afraid.

We’ve all been there—you study, you practice, you take classes, you have tandem partners, you Skype, you practice some more, you drill—but still, sometimes even after years, getting up the nerve to speak to strangers in a foreign language can be so frightening as to be debilitating. It’s sort of like skiing. I’ve always maintained that the hardest part of learning to ski or snowboard is getting over your fear of the mountain. Once you’ve conquered that, learning to ski is a breeze.

Why do we freeze up? Why do we get cold chills or stutter or go beet-red?

I think it comes down to the purpose of language, which is simply to communicate (no points for that one, Malachi). Kids soak up languages like sponges because language is critical for survival, even at an early age. Who wants to get to know someone who can’t talk, write, sign, or communicate? We desperately seek common ground through communication in order to function properly in society. So when we open our mouths and sound like a dopey child, it’s embarrassing. It’s socially painful. We might as well be wearing bear skins, grunting in the wilderness and clubbing one another for all the good we’re doing.

That’s what our brains tell us, anyway, and it leads to fear. Our terror of looking ridiculous in public leads us all to make an astonishing variety of bizarre decisions (following the latest fashion trends is a double-edged sword, people), but with language learning it clogs our throats, plugs our ears and tucks our tails firmly between our legs. I’ve lived abroad for five solid years now, and I still get the jimmies when I open my mouth at the supermarket.

And that, my friends, is what was so wonderful about the Polyglot Gathering: everyone there was fearless about speaking languages. The laws of society and keeping up appearances did not apply. Like lovers of Dungeons & Dragons at a comic convention, free at last to flaunt their twelve-sided die and character sketches without risking mortification by an unforgiving outside world, I was among friends. Better still: I was among allies.

I learned that even the greatest, most prolific polyglots do not speak all their languages fluently (of course! Seems obvious now), they’re at a wide variety of stages with each one. When they spoke, it was rarely perfect, and occasionally it was worse than I can do. But they spoke, and they weren’t afraid. Together, we encouraged one another to avoid English or native tongues and try something stranger. We sought not the easiest language between us but the most difficult, that we both might get better, learn more, and have a good time—stutters, fumbles, and all. It was delightful.

How about you? Have you found a group of people with whom you can practice your languages, without worrying about upsetting the delicate social balance? Or do you not care about that balance, and have the courage to barge into any conversation, linguistic warts and all?

Why We’re Giving Away Our Language Technology

Posted on 20. May, 2015 by in Company News, Language Learning

According to Ethnologue, there are about 7,100 living languages spoken around the world right now. Unfortunately, only 100 or so languages receive any commercial interest. So, what about the other 7,000?7000LP

There are people and organizations out there who care deeply about learning and preserving the other 7,000 languages. We at Transparent Language care deeply about teaching and promoting them. That’s why we launched the 7,000 Languages Project back in 2013. By bringing together their language expertise and our technology, we’re creating compelling language-learning courses in dozens of underserved languages, from Balinese to Ojibwe.

So why are we simply giving away our technology to these partners? Our CEO, Michael Quinlan believes that “losing a language is like pulling out one more thread from the human tapestry. It flattens our cultural landscape.” We trust that saving a language preserves a part of who we’ve been and who we are.

Hear more from Michael and see what happens when we put our technology in the hands of experts and advocates for less common languages in his TEDx Talk given in March 2015 at TEDxTacoma.

To learn more about the 7000 Languages Project, including how to become a partner, please visit: http://www.transparent.com/about/7000-languages-project.html.