Encountering Language


You’ve probably read an article — or maybe even a book — advocating international travel on the grounds that it will turn you into a better person.

Leaving the U.S. will lead to new encounters, you’ll read, place you ‘outside of your comfort zone,’ and otherwise lay out a basic pattern for further self-development. Usually such articles maintain a culturally agnostic position — you’ll benefit from travel no matter where you go — but usually I see this narrative presented alongside pictures of southeast Asia or other tropical beach destinations.

And most people who have traveled will agree that the experience has great value — especially compared to just reading about a place in some book or website. While the breadth of factual knowledge you gain from the experience may not compare favorably — particularly when you calculate the time investment involved in getting to the destination — the travel experience feels greater somehow.

In many cases, people who have traveled or lived abroad will even make grand statements about how it has changed their lives. And travel stories, more often than not, get framed as journeys of self-discovery.

Learning from the Inside

But what’s really behind this pattern? I have something of a theory.

To learn something new, you have to connect it to something you already know. Our neurology expresses this relationship on the cellular level. We cannot learn without putting the roots of it down in something that’s already there.

If you study Calculus without first learning Algebra, you’ll have a hard time making sense of it. Likewise, if you read a book in Latin, you won’t be able to relate much to what it says. Even something like identifying a fruit fly’s slurping relies on our own understanding of eating and drinking.

And while I believe you’ll find no more efficient way to assimilate knowledge than from reading, it also means you’ll need to rely mostly on abstraction to make connections. You can, of course, connect something written to past experiences of smelling, hearing, seeing, and feeling, but this requires a constant and dedicated exercise of the imagination. It’s not always easy.

Knowledge gained through travel and direct experience, however, forces us to connect using any number of modalities. Not only do we get the sights and sounds of a people or culture — which we could perhaps get from a video — but we get the smells and tastes as well. We know what it’s like to touch things in another place.

Our emotional responses to the unfamiliar places around us, too, shape the map of these new experiences. Sometimes we’ll be having fun; other times travelers deal with stress, exhaustion, and perhaps even fear. What we learn takes root in this perspective. It grows to have a number of qualities inside of us, and forms an integrated character with these things, which it would never have when reduced to words on a page.

The Opportunity for Self-Observation

Learning by reading or by video or by some other indirect means is no doubt more efficient. But we also lose out because of it. Not just because the knowledge we gain by reading grafts itself onto us by comparatively attenuated means, but because we miss out on a richer chance for self-observation.

When we learn something new, we must, even if just in a small way, reflect not just on the thing we’re learning, but the part of ourselves that will serve to connect it with the rest of our experiences.

If we read about a war in the east, we can’t help but compare it to a war we studied in the west. Thinking about the topic calls upon our faculties of reason; it forces us to review our attitudes and thoughts about that western war.

But when we experience something new and different — perhaps a train station in Japan — we have not just our thoughts and attitudes to review, but any number of senses and feelings connected to our prior experiences of trains. It forces us to take a broader look at ourselves, and, by constant attention, helps us form a larger picture of where we’re coming from, and possibly who we are.

On Immersion

Usually, when people go abroad and live in an environment where everyone around them speaks another language, it’s called “immersion.”

I think this term has come into common usage not least of all because of a parallel in religious practice. Those covered in water are thought, not only to get wet, but to undergo a transformation.

“Immersion,” however, suggests a passive process: The human mind plays the role of sponge, newly soaked in another language.

####A Chemical Process

To me this misunderstands the learning process, while privileging a way of learning language that still requires an active commitment on the part of a learner.

Even when the speakers of another language surround us, the use of language still breaks down into discrete encounters.

During some of these encounters, we make a connection between something within ourselves and something outside of ourselves. Sometimes the use of a new language attaches inside of us to an existing opinion or attitude, a thought. Sometimes it joins a set of less cognitive impressions.

Even in immersive environments we can’t avoid moments of true passivity, too. I doubt such periods move the language-learning project forward by very much, if at all.

And so, this process of immersion makes us resemble less a sponge, more the site of a chemical reaction. Ingredients and regents react with each other, and something new is formed in the vortex.

We find the language now at our disposal – but only after it has been built anew on the inside.

A Practical Approach

People overrate, in my opinion, the importance of being immersed and underrate the importance of the reaction that usually takes place during immersion.

Though immersive environments will almost always furnish us with the most opportunities to use a language, we can still imagine a strategy to make the most of any language encounter.

1. Use rote memorization to get the basics down quickly. But stop at the basics.

Rote memorization may not offer us the same pleasures, say, as extensive reading or studying dialogues in a controlled environment, but when you want to take advantage of the highway, you need to use the onramp. Sometimes these are steep.

Learn the core vocabulary. Learn how to make simple declarative sentences in the present tense and how to ask questions. Drill yourself on these things until you know them like a favorite song. You may want to use flashcards.

If you want to get an overview of the rest of the grammar at this point, it may be worthwhile to skim ahead. This, however, will only delay that first real language encounter – that someone in an immersive environment wouldn’t have had the chance to avoid.

2. Find speakers of the language you want to learn and speak to them without using any English.

Imitate the immersed learner and start using the language. Make full use of the basic vocabulary and sentence structure that you’ve learned through rote memorization.

Meet people in a variety of places: cafes, bars, libraries, concerts, or even, if possible, in the workplace.

Video teleconferencing tools, such as Skype, can possibly provide you with some speaking opportunities, but don’t over use them. You want your interactions to involve all modalities.

Seek out multiple speakers as well. Don’t just rely on one ‘teacher.’ You’ll need to make friends, even if you have to drive longer distances to meet them.

3. Once you’re completely bored, go back to step 1, but study more advanced material.

When you first start using a language, you’ll probably feel a sense of excitement. You should be having fun. But when you’ve exhausted your vocabulary and ability to use grammar, you’ll start to feel boredom, little by little.

You’ll be looking for ways to express nuances, but won’t know how. Your mind will now have thoroughly prepared to absorb new grammar and vocabulary – making them less boring and easier to learn.

Immersion Demystified

Of course this ‘method’ breaks no new ground. It’s hardly innovative. But then, neither is immersion. This is simply immersion demystified.

And yet, if you approach a language in this way, you’ll soon – perhaps even the very first time you try step 2 – find some surprises: A turn of phrase you didn’t know you knew, comprehension of a turn of something someone said, even though you never studied it before.

Such surprises indicate the language has taken a step independent of your English mind. It’s moving forward under its own power.

And these surprises, if they’re the best kind, will give you a new understanding about yourself – those parts you never knew existed.