Here’s an observation of how human brains learn foreign languages, using my own brain as an example.
Amazingly, considering I’ve spent nearly thirty years teaching what for others is a foreign language, and have learnt several languages, to a reasonable level, it’s really, really rare that I actually notice myself learning.
Of course, I’m aware when I feel less fluent than usual, and sometimes I notice that I’ve improved, which is very motivating! But observing the actual learning mechanisms in my head doing their stuff, in real time? Well, I think today was the first time that happened.
So, I was sitting in my illegally-parked car this morning, hoping the traffic wardens wouldn’t suddenly appear from around a corner, and idly flicking through the daily selection of twenty or so news articles that the French newspaper Le Monde offers through its app La Mattinale (I have a subscription – I’m not getting paid to promote it.)
The idea with the app is that, presented with the headline, a picture, and a sentence or so of elaboration for each story, you click the green check sign (a ‘tick’ in Britain) or the red cross, according to whether the topic interests you sufficiently to read the whole thing at some point later in your day. The app sets aside the checked stories, so when you have a moment in between jobs to come back to it, you’ll only be shown the stories you have pre-selected.
I ignore all that, of course, and check everything, reading the headline and description for each story, each day. At least that! Ideally, I’ll also find the time to read one or more of the articles, though I don’t always manage it. Today there are four or five that I’d read if I had time. Who knows if I will?
Anyway, one of the first articles in the selection showed a picture of a chef in a restaurant kitchen along with the article title:
Pour leur réouverture en demi-jauge, les restaurants manquent de bras.
The other day I was reading basically the same story about the UK catering industry – they’re short of hands, so to speak, or ‘bras’ (arms) as the French appear to put it.
“For their reopening in half-JAUGE, the restaurants are short-staffed.”
I clicked the green check symbol and got shown the next story, which was very similar, but this time about the problems that gyms will have with their ‘rèouverture’:
Jusqu’au 30 juin minimum, les ètablissements devront respecter une jauge à 50 %, deux mètres di distance entre chaque pratiquant, une personne par machine, le masque obligatoire hors des moments d’effort, l’aération des salles di cours collectifs, ainsi qu’une traçabilité des adhérents.
“Until at least the 30th of June, the establishments have to respect a JAUGE of 50%, two metres distance between each user, one person per machine, obligatory masks except when actually working out, ventilation of rooms used for courses, as well as traceability for members.”
You’ll excuse any errors in the French quotes, which I typed out myself from my smartphone screen, and also my dodgy translations, which are there to reassure non-readers of French (though, as it’s very similar to Italian, why don’t you at least try?)
See the word I’ve bolded in the French original – juage?
When I saw it the first time, I more or less ignored it, not having seen it before, other than ideally wondering if it had anything to do with ‘yellow’, and concluding that it very probably didn’t.
And then I clicked on the next story and there it was again: jauge!
And this time, having just read the story about the limitated number of customers restaurants will be able to host, and in the context of all the restrictions that the gyms must abide by, well it was pretty-damn obvious what the meaning was.
Did I then go off and check it in the dictionary? Well, OF COURSE NOT.
Why would I bother? I have reading to do, and through reading (and listening, which works exactly the same way) my brain is constantly presented with words and phrases, which are more, or less, frequent. Hundreds of them each day. Thousands each week!
And when my brain sees an unknown word or expression, it notes the ones that reappear. Basically, it picks up on the ‘meta’ information about the word – not what it means, but how often it occurs, and perhaps in which contexts, associated with which other words, appearing to be which part of speech (noun, verb, article, preposition, etc.)
Like the way spy agencies want to know WHO you call (boring people, or terrorists?) before bothering to listen in on your calls to hear what you might be saying to them.
At the same time as noting the meta-frequency of the unknown word, my brain might, if it can be bothered, form a hypothesis about what the unknown item might mean (Yellow? Nah…)
Later, but only for the FREQUENT words, that provisional guess as to what the meaning might be, eventually solidifies into something like ‘familiarity’. Call it ‘understanding’, if you insist.
And for the others? The words with a meta-frequency score of <2? No further thought or care need be wasted.
And that’s, in a world which is full of things that could be learnt but wouldn’t pay back the effort of doing so, unarguably (so don’t – just think about it and you’ll realise I’m right) the most-EFFICIENT learning strategy.
My brain notes the meta-frequency information, and may have a stab, though without devoting much time or effort, at hypothesising meaning. More often than not, it just skips unknown items, unless they appear to be critical. Which is an even more EFFICIENT approach.
But the important part is the frequency, not the ‘meaning’, see? The key to the whole thing is the algorithm which notices when an item reappears within a short time, and mentally files it away somewhere, on the assumption that if it’s been seen lurking around, it’ll doubtless be back again at some point and will need to be dealt with.
If not, go right ahead, brain, move it to the trash folder, then delete it. There’ll be plenty more new words where that one came from!
But if so, when the meta-frequency info becomes 2 or >2, in the same way that memories are stored in neural networks (each time you remember something again, the memory gets stronger, apparently), regular exposure to the not-yet-consolidated word will, in many cases, firm it up for you, without conscious effort.
But OMG! What if you never ‘learn’ an important word ‘properly’?
Here’s a challenge for you.
Pick up a business newspaper, or if you’re in business, something with articles on topics that you aren’t familiar with. Ballet, for example.
Read an article or two and note down (honestly mind!) any words that you aren’t 100% sure of – let’s define that as “couldn’t be sure you could correctly explain to a curious high-school student who asked you.”
Bet there’ll be lots! But don’t let that ruin your day, as NOT-KNOWING STUFF PROPERLY is actually a greater skill than knowing stuff.
I can chat away and understand, to a greater or lesser extent, in five foreign languages.
The knack of it is in realising that some words and grammar structures are frequent, so easy to learn (assuming you get exposure to them through reading and listening, so providing the meta-frequency information your brain needs), and in knowing, without self-doubt, that everything else is a distraction that deserves to be, and indeed must be, forgotten.
Think about it.