You guys, this article, How I Rewired My Brain to Become Fluent in Math, means everything to me. I discovered it earlier today and it’s written by a woman who’s an engineering professor at a university. However, before she became a professor, she learned Russian in the Army (at the Defense Language Institute, no less). One of my favorite things about this article is that she talks about the hard work and rote memorization that you have to put in to learning a new skill, whether it’s math or a foreign language.
Something that bothers me about the language learning blogosphere is that language learning has to be “fun” all the time and that the rote memorization you have to do to learn many grammar concepts or vocabulary words is useless because it’s not enjoyable. This article belies that fact, because even though there are a lot of interesting aspects about learning a foreign language, there are parts of it that are just really, really hard. Sometimes, you have to just sit down and memorize the declension of a noun or the conjugation of the verb, and that isn’t always the most fun thing. I can remember many an afternoon during my freshman year sitting for hours at my desk, declining nouns and conjugating verbs, and then having to do it all over again the next day. I’m not trying to scare anyone off from learning a foreign language—just trying to say that it’s not something you can just do for a few months and become fluent with little effort.
Anyway, here are some of my favorite parts of the article. You really should read the whole thing because it contains some excellent advice for learning languages (and learning in general!).
As a young woman with a yen for learning language and no money or skills to speak of, I couldn’t afford to go to college (college loans weren’t then in the picture). So I launched directly from high school into the Army. I had loved learning new languages in high school, and the Army seemed to be a place where people could actually get paid for their language study, even as they attended the top-ranked Defense Language Institute—a place that had made language- learning a science. I chose Russian because it was very different from English, but not so difficult that I could study it for a lifetime only to perhaps gain the fluency of a 4-year-old. Besides, the Iron Curtain was mysteriously appealing—could I somehow use my knowledge of Russian to peer behind it?
After leaving the service, I became a translator for the Russians on Soviet trawlers on the Bering Sea. Working for the Russians was fun and engrossing—but it was also a superficially glamorous form of migrant work. You go to sea during fishing season, make a decent salary while getting drunk all the time, then go back to port when the season’s over and hope they’ll rehire you next year….
I began to realize that while knowing another language was nice, it was also a skill with limited opportunities and potential. People weren’t pounding down my door looking for my Russian declension abilities. Unless, that is, I was willing to put up with seasickness and sporadic malnutrition out on stinking trawlers in the middle of the Bering Sea.
What I had done in learning Russian was to emphasize not just understanding of the language, but fluency. Fluency of something whole like a language requires a kind of familiarity that only repeated and varied interaction with the parts can develop. Where my language classmates had often been content to concentrate on simply understanding Russian they heard or read, I instead tried to gain an internalized, deep-rooted fluency with the words and language structure. I wouldn’t just be satisfied to know that понимать meant “to understand.” I’d practice with the verb—putting it through its paces by conjugating it repeatedly with all sorts of tenses, and then moving on to putting it into sentences, and then finally to understanding not only when to use this form of the verb, but also when not to use it. I practiced recalling all these aspects and variations quickly. After all, through practice, you can understand and translate dozens—even thousands— of words in another language. But if you aren’t fluent, when someone throws a bunch of words at you quickly, as with normal speaking (which always sounds horrifically fast when you’re learning a new language), you have no idea what they’re actually saying, even though technically you understand all the component words and structure. And you certainly can’t speak quickly enough yourself for native speakers to find it enjoyable to listen to you.
As I forayed into a new life, becoming an electrical engineer and, eventually, a professor of engineering, I left the Russian language behind. But 25 years after I’d last raised an inebriated glass on the Soviet trawlers, my family and I decided to take the trans-Siberian railway across Russia. Although I was excited to take the long-dreamed-of trip, I was also worried. I’d barely uttered a word of Russian in all that time. What if I’d lost it all? What had those years of gaining fluency really bought me?
Sure enough, when we first got on the train, I spoke Russian like a 2-year-old. I’d grasp for words, my declensions and conjugations were all wrong, and my formerly near-perfect accent sounded dreadful. But the foundation was there, and day by day, my Russian improved. And even with my rudimentary Russian, I could handle the day-to-day needs of our traveling. Soon, tour guides were coming to me for help translating for the other passengers. When we finally arrived in Moscow, we hopped in a taxi. The driver, I soon discovered, was intent on ripping us off—heading directly the wrong way and trapping us in a logjam of cars, where he expected us ignorant foreigners to quietly acquiesce to an unnecessary extra hour of meter time. Suddenly, Russian words I hadn’t spoken for decades flew from my mouth. I hadn’t even consciously known I knew those words.
I will say this, too: I’ve largely left the academic study of Russian behind for a career in an unrelated field, but I hope I never forget my Russian. I think I’ve been doing a pretty good job of maintaining it it, considering the circumstances. I read and listen to it every day, so that’s an accomplishment (I think). Now if only I could find a group of Russian speakers to practice with…