Back when I did swim team, I remembered my coach saying, “Your mind is a computer. You have to program it to do what you want.” He said this to convince us to swim with proper form, even when we were tired—eventually the proper form would just come naturally. Ever since, the words “Your mind is a computer” surface to mind whenever I’m pursuing or learning something new.
For the past 10 years, I’ve been studying Spanish off and on. I fell in love with the language when I was 7 and learned a few basics at a summer Spanish camp. My first major immersion in the language was when I attended school in Guatemala when I was 18.
I had no idea what I was getting into.
By the way, if you ever watch a TV show or read a book where someone picks up a language by simply talking to one person for a few months (or a few weeks in some cases) feel free to roll your eyes.
No es possible.
I often get irritated with my level. I just want to master this already! I reconciled with the fact that I will never sound like a native. But to still answer the phone and have someone blab away and the entire thing goes over my head? Granted, this is partially due to some people speaking so damn fast. If they were speaking in English, I probably wouldn’t have caught it, either. And, according to Malcom Gladwell’s book “Outliers” it takes an average of 10,000 hours to master something. I still have several thousand hours to go in mastering the Spanish language.
Back to the whole computer thing. Programing your brain to speak a different language is just like exercise. It’s programing your mind and your muscles to behave a certain way. And yes, muscles are involved. Think tongues and lips. And no, I’m not talking about kissing (thankfully THAT doesn’t take 10,000 hours to master, or else we’d all be in trouble). You’re brain is also a muscle that needs a workout, so much so that recent studies show learning a new language helps prevent Alzheimer’s. Keep that in mind if you’re trying to decide if learning a new language is worth it when you’re past middle age. Lots of people do it.
You know that all-elusive term “in shape” as pertains to physical fitness? It’s similar in Spanish. If I go a week without exercising, I find the next workout is more difficult than it was. If I go a week hanging around Americans and speaking little Spanish, I find myself tongue-tied and exhausted the next time I’m around Spanish speakers.
I have real issues with the term “practice makes perfect.” Not so. There is no such thing as perfect. I have been speaking English for 28 years and I am positive that there are a lot of words that I don’t know the meaning of and some that I’ve never even heard. (This is the pep talk I give myself when I get discouraged with my Spanish progress).
Just like exercise, you have to figure out what works for you. I’ve discovered in workouts that intervals work better than reps, and if I’m doing intervals, I have to hide the clock. If I’m focused on the time or the number of reps, I get bored or discouraged. I also need to do a wide variety of exercises. If I did the same thing every day or even every week, I’d burnout with boredom. In Spanish, I have to mix it up, too. And I have to work in short intervals. But with both Spanish and Exercise, the tiredness and soreness indicate progress, they indicate muscle memory taking place.
The key, for me, in both Spanish and exercise, is to not get discouraged and focus on where I’ve come from while also maintaining a reasonable goal. To have the goal to be fluent after 3 weeks of language school was slightly over-zealous. However, it pushed me to work hard and every little bit helps. Every vocabulary word and verb conjugation added to the computer database is just one word closer to the place I want to be. I can’t tell you how many times the word for something pops into my head and I know it came from some Spanish online game I played years ago. It got programmed into the mental computer and somehow my brain knew to bring it to memory at the right time (it’s really cool when that happens).
Also with Spanish and Exercise, you have to keep at it. Your body will get weak and flabby if you don’t use it. You’re mind will do its cerebral equivalent of weak and flabby if it doesn’t get exercise.
Since I’m constantly making a connection between Spanish and exercise, I decided to write a blog entry about it. I do not consider myself an expert on physical fitness or language learning. Most of what I’ve learned I’ve picked up here and there by fumbling my way through life.
Actually, I’m just writing this so I can avoid working out and grammar exercises…