I had a wonderful night last night. My family got to reconnect with our long out of touch French relatives. It was, I think, the first time in a long time…since world war two perhaps, that this has happened.
In the midst of a giant family reunion, I fell back on my old childhood patterns. Found myself a quiet corner to hide but still observe. As an adult, I can’t duck under the dining room table anymore. Can’t even fit behind the couch for that matter. I made do by wandering and puttering. I don’t like being shy. No one does. But it’s part of my nature and I make do. It’s not always a bad thing. When I was a child, being shy made me happy. Hiding out and listening to the voices of all the adults in the room chattering away, smelling dinner cooking…these are my happiest childhood memories.
The deep resonant tones of our now-larger family melding last night brought all those happy memories back. The timbre of family voices feels the same, even when separated by generations and continents. Mixed in with those voices, I could my grandfather’s laugh, and the voices of my great-grandfather and great-grandmother.
Being Canadian, we are taught french all the way through school. It’s a language we grow up hearing. Being a British Columbian, it’s not a language we ever speak. We endure our French lessons, and abandon them as soon as possible. With a deep sense of guilt, of course. We know we should be able to speak to anyone from Quebec, in French, at the drop of a hat…otherwise we are being dicks. Since we can’t actually speak French, we learn to fear the Quebecois. They have the power to make us feel shame merely by saying hello.
This is a strong enough pattern of behaviour that even my French-born grandmother has a difficult time speaking French now. Quelle horreur! So the arrival of the new family was definitely a source of some concern for us. I did put in an effort to brush up on my French, listening to RFI podcasts and reading some Sainct-Didier. And over the evening, I realized I could hear and understand spoken French pretty well. A lot of words flew by without registering any meaning, but context makes up for that. I was pleasantly surprised.
But could I speak one word? No. The mere thought of doing so caused some part of my brain to freeze up. I have co-workers I could have practiced my French on, but I couldn’t get past the barrier of saying the first word.
The truth about learning new languages as an adult is that it isn’t as hard as you think it is. Muddling through historical rapier manuals in Portuguese, German, Italian and Spanish is very doable when you have the will to do so. It gets very much easier the more you do it. But that’s not the same as being able to speak those languages.
When you learn as an adult, you are taught, or think you should learn, the rules. Grammar. Verb structure and all that fun. You think you need to do it right, in order to make it easy. You read it all and it makes sense, but at a certain point the knowledge just flies about and refuses to settle down into anything actually usable. It makes you feel like a failure. You tried to follow the rules, but nothing jelled in your head. It doesn’t make sense. It’s easy to dismiss the attempt and say that your brain is stuck, you missed the learning opportunity for new languages when you were a kid. And that’s bullshit.
The secret is in that first word, in that willful opening of your mouth to spew out a foreign word in the vain hope that it will be recognizable to someone. Scorn, laughter or correction can kill that desire forever. At least, it can if you are me. But somehow we carry on and keep trying. The first word is the key, simply because it’s hard.
Adults learn differently than children. Exposure doesn’t reveal ability. Repetition doesn’t sink in lessons, it only polishes them. It doesn’t teach. As adults we learn by doing something that is difficult. The more mental challenge something requires, the better we learn it. Our brains have to fire up on all cylinders to really sink in a lesson, and after a lot of exposure, few things can do that.
We’ve seen enough by the time we reach adulthood that we think we understand everything. When exposed to a new thing, we instantly slot it into one of our mental cubbies and figure it’s done. We know it now, it’s just another version of A which we will call Aa. But without seeing it as a new thing, without really engaging our learning engine, we really don’t understand it.
Pressure testing is a really popular martial arts buzzword. It’s right up there with “Reality-based.” Mostly, both are just another word for bullshit.
Real pressure is having to use two-decade old French lessons in a conversation. Right now. With all your family and friends watching. Think about that for a minute. Think about how your brain would have to just about scorch itself trying to dredge up words and put them together in half-remembered structure. If you didn’t give up, but toughed it out with stumbles and all, and did it time and a time again, night after night, reading like mad to catch up in the days between? Under that pressure you would probably learn French pretty fast.
Compare that as a martial artist to a lot of the so-called pressure testing that people like to talk about. Armouring up and beating on each other, faster and harder, risking injury? The energy they feel is mostly excitement, more than a real critical pressure that forces you to deeply learn new things on the fly. The real teachers can do that within that context and others. But the people who ape that in their training but just trying to be tougher or hit harder in their training, thinking it makes them more bad-ass or tougher or more real than everyone else?
Those people should learn French.