Friday, 20 May 2016

Native Talent vs Hard Work

Native Talent AND Hard Work
It is Polski Piątek, so let us complain about the unfairness of it all.

Why is it that some people are able to learn dozens of foreign languages while others try and fail to learn even one?

This is a very personal question for your scribe, as my whole family has a crack at languages now and again, some members succeeding more than others. When it comes to spoken languages, my sister-in-law wins the cake as she is completely fluent in French, English and her native Romance tongue. However, my sister Tertia is a French teacher who is also conversant in Spanish. My brother Nulli has been functional in French for his entire adult life. My mother reads massive German volumes while knitting. Benedict Ambrose has learned only a bit of high school Spanish (and Ecclesial Latin, of course), but he has the wonderful and annoying gift of mimicry, so his French, Italian and Polish accents are all better than mine, even though he usually doesn't have a clue what he is saying when he repeats--perfectly--what I am trying to say.  Like my brother Nulli, he has awesome listening powers.

My dad, who in his time has had to study a bunch of languages for academic purposes, e.g. Old Norse, is probably fluent in Anglo-Saxon, but he has spent his adult life pegging away, off and on, at his ancestral German. My Dad is my inspiration, for  he does not have an unusually gifted ear, like B.A. and Nulli, and he is not a German language whiz, like my mother. He is, like me, a Worker.

My mother might object that she is a Worker, too, but I would argue that she has a native facility for languages, and she can no longer expect a pat on the head for all the work she did in high school. I concede that she worked very hard in high school, but that was some years ago now, and I have never heard of anyone else taking up knitting in college so as having something to do with her hands while reading through the lengthy tomes of French and German classical literature.

I don't believe my mother has spent more than two consecutive weeks in a German-speaking country since 1965 and yet she can just whiz through German books, with occasional complaints about Bavarian dialect words. She had thoroughly wedged German in her brain by 1965, and not all that much of it seems to have fallen out.

I cannot say the same for me and French, which I was fed in school from the ages of 6 to 19, or for me and Italian, which I first studied between the ages of 15 and 18. The German I stuffed into my brain in 2006 has mostly disappeared, save for "kuehlshrank" (fridge), "fernseherraum" (TV room), a number of soccer terms and the all-important "Enschuldigung" (Pardon me, sorry).

Naturally I would like to know who or what is to blame, and I have come to the conclusion that the earliest culprit was childhood despair regarding the superiority of native talent. In short, I thought you either had it or you didn't, and there wasn't much point working if I didn't because I could only fail. (I'm looking at you, piano.) I suppose this was being rather like the chap with the one talent, who buried it in the ground. I have often felt that other people have been given the five talents, and I only have the one, but it now occurs to me that the chap with the one talent could have made even more talents than the one with five, had he been clever about his investments. To bad this did not occur to me thirty-five years ago.

Although I thought the author of Mezzofanti's Gift sounded like a right Charlie as he sat in an Italian library, not knowing any Italian, trying to find out if and why Cardinal Mezzofanti really knew so many languages, I found his book enthralling. Like him, I want to know the secrets of people who learn many languages. However, I got cross and almost gave up the book when he started looking at chopped up bits of German hyperpolyglot brain. If a few people are born with brains that can do languages and most others aren't, then that brings me right back to my childhood despair.  However, I kept reading, and it became clear that you can't tell from a hyperpolyglot's brain what it looked like BEFORE the hyperpolyglot learned all those languages. Learning anything, especially something as complicated as a language, creates new pathways in your brain. Scientists might scoff, but I could swear I could feel this happening when I dragged my eyes through Bernard Lonergans's Insight.

The book had a few useful tips right at the very end: chewing gum while studying, drinking coffee while or before studying, and using flashcards. The Mezzofanti's Gift author's big discovery about Mezzofanti is that he made stacks of paper flashcards. Even though Mezzofanti seems to have been the most supremely gifted hyperpolyglot ever recorded, he pushed his native talent beyond the limits of human achievement through a lot of  hard work.

In Polish class last night, the professor followed up on my request for listening training and played us monologues while we raced to fill  in the blanks in the transcript before us. It was really fun and really hard. The people best at this were a retired female half-Pole and a 30-something Frenchman. The person worst at this was a retired male Briton with a Polish wife. The rest of us fell somewhere in the middle, with the women doing better, I believe, than both male Britons, and I doing a bit worse than the women with Polish boyfriends/husbands.

Although I am not qualified to say, my guess is that the female half-Pole was so good at the test because she was in Poland last week, and so had been very recently speaking (and listening to) Polish in a Polish environment. (After a weekend in Kielce last October, my Polish listening skills were brilliant, if temporary.) As for the Frenchman, he has to operate in the foreign-to-him anglophone environment of Edinburgh day in and day out, so his listening skills get a workout every day.

Sugar Update: Speaking of brains, I think I have cracked the mystery of the fog that seemed to live in my brain from the ages of 12 to 26. Although clearly it had something to do with depression, now I don't think it was genetics, exactly. I think it was sugar. Almost no-one knew about the dangers of sugar back then, but we know now, so you may want to consider reading up if you are a parent.

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