THE BRAIN-AS-COMPUTER METAPHOR in language learning

 “If you want to teach a computer to play chess (…) the old model is ok; but if you´re interested in understanding real intelligence, you have to deal with the body” Rolf Pfeifer, director of the artificial intelligence lab at the University of Zurich.

After the modern computer advent in the historical stage and especially after the artificial intelligence development was made known, human brain started to be understood by many as a computer.

As a Spanish teacher, I have seen this premise operating in the way people plan their second language learning schedule.

Here´s one example of the sort of conclusion people reach when it comes to decide how many hours a day of Spanish lessons they should study in order to learn the most:

Let´s say it takes around 5 years at 1 hour a week lesson rate to go from scratch to an advanced level in an immersion situation. That would be 52 hours a year, multiplied by 5 years that´s 260 hours total. So if I took 4 hour lessons per day Monday to Friday, maybe I could go from zero to advanced in these 3 months I have here in Latin America.

This is the kind of erroneous conclusion people come to when thinking of our brains as a computer and the language as a program to be installed in it.

Let´s consider the following FAQ:

– Why is it that I can´t use the verbs correctly when speaking if I can do the grammar excercises in the book with no problem?

– If I understand the rules, why do I keep making mistakes?

– Why do I remember the conjugations when I´m studying the verbs but I keep getting them mixed while speaking?

– Why after going through all the subjunctive rules I still can´t use them.

The answer to these questions is normally the same one: you are going too fast. You are filling your brain with more information than the poor can handle. You are not letting yourself absorb the new knowledge because you are keeping it in your short-term memory to be soon forgotten due to lack of repetition and use.

LEARNING in function of HOURS behaves approximately like a Gaussian bell- shaped curve:

spanish_lessons_buenos_aires_gauss

If you add some class hours, you improve; but if you add too many class hours, you start to get tired, overwhelmed and eventually frustrated by the feeling that you should know more than you actually do.

Of course it also depends: it depends on your mother tongue, on other second languages you speak, if any,  on the time you spend in contact with the target language, on the time you study outside the lesson, on your own research, on your studying methods, on the levels of stress in your life, on your motivation, on your learning pace, and so on.

How many hours a week? There´s no ideal fixed amount. However, I’ve got this to say: don´t forget your brain is a part of your body and, ultimately, as Fernando Savater once said: it´s not only that we have a body but we are a body.

Take care!

Love, metaphors and prepositions

One fairly common mistake made by English speaker Spanish students is to use the preposition “con” after the verb “enamorarse”. The reason is obvious: “to fall in love” requires the preposition “with” in English but not in Spanish. The question I’m interested in, though, is why would the same meaning require two different prepositions. And the answer is pretty simple: it’s actually not the same meaning.

This can be explained thanks to a nerdly beautiful masterpiece of cognitive linguistics called Metaphors We Live By, a book that makes evident that metaphors are far from being a stylistic device owned by poets but rather they are an attribute of every human being. Examples can be given by thousands, I will just give a few.

Thinking an argument as a war allows us to say things like:
You disagree? Okay, shoot!
He attacked every weak point in my argument.

Thinking of time as money allows us to say:
You’re wasting my time.
I’ve invested a lot of time in her.

And so on.

What are the metaphors, then, underlying both “to fall in love with” and “enamorarse de”? Well, in English the metaphor is apparent: loving is falling. That´s why you can “fall with”, meaning “in someone else’s company” or sometimes just “along with someone” if that other person is falling happily by themselves and you decide to go after them and try to catch them. In English, a fall is a good thing when it comes to romantic thinking, it’s what you have to do. See this song here by Green Day:

I had a dream that I kissed your lips / And it felt so true / Then I woke up as a nervous wreck / And I fell for you

Or this other one:

[…] So I locked my heart away / Built up my wall / Nobody could figure me Out at all […] So I just jumped for you / I jumped with no parachute / Cause you took away all / All my fear of flying / And I just jumped for you

A literal translation to Spanish would have little if no sense. Because in Spanish loving is hanging. You hang from someone else´s hand. I mean, for the ones who don´t speak Spanish yet, there is nothing in the verb “enamorarse” suggesting the idea of “hanging”. It´s the preposition “de” (one of its meanings being “from”) and the metaphors you can make with it what suggests it. In Spanish, falling in romantic terms is a bad thing. You can see that in the following reggaeton song:

Tú me dejaste caer / pero ella me levantó
You let me fall / but she helped me up

Meaning that his girlfriend broke with him but the love of another girl helped him in his moments of distress.

Or this other phrase I found on internet:

Justo cuando estabas logrando sacarme de ese agujero, me soltaste la mano, me dejaste caer y me dejaste sola.
It was precisely when you were managing to take me out of that hole that you “unheld” my hand, you let me fall and left me alone.

The fact that in both languages loving could be related to a movement downwards creates some interfaces between them, but it doesn’t really mean the same.

As I explained in a former post regarding the word fiesta, dictionaries easily offer a translation for a word without going deeper in its real meaning, as if two languages were but same ideas with different vocab. This is not the case. Languages are much more interesting than that. Don´t lose your chance to learn one in depth to experience how the world transforms in front of your very eyes.

A PIECE OF BA REALITY

For all of those who wonder how true is the gossip that you cannot plan anything in advance with your Argentinian friends, here´s a copy-paste fragment of a conversation I had myself:

My friend: ¿podés a tu salida de danza? Could you meet after your dance class?

Me: Dale, ¿por ahí en dos viernes? Para mí el martes es imposible. Sure, maybe in two Fridays? Tuesdays are impossible for me.

My friend: Dale, sigamos hablando así no estamos organizando para dentro de 2 semanas. Great. Let´s keep talking so that we DO NOT have to organize 2 weeks in advance

Thought I should share! 😉

spanish_lessons_buenosaires_someday