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!

LYNNE MURPHY – American and British Politeness

Neophytes in second languages trend to think that learning a new language is like a transplant from one cluster of words to another one. We all wish that! However, what turns out to be true after a while is that not only vocabulary and grammar differ, but also the way to conceive the world and to relate with each other, including the manners.

“Whose the rudest? Wrong question”

In this video, Lynne Murphy explains us why. Even when she talks about the differences between Britain and the United States, her reflections could easily apply to the differences between Spanish and English, whether this last one refers to British English, American English or any other dialect.

I hope it helps to illustrate how complexly beautiful languages are.

LYNNE MURPHY is Senior Lecturer in Linguistics in the School of English, University of Sussex. Her research concerns what we know when we know words, and stretches to how non-linguistic knowledge and behaviour affect our use of words. Raised and educated in the US, Murphy lived in South Africa in the 1990s and has been in England since 2000. Her observations on the Englishes of these places (and the linguistics behind them) are chronicled in the blog Separated by a Common Language. Her books include Semantic Relations and the Lexicon and Lexical Meaning, both published by Cambridge University Press.