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!

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

POLITICAL CORRECTNESS IN BA (2nd edition)

If you have not read the introduction of the book “Che, boludo” yet, let me quote for you an excerpt:

Argentines love to talk. They comunicate directly, openly and often loudly. In Argentina, there’s no taboo in the use of foul language. A respectable old woman will swear like a sailor and no one bats an eye. Fools are not suffered lightly and anyone behaving in a pretentious or obnoxious manner will be sharply reprimended, sometimes with just a simple gesture of the hands. Political correctness does not exist on Argentina because it would only impede getting your point across. (…) It is evident when Argentines communicate with one another that their freedom of speech is real.

Well, sounds great… and it is even plausible at first sight. However, it is a little too much.

Getting your point across is important in Argentine speech. Yes. Of course with exceptions, it´s ok to call things by its name: avoiding this is making it shameful, something you should feel embarrassed about. Also, it´s true that we often use the imperative form instead of other periphrastic ways to ask for things such as “¿podría decirme?”. We do prefer “vos” instead of “usted”, we kiss sometimes even in a formal situation, etc.

Nevertheless, this does not necessarily mean that there is no political correctness. You can be really offensive.

I always remember a story told to me by an ex-student. She was at a disco and she had asked a man to take a picture of her and her friends. At some moment, he let her camera fall, and she said (trying to sound understanding) “Eh, boludo!” She could not understand why he got angry: she had heard so many times that “boludo” is a word that people use with their friends.

Here is the thing: “boludo” can be used (and it´s actually used) with your friends but it doesn´t make it nicer when you use it with someone you don´t know. Being extremely informal with people you just met feels rude in Buenos Aires too.

Here´s another excerpt:

If you are a little overweight your nickname might be “el gordo”, or if you have a dark complexion they might call you “el negro” or if you happen to be of Polish descent, “el polaco”. 

What the book doesn´t say is that if you are really overweight no one will call you “gordo”, or if you have Peruvian descent your nickname will not be for sure “Peruano”. As I wrote in another post, language is never about grammar. The control on the language is a result of a social situation. The more social prejudice against something, the more careful you have to be when talking about it. In Buenos Aires, having a dark complexion or being of Polish decent has no social implications and there is no prejudice formed against it.

So, in Buenos Aires, you can be extremely polite or rude just as in any other part in the world and it is not always clear for a foreigner whom you can talk to in a certain way and whom you can´t so ¡Ojo! with the use (and abuse) of slang because you might get involved in an uncomfortable situation.