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!

When language determines human behaviour or on how to avoid waiting too much.

You have certainly heard, read or experienced yourself that if you want to call to have a party at 10, you better tell your Argentinian friends to come a few hours earlier. Although this might be true (here´s a former post on the subject), the worst cases are mostly due to the misuse of the word “fiesta”. Why is that?

Because, although no dictionary would hesitate in translating “party” as “fiesta”, there are certain things implied in “fiesta” that make it different from a “party”.

Spanish_tutor_buenos_aires_cena_tranqui

So lets say you want to plan something with your Argentinian friends on a Friday night, around 9 pm, but you would like to be done at 12 am. In this case, you should invite everyone to a “cena tranqui”. If it were a goodbye party, then it should be “una cena de despedida”. Of course, there should be food since no one would have had dinner by nine but it doesn´t have to be anything very elaborate: some empanadas or pizzas would make everyone happy.

If, instead, you would like to start a little later, sometime around 11 pm, with some drinks, snacks and chill music and you would like it to go on for a few hours then we are talking about a “reunión”. You could also call it a “previa” if the plan were to go to another place later, such as a disco, pub, etc.

Keep the word “fiesta” only for those nights you:

buy lots of drinks and no food; when you are planning to play music you can dance and you are ready to sacrifice your living room to the furious dancers from 12 am until the candles burn out.

Spanish_tutor_buenos_aires_fiesta

SPANISH in America: a succinct study.

Uncountable times I have heard that the way porteños speak is different from “the rest of America”. This is probably due to the (mistaken) belief that Argentina is the only country with voseo. The same happens when it comes to the pronunciation for “y” and “ll”. For many people there are only two ways to speak Spanish in America: like Buenos Aires inhabitants or like “the rest of America”.

This idea is so deep-rooted that, every time, I have a hard work convincing people (who, after all my attempts, will give me that suspicious look) that there is no such thing. There are more dialects coexisting in America than I will ever know. Each of them, different.

It would be an impossible task to give a complete report of what America dialectal situation is like. Instead, I will simply provide (without becoming punctitious at all) a few examples to prove the variety and complexity of American Spanish dialects.

1- Regarding pronunciation, I can easily think of:

– 6 different ways to pronounce “y”:

/ʃ/ – as in she

/ʒ/ – as in vision

/ʤ/ – as in June

/ʤi:/ – as the name for “g”

/ʧ/ – as in chin

/I:/ – as in see

– 3 for “r”

/l/ – as in leg

/ʒ/ – as in vision

/r/ – the most known pronunciationl.

– 3 for “b”

/b/ – as in bed

/u:/ – as in too

/g/ – as is got

– And 3 for “s”

/ʃ/ – as in she

/s/- as in so

/Ɵ/ – as in thin

Morphology:

The following map shows (as reliably as Wikipedia allows) those countries where vos is used.

In dark blue and blue, countries with voseo predominance (except for Chile where they use vos in a different way). In green, countries where vos is used in some regions. In sky blue, countries where is almost unused. In red, countries where only tuteo exists.

Technically, only Cuba and Spain don´t have “vos” among their available forms.

Another interesting nuance is the opposition “tú/vos” vs. “usted”. The most spread use says that “usted” is formal and “tú/vos” are informal. However, this ignores the fact that in Colombia people use “usted” as an intimate and familiar form. In Buenos Aires, instead, “usted” implies aging but not always formality; several times it´s used as a friendly form and not few times it´s a sign of “flirting”.

At the same time, in the places where both “tú” and “vos” are used, they are not interchangable. Each has its own context of usage.

Vocabulary:

I chose “remera” just to take a very common word. The following chart shows how many different words exist for the same object according to the countries.

I could continue for ever but I will stop here. Don´t panic.

Not even us, as native speakers, know (let alone use) every one of these variants. A common grammar (with this I am meaning syntaxis) let us understand each other in a very high percentage, high enough to leave vocabulary variation as the only one aspect to be learnt. We become more and more familiar with it as we are being in touch with movies, people, songs, news, places, etc: understanding other slang is a process that needs culture contact, ergo, time. However, even then, when we get to understand it, we don´t change our way to speak to talk to someone with a different dialect.

I, as porteño, am not expected to change “vos” to “tú” when talking to a Venezuelan guy, neither I expect a Peruvian to say “sho” as in Buenos Aires; Colombian people are free to use “usted” in a colloquial and familiar way, and so on and so forth…

So if we, native Spanish speakers, are not able, therefore, not requiered to know and to use every single existing form in America at a certain time, why should a student?