Where There’s A Will There’s A Way
Aiki News #90 (Winter 1992)
Some of you may know that I am now the proud father of a 10-month old boy. As anyone who has ever been around a baby will appreciate, watching an infant undergo changes on a daily basis is a fascinating experience. Suddenly my wife and I find ourselves continuously discussing the topic of learning. Having been in the role of a student or teacher during most of my life, the subject of how we learn—or refuse to learn—has never been far from my mind. Over the years I have come up with a few ideas of my own about learning, some of which seem to run contrary to popular wisdom. Here are a few examples.
“Children are the best learners. The ability of human beings to absorb new information or acquire new skills diminishes with age.” Who has not heard similar comments expressed on countless occasions? But does this view really hold up under close scrutiny? I would be the first to grant that children are fantastic learners. I see the evidence before my eyes everyday. But I would like to point out a couple of things. First of all, children, especially infants, spend a great deal of their time exploring these new surroundings into which they have been born. They concentrate for hours and hours everyday. Every new person or object they encounter is a new world to behold. Particularly in the beginning, we watch them progress at an astounding pace. But we judge their improvement on a totally different scale from what we would use for an adolescent or adult.
Take a specific example. An infant begins to utter his first few words at about the age of one. But that’s all—only words. He doesn’t use sentences in the beginning. The child is, in effect, learning a foreign language. We would regard an infant who could manage a few score words before reaching the age of 18 months as a quick learner. Yet an adult learning a foreign language who could only produce a few words after several months of study would be considered slow. We have a double-standard for evaluating learning which is weighted heavily in favor of the child. Far less is expected of him.
Now uproot this same child with his newly acquired verbal repertoire and pluck him down in a different culture where another language is spoken and he will quickly forget all the words he has learned—probably in six months or less. It’s the old adage, “Easy come, easy go!” The adult learning a foreign language will forget too, but at a slower rate than the child because he has the ability to relate new knowledge to older knowledge which provides a certain degree of reinforcement.
Here’s another cliche having to do with language you are sure to recognize. “Some people have a gift for learning foreign languages.” We all admire people who can speak more than one language. Yet also inherent in this remark is the premise that some people possess some unspecified mental ability necessary for foreign language learning. I regard this as silly since, as everyone who travels to the city of Montreal or to Switzerland quickly finds out, there are numerous countries or geographical regions throughout the world where bilingualism, or even multi-lingualism, is commonplace. Are we to assume that there is something unique about the genetic pools in such regions which breed language geniuses? Absurd! Any normal child placed in these surroundings will acquire these same language skills regardless of his genetic background. It is simply the environment, educational system, and effort of the individual which make language acquisition possible. Only a monolingual person would voice the above belief about a “gift” for languages because he views the task of mastering a new language as beyond his capacity. A resident of Montreal or a Swiss would surely chuckle at the whole notion!
One more example to illustrate my point. In my adult life I have watched the dawning of the computer age for the masses. Being engaged in the publishing and translation fields for many years, I have found computers to be essential tools and have spent hours daily in front of display monitors. Over the years due to personnel turnover at Aiki News I have had perhaps some 50-60 colleagues many of whom were expected to use computers in their work. Some of the younger ladies didn’t seem to mind learning to operate a computer, but most of the older group, primarily women in their late 30s to 50s, seemed to be universally afflicted with a case of computer phobia. Their comments have run consistently along the following lines: “I’m already in my 40s and can’t seem to learn like I did when I was younger.” Or, “Computers are too complicated and I’m not smart enough to learn to use one.” It became clear to me that these ladies had simply been—pardon the computer metaphor—“programmed” to believe that their mental powers had diminished with age and that they were no longer capable of learning a complex new skill. I once half-jokingly asked one of these middle-aged co-workers to imagine, really imagine, if she could teach herself to operate a word processor in one month’s time by reading the manual if she were paid one million dollars upon succeeding. She unhesitatingly answered yes, which didn’t surprise me in the least.
(The full article is available for subscribers.)