I don’t mean to suggest with the title of this post that I think I am old. But I am certainly outside of what many experts believe is a critical learning period. From the moment we are born, until we hit puberty, our brains are incredible sponges. After that the whole learning system starts to slow down.
The cruel irony of this is that we have really long lives to live after this period, with lots of new things to learn. In today’s global economy this is especially true; more and more people are choosing to or are forced to change careers completely every few years. A lot of learning is a crucial part of this, but the process of learning new things is also incredibly important for our brains as a form of exercise if you will. A few years ago I watched one of those educational programmes on brain degeneration in old age, which showed that people who continue to learn and exercise their brains in their later years, have much better memories and show far fewer signs of degeneration.
The problem with learning when you’re no longer a kid and at school is that it is a far more frustrating and lengthy process. I recently started taking language lessons, and the frustration I am experiencing is unlike anything I can recall. When we moved to South Africa I never had to learn English consciously – we just went to school every day and somehow six months later Joanna and I were fluent. When I was learning Afrikaans and French at school it was only to ensure I got As for them in my exams; I never had to learn more than what was required.
Now I am in a situation where I am learning a language so that one day (sooner than later) I can speak it fluently. When I look at lists of vocabulary or irregular verbs I want to know them all at once, because I know how much there is still to learn. I cannot leave ‘banana’ or ‘batteries’ off the list because they won’t be in the exam. The test of real life doesn’t have a set of finite learning materials.
The other issue is of course time – time to learn and opportunity to practice. Learning to speak English when I was 8 years old wasn’t a choice – two days after we arrived in SA we started at a school where, of course, no one spoke Polish. So learning to speak was in basic terms, about survival, and every day at school was practice. Now I need to not only find the time in the evenings to sit and learn, aside from a formal lesson with my teacher once a week, the only opportunity for practice is the mirror and an app on my iPad which allows you to record yourself and listen to your pronunciation alongside the correct one.
Even when you travel to the country where they speak the language you’re learning it is also not so easy to practice. In most big cities in the world people speak at least a little English. So shyness aside, it is always tempting to revert to a mixture of pidgin English and sign language to get your message across, rather than scrambling for words and butchering someone’s language.
Last night I realized that I am not only learning a new language, I am also learning patience.