Monday, March 29, 2010

Plastic Brain

A major component of my research involves interacting with international colleagues and students, an aspect of my work that I enjoy very much. At some point years ago I decided that I should try to become more conversant in a particular language that would be useful to one of my long-running international research collaborations.

As some readers know from previous posts, after years of informal study and practice, I took 3 years of undergraduate classes at my university. The beginning, intermediate, and advanced language courses met 4-5 times/week during each academic year, and, as a result of these classes and the dedication of an excellent instructor, I finally progressed beyond a tourist-speak level of ability in this language. I also had some interesting experiences being an "undergraduate" again (example 1, example 2, example 3; others can be found by searching on the word 'language').

I took all the courses there were to take, so this year I have been meeting one-on-one with a language tutor, a young woman who is a non-science graduate student at my university. We meet twice a week for an hour or so of random conversation about life, the news, movies, books, anything. Although my tutor had no previous experience as a tutor, I was extraordinarily lucky to find such a kind, patient, and interesting person. I enjoy our meetings very much.

When I was taking classes, there were obvious milestones that helped me gauge my progress. We did oral presentations (typically twice in a term), and moved through a textbook series that systematically expanded our vocabulary and knowledge of grammar.

I was reasonably happy with my progress, although quite dissatisfied with my speaking skills. I was also very aware that it was getting more and more difficult for me to learn new words. It was considerably annoying to have to look up the same word over and over and find that it just wasn't sticking in my brain. In my youth, I had an excellent memory, but at some point I no longer did.

Now that my language learning involves mostly conversation, supplemented by some reading (newspapers, novels) and movie watching, I didn't know whether I was progressing or not -- I feared that I was getting stuck in some speaking-ruts, using the same simple words and grammar forms over and over. In my more pessimistic moments, I wondered if my ability to speak this language had plateaued, a victim of my aging brain and lack of time or opportunity to immerse myself in this language.

Recently, however, I had a few experiences that gave me some sense that I had made progress. For example, during a visit to another university to give a talk, I encountered a scientist from a country where this language is spoken, and we talked for more than an hour in this language. I couldn't have done that last year. I could have carried on some form of rudimentary conversation for an hour, but I couldn't really have conversed.

So, now I think that language learning is always going to be slower than I want it to be, but, even given the challenges of my aging brain and limited time, I think I can continue to make progress. I have not plateaued.

This gives me hope in general for my ability to learn new things. As a researcher, I hope that I can still explore new fields of knowledge, learn new techniques, and make connections between ideas. My detectable (albeit) slow progress with language learning is evidence that my brain isn't full (or emptying..) quite yet and that I haven't already learned everything I will ever learn.

I was thinking about this the other day, not only because I finally had a ray of hope about my progress with speaking skills in the language I have been trying to learn, but also because I was wondering what proportion of my time I spend transferring knowledge I already have (i.e., sharing my accumulated wisdom via teaching or advising) vs. having creative new thoughts about Science.

It's hard to calculate because, although I spend a substantial and perhaps steady amount of time on the former (knowledge transfer), the latter (acquisition of new knowledge, ideas) mostly comes in pulses, precipitated in part by a encountering a looming proposal deadline, reaching a particular stage with a paper, or needing to brainstorm with a student or colleague about some aspect of a project.

That's fine with me. As long as there is a not-infrequent component of my job involving creative thought, there will be a good balance between knowledge-out and knowledge-in, and my aging brain and I can continue to learn, discover, and have fun.


Anonymous said...

This will all probably help you ward of dementia as you age if those studies are true. :-)

femalemadscientist said...

Ugh I'm a grad student and I already feel like my brain has aged. I forgot everything I learned in undergrad and now things just can't stick in my brain.

Thanks you ADD and my prematurely geriatric brain.

estraven said...

I manage to keep up my four foreign languages by reading a lot in the original, but my pronunciation (even in English, which is the one I know better) still sucks. Maybe I should find time for one-to-one learning like you do.
On the other hand, I am definitely learning new science - only much slower than I used to, and from people younger than me.

Pagan Topologist said...

There are some new software products on the market for language acquisition. I think one is called Rosetta Stone, which is a delightful name. Have you tried any of them? I have been wanting to learn Spanish, as well as to keep my Polish skills current, but I have hesitated to spend the money for the packages.

zed said...

interesting, I too find I am only creative in spurts, often associated with a looming deadline, and I wondered if that's a normal mode of operation for a scientist. I'm in my late 30s.

EliRabett said...

Sabbatical in a country where the new language is spoken.

Also, you can find web sites with the nightly news in that language, movies, etc.

female Science Professor said...

Sabbatical decisions also involve my spouse, removing the possibility of sabbatical-related language immersion in this particular language.

I am well aware of the language web resources and use them daily.

Doctor Pion said...

A grad student I knew back in the day said that he knew that he had really "gotten" English when he could appreciate all of the jokes in Johnny Carson's monologue on the Tonight Show. He had to know current events as well as the nuances of language that are part of humor, and be thinking rather than translating what he heard.

There must be an equivalent in your language, and you must be close to that point if you can converse for an hour with a native speaker. Maybe your next challenge would be to teach Intro Science in that language? Teaching requires attention to many of the same nuances as humor does.

balanced instability said...

I think it is super that you were able to learn a new language. Good for you for fighting to maintain your plasticity!

Anonymous said...

I am willing to believe someone has hacked FSP's blog or that FSP suffers from multiple personality disorder. Where is the foreigner bashing? Where is the male bashing? Something must have happened over Spring Break!!!

Anonymous said...

Perhaps now you will have a little more respect for the disgusting foreigners who happen to speak more languages than you do. My current list: Bengali (native), Hindi, English, German and French, the last 2 of which were acquired after the age of 20.

Kevin said...

I gave up on language learning a few years back, when I realized that the 3rd language I had learned was essentially completely gone (despite 2 years of it as an undergrad) and the third language was also gone (despite a year as a grad student and repeating that first year 6 years later as a professor). So I'm stuck with two languages, one of them barely adequate to read a newspaper.

I am convinced I can still learn new things, though, as I have been continuing to create new classes. (This year I have two brand new classes, one of which is so cutting edge that we'll be spending a big chunk of the quarter just figuring out whether the goal of the class is feasible.)

Teaching science may not be the best test of fluency in a language, though. I was able to follow science lectures in my second language much more easily than day-to-day conversations---the language of science lectures is much more structured and the concepts much easier to handle than the rather slippery social conventions and slang of ordinary conversation.

Anonymous said...

I still can only count to 6 in that language, FSP! I'm happy your brain is working well, because mine is aging fast, particularly this week!
Your admiring colleague

Anonymous said...

I have no idea why some readers think FSP is bashing foreigners or finds them disgusting. She may have reported a couple of anectodes involving, as it turns out, foreign people, like she has about many non-foreign people. The grand dame of blogging has too much class for petty bashing!

Anonymous said...

Foreigner bashing? Are you confusing FSP with another blog? Reporting anecdotes about sexist behavior encountered in another country is not foreigner bashing, nor evidence that anyone thinks foreigners are "disgusting". What a bizarre interpretation.

female Science Professor said...

Thanks for the support. I don't understand the comments about foreigner bashing either, as this doesn't match how I feel about my numerous friends, colleagues, and students from other countries. One of the great things about my job is the opportunities for interaction with people from all over the world. Some of my best friends are foreigners.. and I have spent quite a lot of time (years) happily living and traveling in other countries. Part of my childhood was spent in a remote part of Africa, and I have lived in various other continents/countries at other times in my life. I have certainly encountered sexism abroad, but my describing those incidents is not evidence for xenophobia.

hkukbilingualidiot said...

I hold multiple languages, 6 to be exact. Four of them I'm fluent in, though one is kind of on a slippery slope between native? foreigner? level...if you know what I mean. Two of them I can get by with if I got stuck in the countries that use those languages. However, a price for multiple linguistics and fluency plus pitch-perfect pronunciations is confused grammar, that you are unaware of (one which is perfect for language A but most certainly not for language B), strange accents, which you only notice AFTER you've said it, and numerous comedic situations that is often associated with foreigners.

Though I know of a few people similar to me in this stance it is still not that common.

I do have one anecdote. A French-native friend of mine once said a whole English sentence with a French accent while the only french word in that sentence spoken in an English accent. Though he can speak perfect English without accents at all...well obviously only on a good day.

I do agree that when you've reached complete fluency your brain should have already been adapted to thinking in that language which my brain does for the languages that I'm fluent in. As a result I absolutely HATE sitting in a room with two or more of the languages that I speak. It's not a pretty sight when more than two languages are jumbled into one sentence or speaking in another one as opposed to the one you just started talking in.

When you've reached that stage you would know you've mastered the language. Then it's just a case of training your brain to switch itself backwards and forwards between the different modes in record speeds or just let the comedy/confusion play.

female Science Professor said...

Just to be clear: This is the 4th non-English language I have studied, but the only one I have attempted as a middle aged person. My point isn't so much how many languages we all speak or understand (though I do admire people who speak more than one), but rather what it is like to learn languages at different stages of our lives.

Anonymous said...

FSP... it appears your brain has actually aged, while mine hasn't. If you go back to your post reporting sexist anecdotes, you will notice that you did not just mention anecdotes, but also said that you were certain that the whole culture of that nation is sexist.

You come up with sexist anecdotes and paranoia every second post, if I were to call that 1 post foreigner bashing, every second post on your blog would qualify as America bashing. That is the way people who want student lounges reason, not me.

Anonymous said...

"That is the way people who want student lounges reason, not me."

It's true, the Federation for Access to Lounges for Students the dreaded (F.A.L.S.) is a violently radical organization, responsible for countless war crimes and spreading their message of hate all across the world. However, unfair to characterize all advocates for lounges in their department as equally radical.

Wait, I mean... "whaaaaaat?"

Also, link or it didn't happen. Oh wait, we all know it didn't happen and you're grasping at straws. Please play again.