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.