Friday, October 24th, 2008...12:53 pm

A stretch of an analogy

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This is just a thought tangent, but perhaps you may find it interesting…

As I struggle to learn to communicate in Mandarin here I keep feeling as if I have struggled this way before.  It is sort of a lingering familiarity that I couldn’t put my finger on.  But today it hit me - learning a language is in many ways similar to when I was teaching myself to skate switch!

For those of you aren’t familiar, skating switch is where you begin doing skateboard tricks in opposite of your more comfortable stance.  So for me, I would always ride my skateboard one way, with my left foot on the tail and my right foot forward.  But if I were to reverse that stance it is like starting over, like writing left handed in a way.

Let me explain why I feel these two pursuits are analogous.  When learning a new language, or learning to skate switch, you are in both cases attempting to recreate a previous skill under new constraints.  I already know how to kickflip, but can I do it switch?  I already know how to describe what I did yesterday but can I do it in Chinese?  In both cases one must translate a previous behavior but using a foreign and uncomfortable method.  By forcing yourself to work under these constraints you are achieving something that allows you to strengthen your skill in the general sense.  Skating switch informs your regular skateboarding and makes you more well rounded.  Learning a foreign language informs your first language and gives you more insight into the nature of language itself.

There is more to this than a whimsical analogy.  Because I’ve gone through the struggle of learning to skate switch and see the analogy, I can then apply somethings I learned to this new situation.  The first is the learning curve.  Starting to skate switch is the most difficult step, because you already know how to skate and you are forced to humble yourself back to being able to do almost nothing.  But once you get over the initial steepness of the curve and learn the basics you begin to have fun skating switch.  Once this happens you are motivated to spend more time in that stance and learning accelerates.  In the same way, when beginning to speak Mandarin it is so incredibly difficult that you would rather just speak English, or not say anything at all!  But once you get to be mildly conversational and communicate, you start to have a lot of fun learning new words and new things from the people you meet.  The same process is at work, as a basis of learning begits more and more learning.  It just takes confidence and persistence to get past that initial hump.  With my language practice, I just new feel like I am rounding the hill to begin to learn more from having conversations outside of the classroom in daily life.

Beyond this, another interesting phenomenon occurs.  You learn that somethings are easier switch than regular.  I remember when I learned switch frontside flips, and they were incredibly smooth and natural, way more so than my regular stance frontside flips.  The reason is somewhat inexplicable, but many people have felt the same thing in different ways.  Although I haven’t experienced it yet Mandarin, I can see where there are places where certain types of communication are simply easier or more eloquent.  I believe through understanding areas where certain languages are more capable, we are given insight into the culture of the language, our own culture, and communication of ideas in general.

I look forward to seeing these principles manifest themselves as I continue to learn Mandarin.  I think my choice of picking one of the most distant languages to English was a challenge, but because of this difference I feel I will learn more about the nature of language in general.

1 Comment

  • Hey Jim,

    What a great analogy. Thinking about it now I can completely relate learning Spanish and snowboarding switch. I found that once I moved back to the states and was no longer speaking Spanish I often had trouble expressing things- especially emotions as well as I had been able to do in Spain, particularly when writing. I forced myself to journal in Spanish while in Madrid and even though initially it was very difficult, after awhile I found that at times the words had more of a flow in my new language as opposed to my native language (this obviously may not be as easy for you with the characters!).

    Surprisingly I’m even noticing it in London a bit. Even though I’m fundamentally speaking the same language, it is almost just as interesting (also funny and/or embarrassing at times) learning the subtle nuances. I don’t have a British accent and I don’t necessarily think I will develop one but when I use colloquial phrases I do find myself saying them with an accent because that is how I hear my friends and colleagues talking. This in a sense heightens my ability to communicate with people here. It is amazing to be aware of the influences of culture on the way we speak. I think it is incredible you are learning Mandarin. I would love to learn another language.

    I often joke with people if I had the choice to have any superpower it would be the ability to speak any language. I think it would be amazing.

    Anyway, I must get back to work but keep talking….and writing entries so we know what adventures you’re up to next!

    Cheers,
    Court

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