African Languages On My Brain: Day 5

The day starts with the Amharic computer program.  I get in my own way. I study the words before I take the test, which is a game.  Each game is 50 points with 10 easy games and 10 hard games for a maximum of 2000 points. I am at 486 out of 500 points. I like to get a perfect score and once I get a perfect score, I don’t complete the game again even when I recognize I have not memorized all the words.  My personality or need to be right interferes with learning Amharic.

I struggle with monkey brain. Monkey brain exists when your thoughts jump from one thought to the next. Because I have decreased outside stimuli to focus on learning Amharic, my synapse fire likes a submachine gun around the target and sometimes hitting the target. I am not learning enough vocabulary words in Amharic. I need to focus and practice Amharic.

This happens during an arranged marriage when you combine the courtship  (getting to know each other) with setting up house as a married couple. I don’t trust my new husband, Amharic. I keep studying everything around him instead of focusing on establishing an intimate relationship him, like learning 50 words a day.

I learn the word pom for apple and wonder which language and under what circumstances was this word first used to describe an apple. I wonder if you can trace the evolution of African languages the way that you can trace the evolution of European languages. I think about the 80 languages in Ethiopia and wonder why and when did they decide to separate themselves. I wonder about borders and boundaries if Ancient Ethiopia covered parts of Africa and Asia, when did they become separate continents and separate people. If you gave a DNA test to an Ethiopia would it be so different from a Kenya or a Somalian? What about the differences between Eritreans and Kuwaitis or Yemenis?

Establishing a relationship with both depth and breadth with my new husband Amharic when I still must utilize the immense depth established with my first husband English proves to be challenging. I am writing a grant in English. So I must spend time weighing thoughts and measuring words to achieve precise clarity. It would be nice in English would go to his room and wait patiently for me to establish a relationship with Amharic, but that is not our fate. I must accommodate the two in this tug of war. The dance between the two is cumbersome and awkward. It would be good to concentrate on one and ignore the other.  I think that this is the reason that I keep going from learning new vocabulary words in Amharic to thinking about language history in English. I am racing from the room with English to the room with Amharic and not adept at making the shift. It doesn’t help that I am nervous about getting the details from my Ethiopian friends to make a solid case for funding.

My mind races back to the day when I first entered the retreat. I forgot the way to my cabin even though it was a short distance. It was a part of the letting go when you learn a new language or culture. You walk into a new world and let go of all you know in the recognition that it can’t help you now, it can only hinder you. I refer to it as traveling the abyss. It is like knitting a shawl to protect you from the cold. First you have to release the shawl from your shoulders and unravel the yarn and reweave it again and wrap yourself in it to maintain the warmth. Unwrapping the shawl from your shoulders requires you to stand in the cold shivering and unprotected from the chill. The quicker you remove the shawl release the yarn from their former state and reknit it back together with the new thread, the quicker you will be able to shield yourself from the cold.

This is acquiring a new language. Release the grammatical structure, sounds, and meanings from your old language, gather new grammatical structure, sounds and meanings from the new language and weave them together to become bilingual. So the shawl becomes more useful and serves more purposes.

It takes courage to stand in the cold, unprotected while you build a new garment. Some people never do it. They stick with the old tattered garment even though it no longer serves their needs.  So I go back and forth releasing and letting go, incorporating Amharic and clinging to the yarn and pieces of shawl, writing the grant in English.

The upper respiratory system, and central nervous system including the brain are involved in learning to speak and effectively use language. The aging process affects these systems. So one must practice using the muscles by approximating the sound of the new language. Native speakers must learn to accept these approximations until they become habituated as new speech patterns. I notice that I can make the sounds with the recordings but become nervous and anxious with the sliding and wavering tones of real speech.

The nervous system loses elasticity with age and some sensory capacity like hearing at higher frequencies. This makes it difficult to acquire new habits.   We require more reinforcement while learning.    The brain must be retrained to recognize the sounds in the target language with repeated language exposure through the use of recordings, which separate and isolate each sound and facilitates auditory learning.

Competing life demands on the adult brains must be balanced with space needed in the frontal lobe to attend, decide and execute new information. So I attend a personal mountain retreat with less competing demands and competition.  I need to incorporate conversations with Amharic learners into this process so that I can stop focusing on how I sound and simply speak it. They and I will be richer for the experience


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