“Learning another language is not only learning different words for the same things, but learning another way to think about things.”- Flora Lewis
A New Way To Learn a New Language
On the journey of learning a new language one of the biggest challenges we have is squeezing in the daily consistent study time needed to make significant progress. These days we can’t seem to fit everything we want to do into the 16 hours or so that we are awake. Everyone is looking for shortcuts to get their desired results.
Today I would like to share some experimental methods and a unique take on developing stronger memories to possibly help you on your journey to learning a language faster than you thought possible. In the second half of the article I will talk about how to become more self-aware which will directly affect how quickly you learn a new language. Becoming a more conscious human being will improve all facets of your life.
Zapping Your Brain To Success
The first thing I want to talk about is trans-cranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) which is a form of neurostimulation that uses constant, low current (max 2 milliamps) delivered by a 9V battery directly to the brain area of interest via small electrodes. I have experimented with my tDCS device since late last year.
(disclaimer: before experimenting with tDCS please do your own research and consult your doctor.)
Although tDCS has been around for over a hundred years only in the last decade has it garnered the attention of both the scientific community and the general public. Originally it was developed to help stroke patients who suffered brain damage and has been successfully utilized to enhance language, mathematical ability, attention span, problem solving, memory, and coordination among a variety patients, including healthy people. Many Universities have published extensive research papers on the various possible applications of tDCS. The US Army and DARPA has used tDCS to speed up the training of snipers thereby cutting their learning curve in half. By applying a very small current to your scalp, you can alter the behavior of neurons in your brain. By altering the neuroplasticity of your brain you are able to possibly think faster and build stronger memories. This was my interest in tDCS. A good memory is the foundation of language acquisition, so naturally having a malleable and agile memory is essential to learning a second language.
The regions of the brain that I am interested in stimulating is the temporal lobes which are involved in the retention of visual memories, processing sensory input, comprehending language, storing new memories, emotion, and deriving meaning. In particular I am interested in stimulating the area known as Wernicke’s area which spans the region between temporal and parietal lobes and is one of the two parts of the cerebral cortex linked to speech (the other being Broca’s area). These areas have been shown to be involved in speech comprehension. Wernicke’s area is named after Carl Wernicke, a Polish neurologist and psychiatrist who first hypothesized a link between this region of the brain and language processing.
Mapping The Brain
You can use what is known as the Broadman areas to identify the different areas of the brain that you may want to stimulate. These areas were originally defined and numbered by the German scientist Korbinian Brodmann. He was able to map the brain through his observations of the neuronal organization of the cerebral cortex. His studies involved the electrical probing of the cortices of patients during surgery. Brodmann then numbered the areas that he studied in each lobe and recorded the psychological and behavioral events that accompanied their stimulation.
How I Use tDCS To Learn a New Language
Now I want to get to the more important area of this article, which is how do I specifically use tDCS to help me learn a language. I think many of you will have gotten excited with the potential for tDCS helping you learn something faster. Firstly, I want to stress this is just an aid and it is very difficult to quantify if any substantial improvements can actually be attributed to purely using tDCS. In learning a language nothing beats a solid plan and good old hard work.
Has it worked for me? It is hard to say do to its subjective nature and my own personal circumstances. My feeling is that its long-term effects have been very subtle, and only in recent months I have felt that my brain feels a little sharper in recalling the Korean I learn. I find myself having less moments where the word is just on the tip of my tongue, yet fail to recall it. I also intuitively feel that I understand what I hear around me although I don’t know all that is said, but can sense the larger meaning. My wife confirms my hunches as she provides immediate feedback to the situation I was observing. Language learning happens in phases, so this could just stem from the fact that I have also been more focused and disciplined in my studying even if it is only for thirty minutes to one hour everyday. The cumulative effects may be reaching a tipping point.
Many people who have used tDCS have reported tangible feelings of feeling more aware and in the state of flow. Me, personally have not felt these sensations, but I theorize it is because I meditate everyday I so I am naturally in a more mindful state.
If you don’t have access to a tDCS device, my biggest recommendation is that you adopt a daily meditation practice along with a good exercise regimen and healthy diet. These combined efforts I think will make the biggest difference.
Now I want to talk about the most important part of this post, which I would like you to try and apply in your everyday life. This deals with becoming more self aware and how we are able to create a different kind of memory that will help us in everything.
The Wandering Mind: Our Biggest Enemy
As this Ted Talk video highlights, the modern man’s dilemma is that he can’t focus, we engage in mind-wandering all day. Most of us don’t notice this and don’t make the connection of what that means to the larger picture of our lives. A mind that constantly wanders leads us to live in a world that is predominantly the creation of our imaginations. Our unconscious imagination becomes the source of our unhappiness. We are constantly in a state where we are mesmerized with the contents of our mind. Our attention fluctuates with a kind of sea-saw action. How this affects us is that our attention is not steady, is not controlled, so when we are learning we are not able to be fully cognizant of the experience in a more complete way. We then create very superficial and weak memories.
Dividing Your Attention To Become More Present
To me controlling attention is the most powerful skill one can possess. Attention is life. Learning to divide our attention will strengthen our memories and make us more self aware. What do I mean by dividing our attention? This is how I visually represent it to myself.
Typically our attention is like the arrow in the figure below, it is one pointed. When we observe an object whether it is an external like the chicken or an inner object such as a thought, our attention becomes focused on the object along with our simple sense of existing in the moment, and we are quite unconscious of it. What I mean is we forget who or what is actually observing or cognizant of the experience. This means that any object has the power to take our attention. Hence our mind wanders. An external force is always causing us to react.
Now when you learn to divide your attention, you learn to become more self aware. As you observe an object you try and keep half of your attention on the object (b) and half on the subject (a), that is you don’t forget the knower. In doing this you create a new point of observation (c) that we typically are not aware of. This creates a more stable point of observation that is coming from a more inwardly grounded place. This grounds you in your “witnessing” self. From this place you are able to observe the contents of your mind or an external object in a more objective way. You create inner space to freely observe. This means you are less identified, you are more free from external stimulus, and your mechanical thoughts have less power in dictating your behavior. You become less reactionary and have the ability to respond in a more intelligent way. When you place attention on yourself you can begin my sensing your body, as it is always in the present.
This may not seem so significant to you now, but if you start to practice this in your day to day life you will see why. You will realize the majority of your day is spent inattentively and that you don’t remember yourself. You will also see that the reason this can make you more aware, more conscious, is because it requires a lot of conscious effort. When you first try you may only catch a few glimpses, you will not have enough psychic energy to divide your attention for long stretches of time. But the more you practice the more you will begin to see how your mind wanders less and less. In the beginning you may feel like your actually thinking more thoughts, but in reality it’s not that your thinking more, it’s that you are just now beginning to really notice the movement of your mind. Your attempting to break its spell. It is an arduous journey. Meditation compliments this practice.
Next time your on the subway or in a public place, observe someone in this way. If you are alert, you may subtlety sense that this is a completely different way of observing the world, it may seem familiar yet very novel. If you can catch it, this sensation is just the one of simply being “here” in this very instant—being very present. You may even feel an intimate connection with the person. This is a tiny glimpse of awakening. This is because this exercise in attention grounds you, it gives you a more stable point of observation. This experience happens occasionally on its own, but we have no psychological orientation, no idea of what actual phenomena is taking place that we simply brush it off and don’t make much of it, although we felt that it left a sense of wonderment within us. Try this with someone you know, and they may even start to look like a stranger to you, you will realize it has actually been a long time that you really took a good look at the person. This is because we carry a mental of picture of them, so we feel we already know them and no longer really pay close attention.
How does this relate to language learning? Well, the more self aware you become the better you are able to recall information. When you are truly aware, when you are dividing your attention, you are able to recall everything that surrounds the moment. Since your attention doesn’t get lost in objects as much it is more available to take in a greater amount of “impressions” through all your senses. This causes you to see the world in a new way. Colors seem brighter, everything seems vibrant, HD like. This is key in developing strong memories. If I am observing a person on the subway, and she uses a phrase, I can see in what context she uses it, be observant of her body language, the tone in her voice, etc. So when I later recall the event all that information is available to me. Usually our memories are so poor that we only know that something took place, but lack the details surrounding an event. Yet it is in the details that truly make the difference.
Like I mention in my you-tube video, what happens is you start creating a stronger different type of memory. The more you learn to divide your attention the more you will learn to “objectively” observe yourself, while simultaneously remembering yourself in the moment. This is radically different way of observation. This is what creates the vivid memories. It’s kind of like developing spider-mans “spidey” sense.
How I use tDCS and Dividing My Attention To Learn Vocabulary
I use tDCS in combination with my favorite language learning website memrise.com and my smart phone application Anki Droid to study vocabulary in 30 minute focused increments. The reason I like memrise, is because they use a special algorithm that spaces out your learning and keeps track of the vocabulary you need to work on. The important thing is they use various mnemonics to strengthen your memories and also incorporate audio and pictures. The more senses you get involved, especially if you can make it emotional the easier you will be able to recall it. If you use memrise and learn to divide your attention at the same time, I think you will come to find how much better you get at recalling your vocabulary. Mastering your self while you try to master a foreign language.
To start speaking a language quickly, focus on learning the 3000-5000 most commonly used words. You can find frequency lists online. Learn some basic grammar structures as you go along. Try to really push yourself by speaking as much as you can. Find friends that speak your target language, or find friends online you can Skype with. Try learning 20 new words daily. If you develop a strong memory this is not impossible. In one year you can be comfortable with enough vocabulary to be conversationally fluent.
Thanks for taking the time to read my post. I hope you found it insightful and that in helps you in your own journey. Peace.
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