A couple of weekends ago, driven by an urge to turn lemons into lemonade and at least enjoy all of this snow that New England is being smothered in, we headed up out of Boston and set our sights on the winter wonderland par excellence – Vermont.
Upon our arrival in Burlington, we walked down the hill to where the city meets Lake Champlain and set out for a jaunt along the lakefront bikepath. There were a fair number of people out and we had the pleasure of one particularly interesting encounter.
Stopping at a certain point to sit on a bench and enjoy the view of the lake and the Adirondack Mountains on its far side, we ended up engaging in a bit of chit chat with our neighbors. It turns out the amiable couple coddling a tiny infant swaddled in layers of the finest Vermont winter outerwear were proud new grandparents taking their cheerful first grandson on a tour of his hometown. The bikepath, they said, would surely become a favorite place of his; he would probably be taking a bike up and down it “in just a couple of years.”
Looking around at the piles of white stuff and laughing, I asked them if they thought their grandson – who I estimated was hovering somewhere around the quarter-year mark – would need to put chains on his training wheels to accomplish such a feat.
Joking aside, I quickly learned that these grandparents had about as much intention to outfit their grandson’s toddler bike with training wheels as they did with chains. I was assured that by about two and a half years old any child can learn how to ride a bicycle. These two knew – they’d had six kids and plenty of opportunities to optimize the learning curve. Their first child had used training wheels and hadn’t learned to ride a bike until age 6, while the youngest children had starting plummeting down the incline in their yard before they had reached the age of 3.The trick? Never use training wheels.
Training wheels, they explained to me, give the child a false sense of balance, while all he or she really needs is to acquire an idea of how to pedal using a tricycle before being let loose on a two-wheeler. What results from this advice is a seeming paradox. Training wheels – which are supposed to help a child learn how to acquire balance and security – actually impede her from doing so.
Later on, back in the B&B, I was struck by a sudden parallel between riding a bicycle and learning to speak a language. In order to learn quickly and properly you must let go of your security devices – your metaphorical “training wheels.”
The “training wheels” for a language learner are his or her mother tongue. Especially when we are at the beginning of learning a new language, the possibility of failing to communicate and therefore falling off of the bike are rather high. At this point our mother tongue comes to the rescue, says what we were unable to say in the new language, and saves us the embarrassment of “falling.”
In certain situations – for example if you wind up in the emergency room during a trip to Guatemala and urgently need to explain to the hospital personnel what has befallen you – communication in any language whatsoever is all-important. However, when we are studying, our goal should be the acquisition of a sense of “balance” in our new language – that minimal sense of security which allows us to move forward autonomously. This balance can only be acquired if we attempt to rely exclusively on the new language.
It is easy to forget much of we have learned in a foreign language, and in fact it is common to hear, “I studied French for 4 years in high school and don’t remember a word of it!” or “It’s been years since I’ve spoken German and I’ve forgotten everything.” In reality, what we forget are usually superficial elements like vocabulary; if we learn to acquire a knowledge of the elusive inner working of a language – of its fundamental mechanism, which works differently from the way our own language does – this is a lesson we will never forget.
If one lets go of the fear of failure and tries to acquire balance and self-security, speaking a new language really does become like riding a bicycle – once you learn how you never forget.