Learning is useless
This is you. In reality you are nothing but a skeleton covered in meat and skin. And inside that skeleton is the most important part of you.
Not only is this the most important part of you, it IS you. Inside this organ is your mind. All your memories, your ideas, personality, all of it is in here. People might say “trust your gut” or “follow your heart” but these are just cute metaphors. In reality, thinking happens here.
The idea that mind and body are two separate things has been around for thousands of years, but was made famous by the French philosopher René Descartes.
He viewed the body as a piece of machinery that had its own laws of operation, but the mind could pull levers to control the body, and the body communicated with the mind through a very specific gland in the brain.
And this mind/body separation is still a powerful idea today. Many people dream that one day we can liberate ourselves completely from this meat machine and backup ourselves onto a computer, and live forever, in an eternal digital paradise.
There’s only one problem with all this: we don’t have a body, we are a body, and we are not computers, or machines, and misunderstanding this has a serious consequence when it comes to language learning:
It tells us that learning is useless.
To understand why this happens let’s start at the beginning, with children.
Let’s start with two things that mind/body separation teaches us to believe about language learning.
The first thing is that children are better language learners than adults. What could possibly be the reason for this?
Well it can’t be a fault of the mind, because adult minds are better than child minds at almost every type of task. An adult mind has better memory, better problem solving skills, and more knowledge about the world. So, it must be a body problem. The body has changed. You can’t fight nature. Why even try?
SO, Learning is useless.
The second thing is that we are all born with a language instinct. Apart from the profoundly disabled, all children will learn to speak a language, the way all children learn to walk. That’s something we are born with, something in our nature, in our body, and it happens whether we try or not. Babies don’t study. To learn a language you must be immersed, not in a classroom.
Again, learning is useless.
It makes me terribly sad to think that most people will never discover that both of those things are false.
The idea that children are better learners than adults was planted by Aristotle thousands of years ago and has stuck with us ever since. Modern research shows that adults are actually way better at language learning than children.
And there is no language instinct.
In Los Angeles in October 1970 a girl called Genie was rescued from her parents’ house. Her parents had locked her in a room, tied to a chair, without human contact for more than 13 years, and apart from the physical and psychological damage, she had developed no language ability.
As the Encyclopedia of Infant and Early Childhood Development says:
“Children raised without human interaction do not develop language.”
And this gives us our first insight into what really causes language learning: not bodies, not minds, but people.
And this is where we have to take a little detour into philosophy.
“But, say you, surely there is nothing easier than for me to imagine trees, for instance, in a park, or books existing in a closet, and nobody by to perceive them.”
At one stage in your life you have probably heard the question: “If a tree falls in the forest and there is nobody to hear it, does it make a sound?”
It is now such a cliché that it is more like a joke, but it started as a serious philosophical question. What we call ‘sound’ are waves that enter our body, that we process and comprehend. And if a tree falls and there is no body to feel and process those waves, is there sound?
And this challenges us to think about language in the same way. Let’s ask a slightly different question:
“If I write a book, and nobody reads it, am I using language?” or “If I learn a language and never use it to communicate, do I know it?”
Just like we need other people to survive, every act of language requires another person to survive. A book has no meaning until somebody reads it. A joke isn’t funny until someone laughs. A declaration of love has no power if it doesn’t break someone’s heart.
100 years ago the Russian Psychologist Lev Vygotsky wrote that language was:
“…a unity of generalization and social interaction, a unity of thinking and communication.”
– Lev Vygotsky
Languages that are not used by people are dead languages. Living languages don’t come from a mind, they are transmitted from one person to another, so if a language only exists in your mind, then it doesn’t exist at all.
Is that what you have? A language that you have invested so much time and money in, but it only exists in your mind?
And that brings us to the most damaging part of the mind/body separation, which is probably the most basic one. That this organ, your mind, is a container, and it can be filled.
What a horrible way for you to treat yourself: like an empty container.
An empty container waiting to be filled. By language, teachers, courses, workbooks, YouTube videos, podcasts, methods! Every time you click ‘pay’ on that English course, or download that app, or photocopy that page it makes you feel like you are filling the container, like you own the knowledge. But it’s just an illusion. The Italian philosopher Umberto Eco called it ‘the albibi of photocopies’ He said:
“There are many things that I do not know because I photocopied a text and then relaxed as if I had read it.”
There’s a massive difference between knowledge and knowing. And the process that converts knowledge into knowing is activity. It is your responsibility to do that activity.
That is learning.
We have so many misconceptions about being human, about what is instinct and what is learned. Surprisingly, babies are not born understanding happy or scared faces, but they are born with an understanding of abstract numbers.
We can survive only with instinct, but everything that makes us truly human: the good and the bad, loving and fighting, are all learned. Including language. Babies that walk more have a higher language ability. Why? Because they experience more.
We don’t learn language because we want to, we learn language because we need to. Because without other people, we can’t survive. And because we are not a mind and a body. We are somebody, and soon we’ll be gone.
So don’t waste it.