I spent my early childhood in a semi-rural environment, up in a place high above sea level. We enjoyed twelve months a year of autumn, rolling green pastures. There were cornfields, cows, horses, sheep, goats, dogs and, yes, leopards. It was beautiful. The kind of place that would have made enterprising English people 100 years ago go: “Johnson…let’s kill almost all the natives, steal the land, rename it, and then force the survivors to work on it for us”.
I did a lot of “experiments” growing corn (we called it maize, but…whatever). Every morning I would have breakfast with milk straight from our cow, tomatoes from our vegetable patch, guavas from our guava tree, eggs from our chickens. Sometimes I would actually milk the cow myself, but…I actually found milking really hard to do — I couldn’t seem to get the squeeze right. I was much more interested in the drinking part of the operation anyhow. And someone had to play with the rabbits.
I wouldn’t say I grew up on a farm, but…on the way to school, it almost seemed like there were as many people in cars as on horses.
Why am I already taking you down memory lane at my age? Why this whole…Mormon devotional speech routine with the stories of barns in Idaho and double-digit child families presided over by stern-but-loving fathers? You’ll see. Bear with me.
So, here in Japan, I again live in a semi-rural suburban area. Not nearly as rural as my place in Kenya, but certainly more rural than the 23 wards of Tokyo. There are acres of rice paddies just a few minutes down the road. Plenty of tractor-only or tractor-priority roads. Vending machines with vegetables and eggs fresh from the field.
This semi-rural place is about an hour out of Tokyo.
So yesterday, I go into Tokyo proper. You know, just to hang out. And I was doing my usual, I dunno…machinations. Calculating optimal subway routes in my head, getting really excited about having gotten on a train six minutes earlier than the original plan, and therefore put myself in a position to enjoy slower changeovers down the line. Momoko rolled her eyes at me: “yay, 6 minutes”.
And it hit me right there. To the extent that I was playing and “winning” at all these abiotic, artificial games, I was building and exercising at least one form of intelligence. I could feel that Flynn Effect . I could see how living in an information-rich urban environment could really raise one’s IQ. The city was making me smart.
On the way back from Tokyo, I saw a little train ad for a Berlitz summer crash course in English, marketed specifically at people who’ve been neglecting their English all year and want to really “skill up” and “level up” in a frantic, intensive burst of summer righteousness. “Learn 6 months of English in 5 days”…
The city makes you smart. The city makes everyone smart. But the countryside makes you wise.
You don’t have to live in a big city to be an urbanite. You just have to be removed from natural growth processes such as food production. Pretty much, if you don’t grow your own food, you are an urbanite. The majority of people who live in the more comfortable and convenient countries of the world, are urbanites. I am an urbanite, too. I just had the privilege of an extended rural experience a long time ago.
I submit to you that it is because so many of us live in urban environments, that we have trouble learning languages or doing any kind of sustained long-term project. We give up on our languages; we give up on our blogs; we give up on exercise; we give up on diets; we give up on New Year’s Resolutions by mid-February; we give up on reading Tolstoy. The words “long time” are anathema to us.
In urban environments, for the most part, we do not get to observe, ponder and participate in a wide range of organic (biotic) growth processes. In urban environments we do not move far; we do not see far (buildings block our field of vision), and thus we cease to think far and act for the long. We see no connection between the present and the distant future.
In urban environments, things do not get better with time — they get worse. Things do not grow, they decay. Things do not regenerate, they just die. We don’t really reuse things (although we occasionally pretend to get other people to reuse things for us and call it “recycling”). Your TV doesn’t grow into a big-screen TV. It gets old, becomes incompatible with the new TV standard, stops working, and gets thrown away. Certainly, it doesn’t appreciate in value. About the only thing that grows in an abiotic, urban environment is interest — but evidence abounds that few of us urbanites understand even this man-made growth process.
We are divorced from the cycle of life.
- An oak tree grows tall, strong and majestic, deepening its roots…the older, the better. Sometimes it talks to hobbits .
- An old TV becomes sodaigomi (oversized garbage). Dead weight. Bulk. It gets thrown in the dumpster, to be replaced with something new — the newer, the better. Just like those fad diets and New Year’s resolutions…
Since urban environments rarely give us the privilege of observing natural improvement over time, it becomes hard, even impossible to believe that such a thing exists. That’s why so many of you can come to AJATT.com and be like “pull the other one, Khatzumoto”.
“Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed.”
The urban environment, being largely unnatural (or, if you prefer, unlike most of the rest of nature — because you could argue that everything we do is “natural”) is largely devoid of lessons and metaphors to help us understand nature. This doesn’t seem to be a problem, but of course it is, because we (our bodies) are a 100% natural, organic…biotic system. You are not powered by AA batteries…yet.
Because we do not understand nature, we do not understand ourselves. We try to act on ourselves without understanding ourselves; we try to act as if we were machines. And it almost never works. Oftentimes it even damages and/or kills us.
There’s a lot of open space in rural areas. So the farmer sees far. Perhaps as an indirect result of this, she also thinks far. And she can act in the now for the far.
Have you ever seen a farmer handling seed? Have you seen the reverence? The care? The conscientious storage? The excited acquisition? Even though they’re nothing but seeds; they’re tiny; they frequently look nothing like the finished product.
But the farmer loves seeds. She loves them because she can see beyond the present; she has seen growth before and she understands that she will see it again: all she has to do is do her part. She’ll till the field and never once complain that “I’ve been tilling for 3 weeks and nothing has happened”, because she understands that things have their season. She understands that things grow and mature of their own accord — if only they are nourished. She understands that things can take a positive form quite unlike their present form as a result of her actions long before the transformation.
The farmer understands that:
- Things take time, but
- You cannot be idle during that time
- You have to do your part so that nature can do its part
Sidenote: When I say “understand” I do not mean “know about”. In this context, I’m using “understand” to refer to internalized, procedural knowledge rather than declarative knowledge. Successful lionesses clearly “understand” how hunting works, even though they may suck at verbalizing about it.
The farmer lives on timescales of seasons and years and generations. The farmer may have inherited the land from her ancestors, and she will pass it down to her descendants, and they to theirs. Years and decades are not an unimaginable eternity to the farmer. Heck, (assuming no hormones, which is perhaps a statistically unrealistic assumption in the current US, but a fair one in the part of the world I’m from) it can take a couple of years for your cow to even start producing milk.
The urbanite detests lengths of time. The urbanite hates small things. The urbanite loathes beginnings. The urbanite uses “back to square one” as an insult. To the urbanite, spending his life in various types of squares, the first square of something is a terrible place to be. Unless an urban institution makes him do otherwise (and even then), the urbanite lives in the eternal present and immediate future, and acts for results and gain in the present and immediate future. He may go to college for four years, but only for the paper, and he’ll cram the whole time there. He lives in, on and for conclusions. His is a world of ends and results, not means and processes.
Just about everything for the urbanite comes finalized. The urbanite’s food often comes to him pre-packaged and pre-cooked; his clothes come to him ready-made. The only natural growth and change he regularly sees are, again, decay processes — the food he eats turns into either feces or a substrate for mold. His electronic devices become obsolete and turn into trash. His car wears out. Fashions become “so last year”. Jokes become stale.
Almost nothing in the urban environment is telling you that “things get bigger and better with time as a direct consequence of your actions starting from when they are small and nearly invisible”. The urbanite has no time for that kind of delay and verbosity.
Almost nothing in the urban environment is telling you that “you are a co-creator with nature: you do your part and nature does its part”. In the urban environment, nature only destroys — weeds grow in your concrete; pests invade your house; rust forms on your car; and heaven forbid that water — the solvent of life — should get on your electronics. In the urban environment, if it’s not new, fresh and done, then it is, literally and figuratively, stale and crap.
So when a Khatzumoto tells an urbanite — one with the urban mindset: “you’re getting better with time, you just can’t see it yet”, an urbanite smells snake oil. After all, how can things get better with time? How can the invisible become visible? How can important processes happen beyond human knowledge and intervention? It just doesn’t seem emotionally possible. The urban mindset doesn’t allow a person to understand natural growth.
To be sure, nature destroys in rural environments, too. But it builds far more.
The critical period hypothesis must be an urban invention. It seems like it would require an urban mind — someone living an urban life — to decide that a brain and body that contain more accumulated knowledge than they have ever previously contained, are a pile of crap simply because they have reached an arbitrarily decided age. Even that word “age”. In verb form, it seems to only get treated like a good thing when referring to wine and cheese.
Urbanites have a hubris and a sense of urgency about them that can be useful (throwing things away can be good sometimes)…except when it makes people counterproductively impatient. You can game and force and crash course and cram for an abiotic test. But you can’t do that with real, natural language (yet). You can work with nature — you can get nature to help you — but it appears that you can’t break nature’s rules and really win.
Farmers have a resignation to nature (their most important work partner) that can seem like fatalism, except when it’s correct and produces consistent, continuous, forward-looking behavior and desired results.
Urbanites are smart.
Farmers are wise.
And that’s why smart people like you have been having trouble learning Japanese. Not because you’re dumb, but because you’re smart. And folksy idiots like me have learned it quite well, not because we’re idiot savants, but because we understand and follow nature’s rules. At least in this part of our lives.
Next time you want to know how to learn a language, don’t come to this website. Get a popcorn kernel, put it in some soil, and water it every day. Grow a plant from seed. It will teach you everything you need to know. And while you’re at it, go somewhere high. Very high. Somewhere you can see far. Maybe there’s a tower in your town. Go up there and look down.
To win, you do need to show up. But that’s about all you need to do. You show up; nature does the rest. Arsonists know how to learn languages: you light matches, but fires burn by themselves.
Don’t work to reach goals, work to create conditions and environments.
Don’t work to achieve something. Let the environment do the work for you.
Don’t change yourself. Just change your surroundings. Your surroundings will then change you — always.