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How Learning a Language is Like Conquering a Country (But Not in the Way You’re Thinking)

This entry is part 13 of 17 in the series The Art of War of Learning

Recently, I was doing SRS reps in my Japanese STEM deck, and a card based on this paragraph came up:

“3歳までに教育を開始しないと手遅れという考えは、3歳までの家庭環境が人格を左右するという三歳児神話の一種である。” [早期教育 – Wikipedia]

It’s from a section of the article where they talk about critics of early accelerated education (which is where you teach toddlers reading and algebra using flash cards, instead of letting them waste (all) their time on whatever it is toddlers do). I actually agree and disagree with the criticism in equal measure.

Let me explain.

Learning a language is a bit like conquering a country. Any idiot can do it and most idiots do (at least once). It’s holding onto it that’s the trick — that’s where most conquests fail: anybody can win the war, it’s winning the peace that’s the real trick.

In what many historians recognize as the only successful slave revolt in the entire history of mankind (and the only one to result in the founding of a state) Toussaint “Spartacus” L’Ouverture freed the people of Haiti, but was singularly unable to prevent his new country being raped financially for the next two centuries by France and its allies.

(North) Vietnamese forces lost just about every field engagement of the Vietnam War but decisively won the war itself, only to lose the peace by way of economic sanctions (not to mention massive environmental destruction). Only now can the country said to be finally winning, in Charlie Sheen terms 😉 .

Statecraft — indeed, life itself — is not a Hollywood movie. You don’t win when you blow up the boss at the end. You don’t throw Alan Rickman off the Nakatomi building, make out with a woman with ridiculous Eighties hair, and then call it a day. The climax — becoming free, ceasing to suck at Japanese — is not the end. If anything, it’s just another beginning. Every day, every hour, every second is a new beginning.

Always think of yourself as always both beginner and expert. You are a beginner — you need to do the basics every day. You are an expert –you are Japanese; Japanese is your language; it belongs to you.

It takes just as much energy to maintain a language as it did to acquire it in the first place (it may not feel like it, but it does). It’s a system that requires constant input of energy: yours. You can delegate conquering a country; ya can’t delegate getting used to a language. Fortunately for us, the skills and behaviors that get you good at a language are largely the same ones that’ll keep you good and keep you improving.

Your memory is like a permanently minimalist mother: she wants to come into your room and throw away anything that looks useless. And she’s totally clueless, so she keeps throwing away stuff that matters to you (in addition to stuff that is actually useless). And sometimes, she gets emotional over dumb sheet and insists on keeping it.

Wouldn’t it have been nice if your parents had exposed you to Japanese as a toddler? Maybe. Maybe not. Probably. But that doesn’t matter because even if you’d been born under a full moon, your mother’s red natal blood spattered on the milky, virgin snow of Mt. Fuji itself, you would still need to put just as much effort into the game as you do now. You really would.

That’s a very long-winded way of saying “use it or lose it”. But it needed to be said.

Toddlers should get the crap educated out of them. And so should children. And so should adults. And so should anyone who’s breathing. And so should animals — we rarely bother training our animals and then we wonder why they misbehave. It takes hours of daily instruction over decades to get a human being to act right and fly straight; if a dog or a cat needs a few years, so be it.

The first three years of a human being’s life are very important. And so are the next three. And the next. Every three-year period matters #AllThreeYearPeriodsOfOurLivesMatter. Every second counts. It may not seem like it, but trust me, we would amaze ourselves if we realized that and acted on that realization.

No child’s mind should be neglected, abandoned, left to lie fallow. And nor should any adult’s either. Both need constant care and cultivation. Perhaps agriculture, not war, is where we need to look for lessons.

Intelligence is malleable. Skill is malleable. It grows, shrinks, thrives and dies in proportion to how much and how well we nurture it. One doesn’t stop watering plants because “they’re big now”.

Series Navigation<< Remember That You Are, Were and Will Always Be Human: Infinite in Possibility and Finite in ActionWhy America Doesn’t Win Wars Any More and What (Ironically) That Can Teach You About Learning Languages >>

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