Language learning and jigsaw puzzles

The first feeling I get when flight announcements happen in French, is that French people speak so fast. The same goes for Spanish or languages I do not know well.

In my early days in Germany, this was just as true of German. But as I learnt the language, I noticed how German people spoke slower. At least, they became slower relative to their French and Spanish counterparts. Of course, it is absurd to think that an entire nation would start speaking slower just as you begin to learn their language. Becoming proficient in a language seems to slow it down to our ears, because our brain can process it faster. As we learn a language, our brain forms “chunks” – neural pathways to process its words, sounds and accents.

Learning a language is like solving a jigsaw puzzle. When we are new to a language, we may catch certain words being spoken. In effect, we are picking isolated pieces of the jigsaw puzzle. We still struggle to construct the big picture. But with practice, our neural networks grow stronger and more of the puzzle becomes visible to us. It is much harder to locate a missing piece in a jigsaw puzzle which is nearly full as opposed to one that is nearly empty. Our language proficiency at any given time is the fullness of the puzzle into which we fit the missing pieces.

With learning languages, as with anything new, there is a feeling discomfort when things get hard. Our brains ache with the effort, but along with this pain, it creates new connections. But as it does so, it is filling in the missing pieces of the puzzle in our head. When you have learnt a language, the puzzle would turn indistinguishable from the picture that was used to make it.

To learn fast is to embrace the discomfort that is integral to the learning process. With each additional piece, the jigsaw puzzle becomes easier to solve.


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