July 10, 2012
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A few years ago I flew from Bangkok to Dakar, Sénégal, via Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. This was pretty much in the day that you couldn’t bring an iPad along to read (they didn’t exist – remember those days?) so we were down to books, newspapers and magazines. Normally in lengthy international flights I bring a minimum of two books but this time I mistakenly packed one in my luggage. It did me no good in the belly of the plane when I finished reading the first book in the business class lounge in Addis. When we’d boarded the leg of the flight that was to stop in Bamako, Mali, prior to continuing on to Dakar I was getting pretty damned bored. The movies didn’t catch me and I was out of reading material. One of the stewardesses offered me the one remaining magazine that wasn’t passed around to the other passengers: Paris Match!
I have studied French as an autodidact off and on for years. But let me stress that this has been truly “off and on”. For the time actually put in maybe I have had a decent return on investment but in no way do I set the house in fire en français. But I liked the challenge. I occupied my mind with French for the next two hours or so then stuffed the magazine away in my bag. I do recall at being very disappointed in the amount that I did not understand. I felt like an infant.
During the week I was busy at work and so I was out of my hotel room pretty much night and day. But on the last day prior to my departure I was informed that I was bumped from my flight. I wouldn’t be leaving the next morning as planned. I didn’t feel like going out anymore so I stayed in. But instead of pulling out my second book that I brought along (people who know me know I’m not a television person) I yanked out that French magazine and tried to make another go of it. This time I felt better re-reading the magazine. Each article I read now had a context. When I put the magazine down before shutting off the light I felt better about my abilities in French.
When I finally did get back in the air, and after spending a short while in Mali and a few days in Ethiopia, I grabbed the magazine again. I thought I would use it to burn up the hours between Addis Ababa and Thailand. But a funny thing happened… I breezed through the magazine as if it were written in English! I had comprehended the longer articles with little trouble at all, and sans dictionaire, as I didn’t have one on the trip.
Language educator Stephen Krashen would have called my perusal of this French magazine as “comprehensive input” and I wouldn’t necessarily disagree on a language acquisition level. But I think that is not all that was going on either. I think the brain somehow passes over that which it already knows in order to take in something new. It is why doing something again and again is the key to mastery and expertise. But at the same time doing something again and again, if done with purpose, can actually be a shortcut. The initial struggle is part of the process so if you accept this at the outset your mind’s eye will catch the things you missed before and turn that into skill, into knowledge, and if we are lucky, eventually into wisdom.
Practically, it also means to me that I’m better off to re-read several times and re-write much less. And also that I can learn some French by myself from Paris Match!