Inserting a New Language Into a Not-So-New Brain

by baldilocks

I don’t remember whether I mentioned it here or not, but two of my jobs as an active-duty USAF NCO were these: Germanic- and Slavic- Cryptologic Linguist; those are the titles on my DD Form 214 (Record of Active Duty.) The Germanic part indicates that I was a German Linguist, but obviously there is more than one Slavic Language; I was a Russian Linguist.

My German is still pretty good, but my Russian has fallen by the wayside due to my laziness. That acknowledged, I’m learning a new language: Hebrew. By far, it’s the most difficult of the three.

What the Hebrew language first looked like in my brain

Something I discovered with learning foreign languages. The first one is the most difficult to learn for two fundamental reasons. First, each native language shapes the thinking of the individual and of the culture in which it is used. To facilitate the learning of a new language, one must discard the old way of thinking or, at least, temporarily disable it. It’s sounds a lot easier than it is and it’s why secondary languages are more difficult for those who are older. The native language’s manner of thinking becomes more hard-wired with time.

And secondly, grammar is taught in junior high school/middle school, then ignored. (This may just apply to most beneficiaries of American public education.) For many of us, grammar terms have become a foreign language all its own.

Therefore, though German is the easiest of the three languages I’ve studied, because it was the first, I had the most difficult time learning it.

The first week of the 32-week Basic German course at the military’s Defense Language Institute and Foreign Language Training Center (DLI-FLTC) in Monterey, CA consisted entirely of English grammar. About a month into the course,  I recall waking up in the middle of the night after having a nightmare consisting of a nonsensical blur of German running through my brain. I could not think of one word in English. I didn’t experience that while learning Russian, nor with Hebrew. My brain had been softened up.

For this latest language, it’s necessary to exert a greater amount of self-discipline than with the others—not only because of its difficulty, but also because of the conditions under which I’m studying it. With the first two languages, I was in the military, and learning each language was my entire existence: eight hours per day, five days per week. With Hebrew, I’m doing it voluntarily; it’s a free class taught by my pastor. Being 30 years older than the last time I tried to force a foreign language into my brain doesn’t seem to make much of a difference that I can tell, but having more cares and worries than I had back then certainly does.

Why am I doing it? Because it’s a great opportunity to learn the language with which the majority of the Old Testament was composed and, therefore, get a greater insight into the thinking of the composers and that of the Composer.

Is Greek (New Testament) next? Suddenly, I have a headache.

Juliette Akinyi Ochieng blogs at baldilocks. (Her older blog is located here.) Her first novel, Tale of the Tigers: Love is Not a Game, was published in 2012. Her second novel will be done in 2016. Follow her on Twitter.

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