Languages in Heads

Grammar and linguistics can be considered a pretty boring subject, right? At least a lot of kids think so (I sure did), which can turn grammar classes into an hour of intense apathy and monotony. Many kids just wait for the magical moment when the signal for the end of class hits the rooms and corridors of school to finally release them to discuss more pressing issues like yesterday’s episode of Stargate SG-1 or X-files (hey, it was the ’90s). Well, as it turns out, I wasn’t entirely right about grammar and linguistics at the time, as it really can be an interesting subject once a person acquires enough knowledge to actually start to see the trees not just the forest. So how did the tables turn for me? Read on and you will get the idea…

What was the very first thing I learned on this path? It was the real meaning of the following many times heard statement foreigners say about Hungarian: “Hungarian is a really hard language to learn”. For many years I simply didn’t understand why is it hard for them? As it turns out, I couldn’t answer this question because I didn’t have the right perspective. I thought I did, as native speakers should know enough about their own language to decide if it is hard or not. Or should they? Do they? I soon realized that this is a bit more complicated than I first thought. Why? Because, as I learned, native and advanced speakers simply do not have to face the hardness and complexity of the particular language, which in turn makes them lose sight of things a language learner has to face on a daily basis. OK, but what are these things? Aren’t they speaking the same language (learners and natives)? What is the difference? Same words, same grammar, then what? Well, it is something native and advanced speakers of a language do not do any longer. It is the conscious application of grammatical rules on the fly.

From this point someone could even say that using grammatical rules to talk makes it harder to talk. Well, this someone could even be right. You see, speaking a language and knowing a language are completely two different things. One might speak a language perfectly well even without knowing any grammar (just think of a 6 year old or some medieval person), and one might struggle to say a good sentence knowing all the necessary rules. So what is the difference? The difference is the type of memory used to talk. Before we go into how memory types alter speaking capabilities, let’s revise the major types of memory people have: a) sensory, b) short-term, c) explicit long-term, d) implicit long-term. c) and d) can be divided further, but those are not important for the discussion of this topic, so I’ll just omit them. What are these exactly?

Memory types

a) Sensory memory is very short term (few seconds) and only collects sensory data that will be processed by the brain further. Ignored stimuli do not enter this memory.
b) Short term memory is for information needed to be stored for a limited time period (<1 min), like a phone number to be dialed.
c) Explicit long-term (declarative) memory can be accessed only in a conscious, intentional manner
d) Implicit long-term (procedural) memory is the type when information is retrieved unconsciously, like riding a bike

So why was is important to talk about memory types? Because, being aware of this classification makes it easy to describe what language learning really is: in simple terms it is a mental process of migrating words and grammatical rules from type b) memory to the general direction of type d) (it is the same as many other learning activities). Obviously, this migration doesn’t happen overnight and the speed at which different words or rules move is far from uniform, resulting in a spread of information between these memory types. Now that we see all this, we can think of the question I raised in the previous paragraph, namely how this affects talking. First, let’s examine where words are stored at native speakers and learners. Native speakers tend to have the vast majority of words in implicit long-term memory, while learners on the other hand have a lot more words in explicit long-term memory, thus the fraction of words residing in different memory types differs. The more proficient a student gets with a language, the more implicit memory will be utilized, thus ultimately one could minimize the usage of explicit memory.

This is an important observation, as these memory types are accessed differently since different parts of the brain are responsible for them. Furthermore, it would seem that information stored in these different memory types tend to affect how we perceive them based on their location. Let’s remember that implicit memory is accessed unconsciously, which means there is no effort at all to get the information out, while explicit memory can only be accessed by investing a bit more willpower. We can now see how this changes our view of something like our own mother-tongue. Since we, native speakers, using implicit memory almost exclusively for talking, do not have to invest any effort into speaking so we find it all “easy”. Learners on the other hand constantly need to look for words and grammar in a type of memory that is “harder” to access, hence they find the whole process of talking “hard(er)”. Probably the most interesting thing about all this, is that those who learned a language and finally reached a certain high level of proficiency in it, tend to forget how hard it is to use explicit memory for talking and thus we sometimes hear them saying “c’mon maaan, it’s not that hard”. Well, actually it is.