On contextual language learning and science fiction

Whenever I watch or read works of science fiction, I end up paying an absurd amount of attention to how they handle languages and language learning. From the television show Dollhouses idea of imprinting human brains with a patchwork of skills and memories from strangers, to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxys Babel fish, which sits inside the ear, feeds on brain wave energy, and instantaneously translates from any heard language, science fiction finds an abundance of ways to work around the lengthy labor of real-life language learning. It’s fabulous!

Because I am a giant dork, I also muse occasionally on how these language learning technologies might actually work. Let’s take Dollhouse as an example: how could one ever extricate just language proficiency from the mesh of experiences and thoughts that underpins learning? (The answer: suspension of disbelief.)

It seems an impossible task: cultural experiences support and surround language learning. Perhaps you never understood how to use a particular inflectional affix until that fellow in a cafeteria patiently explained a joke that hinged on it. You might have learned a new word when someone served you an unidentifiable meal and you only figured out you’d eaten quail beaks when you looked it up in your dictionary afterwards. Even if you learned all your language in a classroom, you still might have strong associations with that one phrase you humorously mispronounced, to the merriment of your teacher, enough that you’ll never make that mistake again.

Even if only a few aspects of language learning have strong associations for a person, it’s still enough to create some entertaining problems for Dollhouse-style technology. No matter how carefully designed the imprint is, it seems probable that the imprintee would end up with a collection of tiny, language-linked memories from someone else’s life, which would be an unhinging sensation. (The television show explains around this problem by describing the brain-programmer as a magical boy-genius, but tell me, is he also a linguist?)

Anyhow, here are a few vocabulary examples from my own language learning, which I would be hard-pressed to separate from the experiences and memories through which I learned them:

carpa (tent): learned during a surprise trip to a Chilean circus.
pulga (flea): perhaps permanently deposited in my brain, after a stay in an Argentine hostel that left me dotted with maddening fleabites.
paro (strike): due to the weekly student protests during my stay.
pasarela (footbridge): I was given directions that involved crossing one; I accidentally bypassed it the first time, before figuring out what it meant.

Thank you for bearing with my contemplation. Do you have any examples of this from your own language learning, or any other thoughts?

11 thoughts on “On contextual language learning and science fiction

  1. I pick words up from BBC programs, so it’s slang or dialect differences. This is a wonderful example of inadvertent learning of Geordie (Newcastle) slang.

  2. I am only an applied linguistics larva, so theoretical linguistics, so I can’t pretend to understand what you just said. The harder I try to understand, the faster my eyeballs roll in their sockets.

    One of my problems is that I haven’t ever learned a language. I have only acquired one, and that doesn’t count. Still:

    manejar when I had to know how to ask taxi drivers if they’d drive me. As a memory crutch, I thought of hands on the steering wheel.

    —I’ll never again get hambre and hombre mixed up, after that one time.

    1. This is all quite applied-y, I’d say. Hardly theoretical at all, at all.

      I like your manejar mnemonic. I love your hombre/hambre story and retell it often.

  3. Genki (Japanese for vitality/energy/spirit): I associate this word with strong feelings tied to my youth and conversations with my mom about spending her formative years in Japan.

    Train (Gamer slang for “I have friends!”): Back when I was a newbie in EverQuest years ago, I heard people desperately shouting “TRAIN!!!” and had no idea why a locomotive would be in a Fantasy game or why anyone would even care. As I’m mucking about my own business trying to figure out what makes trains so interesting, I see someone who reminds me of the Pied Piper leading an army of rats running towards me…Only they weren’t rats…They were bears o_O Before I knew it, I was mauled to pieces. After I respawned, I sent a polite message (in all caps, of course) to my Pied Piper friend asking him the hell that was for. His reply was “Dude, I totally warned you there was a train!” Now, I forever associate this term with vicious carnage and absolute terror.

    1. I didn’t know your mom had spent significant time in Japan! Neat.
      The train image is amusing. I wonder if that’s where the asdf guy got the idea for the “I like trains” kid from. Probably not.

      I’m sure one could write volumes on various gamer dialects and slang words.

  4. In Mexican, strike is “huelga”. I learned this from reading about the farmworkers’ strikes and Cesar Chavez.

    I knew about “pulga” because it’s close to the family name of my great uncle, Puga. (Who told me about the close connection, and that they were sometimes teased about that.) You’d think twice about having cats or dogs if you lived in the Peninsula on Alameda de las Pulgas.

    1. I’ve had to monitor my vocabulary carefully for Chilean slang words, of which there are tons: I’ll gladly use them, but I want to make sure I know which will also be useful in Mexican Spanish or other dialects.

      I don’t want to live en Alameda de las Pulgas!

  5. Mishaps from Spain:

    I somehow thought morcilla was vegetarian. It’s not; it’s fried blood. That was not a tasty sandwich.

    I had quite a spat with a labcoat-wearing sysadmin(?) over the idiom “Seguro que…” I thought it meant “I’m sure that,” but it turns out it means “I guess that.” Spaniards take their arguments seriously.

    PS: WordPress just gave me a CAPTCHA in ancient Greek!

    1. Oh good gracious! That experience will certainly make morcilla stick in your head, possibly forever.
      I’ve hardly ever heard “Seguro que…” used; I wonder if that’s a regional preference.
      I love when reCAPTCHA gives me Greek! It’s so satisfying to be able to read it, even if I can’t type it.

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