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 Dollhouse’s idea of imprinting human brains with a patchwork of skills and memories from strangers, to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’s 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?