As I’m entering my 9thmonth of traveling and taking on Spanish, I’ve been asked often what the best way is to learn. Ha! Loaded question. For me, Spanish has been the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Right up there with my mental and emotional health, in that the learning and change doesn’t come easy and happens at a snail’s pace. I wish there was an easy answer to this question other than to, just go to a country and immerse yourself fully with taking classes, jobs, interacting constantly with the people, and then see how you react. There is learning language through something like Duolingo and then there is learning language through the connection and knowledge and reaction that comes from traveling and interacting with yourself and others.
I’ll start with writing about my learning of music through ukulele. It’s the dream example of learning for me. You chose a song and cut it into multiple sections to take on separately. With each section you learn the rhythm of the chords and then add the words. Upon initially starting each section it is deemed in your mind as IMPOSSIBLE! How can anyone learn to put together sounds, finger movements, and then sing words? How dare music be so hard! Your patience is tested as your mind wanders to other things you could be doing that you already know. The struggle is real for putting in even five minutes to take on the extreme awkwardness of making your brain learn a new combination of something. As each day passes you barely get any better but then one day you pick up your ukulele and without really thinking about it you put the words and chords together beautifully. You are astonished as to how this happened, and you move on to the next section cursing the world for making you learn the next ‘impossible’ task as for some reason there is this feeling that what you just did, is not feasible again. Somehow, I should just be able to play music now. I’ve put in enough “work.” Wherever this privileged mindset comes from I do not know (perhaps it’s an entitled millennial thing) but it bypasses all sense of time and scope at what learning actually is. One has to learn how to learn learning in order to really be able to learn efficiently and expansively and not have it be overall depleting or resentment building. Those feelings will always creep up on you and win, and crush everything you’re doing.
At the end of a few weeks, with 15-30 minutes of this brain, muscle memory practice a day, you know how to play a song. As you play the song in full it is extraordinarily fun and rewarding. Soon you can’t remember how it was that you didn’t know it. Slowly, gratitude for having learned can diminish, as now you know, so what’s the difference in the here and now? It’s a part of you and you move on. The difficult process starts all over again and you sort of hate it and love it. It’s always been funny to me how much the brain RESISTS to learn. It is really this strange combination of a stubborn child throwing a tantrum simply because they have to do something, and an overprotective parent who would rather their child lead a boring and unstimulating life because safety is priority number one. Your brain resists at every second, screaming at you, “You’re doing something wrong! This is not how we learned!” Therefore, the brain deems it atrociously horrible and that you’re hurting yourself, or so it tries to make you believe. To bypass such situations with the brain, one just commits to the process. The process of what one wanted before they started to learn something new and the screaming occurred. Repetition is the most important thing as this is the only defense against the overbearing, unlearning mind. Even if it’s only 5 to 10 minutes a day. The repetition is you communicating with your brain that this is the new ‘right’ and a retraining of the muscle is in order. The brain and mind does not control you and it’s important to not let it do so or else you will be stuck in perpetual loop cycles of acting the same in every way in your life forever.
Other forms of learning for me are not so easy as the methods I apply with the ukulele. Learning language has forced me to take on awareness and shifts in my personality that I never thought were possible, needed, or were going to be a part of something like language acquisition. I do apply the repetition methods for learning that I mentioned above which include mostly accomplishing 15-30 minutes a day each of writing, reading, listening, watching shows, vocabulary. It also includes forcing myself to take 2 to 3 hours a day of conversation classes with a private teacher. Sticking to these routines and continuing to participate and simply show up does wonders for learning, however, with my learning of Spanish there still is something very much missing in terms of putting me over the hump and actually getting it. Granted, I’m sure with years of doing all of this it would eventually click but the learning can happen faster and be more efficient and I’m noticing the more important hurdles that I need improvement with in order to really commit to and absorb learning in my life that go way beyond Spanish. These hurdles are also what most people face as they age. Being in my mid-thirties, I can see how people can passively allow these forces to control them and make learning things be something that IS impossible at worst, and at best, loads harder than it needs to be.
There are pressures, expectations, and stresses that I put on myself that get in the way of learning. One is in general performance expectations and catering to perfectionism. I grew up in a very competitive, performance is everything and your judged by it, sports world. My original identity was created from this environment. I have brought this along with me as I learn new things in my life and need things to be perfect. It’s convenient because it makes me excel at many things but it’s inconvenient due to the amount of stress and pressure it puts on me. If I’m not perfect, my internal mind starts to judge itself and say awful things about myself to myself. I start to go into trauma freeze states which shuts down my mind completely as I think I suck at whatever I’m doing. No words coming at me or coming from me make any sense and I stare blankly out at the world and it stays this way until the heaviness of my mind starts to feel safe, non-judged, and secure again. This feeling has worn on me over the years and as I’m getting older it’s having more of an effect on me. This is really inconvenient for Spanish acquisition because I constantly don’t know what is going on as it is impossible to be anywhere near perfect with listening and speaking. The freeze trauma response gets triggered constantly and I can’t follow conversation and I constantly feel like I’m letting others down or am stupid. Unfortunately, the solution isn’t fluency in language. Even in English, this same mentality occurs. When engaging with others, perhaps I think that I need to say the most engaging thing or deliver a meaningful conversation or perfect experience to someone. I often feel like I need to help or carry people or make their time ‘worth it’ by my presence with them. It gets draining to cater to this perfect, performance expectation I put on myself. It makes me count down the moments from when I am finished spending time with people and overall withdrawn from people as I only feel relaxed when I’m not around others, or with others who really don’t create this feeling in me. It makes me not value myself genuinely, often thinking I prostitute myself out for others, which ultimately leaves me feeling exhausted and depleted.
I know the solutions that will make for better learning environments and absorption, but they are HARD to implement because personality and behavior is hard to change. I will always carry around with me these perfect performance and pressure-based standards that were a part of my life for many decades and, hence, fused into my brain. The goal is not to get rid of them but to be aware of them and learn ways to deal with them. In reality, they are very much a part of U.S. culture so they are still passively being led into my brain and a lot of my personal work goes into creating boundaries with this energy to not continually be absorbed into my system. This is all a total distraction from learning and many times these forces have almost motivated me to stop whatever it is I’m trying to learn to just move on to other things I’m better at. However, with this era of my life, I’m trying to not listen to my mind and brain as much. I’m trying to not allow it to dictate because when I do, the mind has a tendency to be a monkey mind, which means, it goes in a million directions at once and it is never satisfied for more than the short term in anything I do. It is the continually whining, bored kid that needs to be constantly stimulated and entertained. I have chosen to listen more to my body intelligence with my how my heart and gut speaks to me. I am allowing them more control and influence in my life for what I want to fill myself up with. Do I THINK this is a good or bad idea or does it FEEL like a good or bad idea? I’m trying to FEEL my way more through things.
Speaking of monkey mind, there is another element at play here. I have ADD (attention deficit disorder) very bad and this is a major hurdle for concentration in general and trying to learn new things. This combined with not being able to visualize anything or hold a thought in my head for more than a few seconds makes it outrageously stressful to remember anything when it comes to Spanish. I’m told something and by the time I instantly try to repeat it, it’s gone from my brain and I say the wrong word. Only through doing something 10, 20, 30 times in a row making mistakes each time, does something perhaps, maybe, stick in my head through repetition. This is enormously inconvenient and stressful to do with learning something like Spanish, especially in conversation. The monkey mind is real. It’s hard for me to concentrate and think specifically of whatever it is that I’m doing in the moment. My mind goes in all directions to past, future, and any other activities or stimuli that produce any remote interest or sensation. My brain is trying to defend itself from having to learn something new and it also uses here the trauma freeze as a tactic for me get me to stop learning. My mind does this often with many things throughout the day but especially with learning and something like Spanish. It is extraordinarily energy intensive to manage my monkey mind, my trauma reaction, while I continue to try to learn. In this way, this has been one of the reasons I have excelled at sports and movement-based activities in the past. When I move, when I exhaust my body enough, my brain stops talking to me. It’s the only time I often have been able to actually focus on learning something, and hence have easily excelled at all sports and movement-based activities. These movement states are by far the states that have represented the most stillness and peace for me in my life. Only now am I getting to somewhat similar places with meditation practices.
When I was younger, the ADD and monkey mind and these performance-based pressures generally led me to taking on loads of stress and anxiety, and in school resulted in me talking to myself very harshly. I always thought of myself as stupid in comparison to others. When the trauma reaction freeze mentality would set in, I would interpret it as unintelligence. My learning style in life is one of movement. When I move less, I tend to learn less. When I’m in a classroom or just being talked to it is hard for me to absorb information. It tends to go in one ear and out the other. It has taken me many years to develop listening skills and to learn how to look into people’s eyes in order to actually feel what they are saying as just listening doesn’t quite work. My feel and intuitive senses are much more active than my thought sense. This comes across in Spanish acquisition as well because I can look into people’s eyes and feel who they are and what they’re saying without literally understanding the words that are coming out of them. In English, it takes a lot of concentration to interact with each person adequately as I fully absorb them, and in Spanish it is a herculean task of concentration. I can very easily get depleted as so much energy is used. Yes, Spanish has gotten easier over the nine months but it is still very far from being something I can energetically sustain doing casually for a long while with people.
The solutions for me are clear but they will take years of continued practice to implement. It is my life’s work that goes way beyond language acquisition, but it took me participating in this trip with learning language to have it made clear how I can better approach life and continue to expand in general. I need to work on chilling out in general. Move away from any performance-based situations. Stop being the entertainer and worrying more about situations outside of myself vs within. Be more present in my daily life. Be accepting of my monkey mind and trauma reaction states. Be comfortable with not talking. Be comfortable with being patient and slow. Be comfortable with the idea that I will align with situations and those which the feel and flow is natural vs anything that is control focused or forced. And above all, I need to talk nicely to and love myself, despite whatever it is my mind is telling me. I need to continue to be absolutely kind, gentle, and compassionate, and apply gentleness and patience to all that I do. When am I working against myself and when with? I am growing more to be confident in my trajectory in this world and I want to continue to embrace that without any assumptions or preconceived notions at whatever I think that ‘should’ look like. There is no judgement or comparison. It just is what it is, all with being aware at how I am traveling through space time and being content that I am doing the best I can. Radical trust and acceptance comes to mind, and then going from there with being grateful that I am allowed to live the life that I do.
So, what would I recommend to people for learning language? Sure, you can apply the daily repetitious patterns of sticking to learning the technicalities of language; that is the easy part (even though it also is very difficult to have the discipline to stick to such routines). However, to really absorb learning, one has to dive into their soul and have awareness for how they actually are. How do they respond and what comes up for them when their brain resists so vehemently and how has that always shaped them? What situations, people, environments deplete them and what do they need to do to be in better states of health to absorb that which makes them expand and grow? What has helped me the most has been to be learn ukulele as I learn Spanish. Ukulele is more of a repetitious, muscle memory driven, learning process while Spanish is requiring me to look at my soul. The soul work takes huge amounts of patience and time to take effect. If I look at my daily practice with learning language it can easily make me want to quit as it is very hard to see any improvement from day to day, week to week. Those forms of learning are better measured in months at a time vs other months. It is harder to stick to such learning when you don’t see results. We are not a faith-based culture in the U.S. and that is why learning something like ukulele at the same time, which is easier measured in days and weeks, provides one with the proof that learning DOES and IS happening even when we think it isn’t. Your brain CAN actually change! In this way, I have found that the short-term repetitious learning paves the way for having faith and success in the long-term learning language/soul work.