Friday 15 June 2007

The Power of Language - Antennae Into Our Hidden Minds

This post is for all those striving and struggling to learn a language.

When I had a group of English As A Second Language students in my Canadian language school, and I knew the group could handle the content, I used to pose a question that, upon collective reflection, was always certain to provoke a collective shaking of heads in wonder. The reason? This was not just about language; it was about the potential of the human brain.

Dreaming in a Second Language
Anyone who has tried to learn to speak another language by placing himself or herself in an immersion experience will recognize an interesting phenomenon, often experienced but seldom noticed. This situation occurs when you've been in the host environment for a certain period of time and have been passively exposed to the deluge of a foreign language hour after hour, day after day. At some point, you will begin to have dreams during sleep in which one, or sometimes even all, of the characters in your dream is a native speaker of the host language, speaking in the host language that you're trying so heroically to learn. So, for example, if you're studying Spanish in Venezuela, and you've been there for a few months, you will eventually dream of a Venezuelan as s/he exists in waking life, speaking the language (Spanish) s/he uses in waking life.

A Simple Question?
This may seem natural enough, but some thought into the mechanics of it takes you into another realm. I have asked a simple question to almost everyone I have met who has reported experiencing this phenomenon. For explanation purposes, I'll continue with the example of studying Spanish in Venezuela.

"In your dreams, was that Venezuelan speaking Spanish the way s/he usually does, or was s/he speaking it the way you do (ie. accented, bad grammar, etc.)?"

The answer was almost always the same.

The Simple Answer
"Of course the Venezuelan was speaking Spanish perfectly; s/he is a native speaker!"

So, my next question?

"Was that Venezuelan in your dream repeating what s/he may have said to you before, or spontaneously producing language?"

After some thought, it usually came out that the Spanish from that dream Venezuelan was indeed being produced spontaneously, or at the very least copied and pasted in a coherent way, and not just regurgitated from what the learner had heard during waking life.

How Did I Do That?
Take a moment to consider that. How is it possible that someone struggling with a foreign language, quite far from using it competently, can conjure up completely within the limits of his/her own mind a character who not only speaks the language well but natively?

Does that not suggest that somewhere within that learner's mind, there exists not only the potential but the actual ability to understand and speak the language fluently?

Expanded Possibilities
And forget about just language...what does that say about the ability of the mind in free flow, outside of altered states, to access and intelligently process that kind of information? Of what else might that mind be capable? And, most importantly of all, how on earth can our waking minds tune into that kind of processing power?

The SleepTraveller
I am a person who has explored many peaks and valleys in the landscape of dreams, from night terrors as a child to rising from my bed, as a young adult, in the middle of the night, getting dressed, going outside and starting my car before learning that I was dreaming. There were many incidents durng which Morpheus used me as a vessel for amusement, but one dream incident above all convinced me that even my own hidden mind had untapped potential, if I could ever learn to control it.

Impending Illness
I was heading to bed one night in a bit of a foul mood, because I had the kind of heavy head and scratchy throat that I knew would mean that I'd be coming down with a nasty cold by morning. I don't know about you, but, to me, one of the worst parts about getting sick is that moment when you know it's going to happen and it's still all ahead of you. The being sick, I can handle. The knowing I'm going to be sick, that's part I hate.

Anyway, I fell into the kind of in-again out-again sleep that I'm very much used to and spent most of the night in that state, tossing and turning. Just before morning, however, I fell into a different kind of sleep, the kind that makes you sweat as if you'd been bathed in the water of your dreams. I had a dream then that, laying there in my bed, sleeping, I felt with my tongue a hair in my mouth, that I badly needed to dislodge. With my fingers pinched, I reached deep into my mouth with my hand and was able to locate the end of the hair and clasp it with my fingers. As I began to pull the hair out of my mouth, I realized that the hair was in fact quite long, stretching all the way down into my throat. I pulled the first part of the hair out of my mouth and then brought in my second hand to continue pulling it out, as if my hands were gripping a rope and I were pulling a bucket out of a deep well.

Healing Dream
I pulled and pulled for what seemed like forever, a ball of hair accumulating in my right hand as I gathered more and more of the hair coming out from deep in my throat. Finally, I felt not only the single strand of hair but an entire ball of hair coming up through my throat, rasping against the sensitive skin as it came and making me gag as it passed into my mouth. As the huge ball of hair was expelled into my hand, I remember feeling an enormous sense of relief, perhaps even pleasure. A few moments later, I woke up, soaked in the sweat of a healing sleep, and my sore throat was gone.

Hidden Broadcasts
It is said that we use only a small portion of our brains during our daily waking lives, and it is known that we organically process only a very small percentage of the information in our environments (how many radio waves or atoms have you seen lately?). Yet we also receive tantalizing signals from time to time, through antennae that we possess but do not know how to control. What if we could teach ourselves to tune into those broadcasts, to process at least a little more of that all thrashing, ennobling information that is everywhere around us all the time?

This is a question that is very important to me, and is one whose importance to others I hope I can demonstrate. Please stay tuned.

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