22 June 2017 by Rachel Paling
I am constantly observing my brain when I am speaking the different languages I speak, and this past weekend was a really curious situation for me. I was back in Spain, in the place I used to live between the years 1983 and 1995, so I was tripping in and out of Spanish and Catalan. I had a friend over from Italy and also my parents (English) and business partner from Germany was there (English native, but her partner is German). So, my brain had the perfect opportunity to be constantly pushed and trip from English, to Italian, to Spanish, to German, to Catalan. Absolutely fascinating! It normally is instantaneous for me to switch from language to language and I would say 70% of the time my brain was doing just fine. But that 30% of the time was interesting. These were the moments, when I would speak in Spanish to my Italian friend or in Italian to the Spanish. And when it dawned on me, I would stop speaking. Say aloud laughing “Sorry, one second I just need to change the chip to the Italian chip or to the Spanish chip!” and once I had brought my focus into the language needed at that time, it was almost like a quick reset I was then able to go on in that language. Now and then I also noticed when I was getting tired (or, may I confess – when I had a little too many drinks), my brain was in fact mixing the languages more and it was always more noticeable with Italian and Spanish as the two languages are so, so similar.
Interestingly I was also thinking over the weekend about the importance of keeping languages going once we have got to that “mastery level” of the language. When I left Spain in 1995, I was in fact absolutely bilingual. I moved there when I was 17 and totally immersed myself in Spanish during 12 years and although I was teaching English, I was integrated with my “Spanish family” and out of work rarely spoke English. I even did 3 years of Spanish University, all in written Spanish. I remember clearly when I left, a girlfriend said to me “You will lose your Spanish now” and that really made me think at that time that I would. Now years later, I can still roll into Spanish and feel like it is my own language. It does not take me long to get back into it. What I do notice though, is that some words that I have not pronounced in a long time, my brain knows the word, quickly gets it out but my “pronunciation” mechanisms (mouth, teeth, tongue) struggle to get the word out. Maybe because it has been so long since I had actually voiced that word! So, the first time I resay it, it comes out rather clumsily. But then the second time, it starts to be natural and it only needs, a couple of times to get the mouth, tongue, positioning etc back remembering it again.
So, my observation is that in all these 20 years that I have not lived in Spain, I still have a great command of the language and during these 20 years away, I have had constant contact with the language, speaking with friends and sometimes revisiting Spain and working with Spanish people learning English, but nevertheless I now recognize the importance of keeping our “language neural networks” polished all the time. Frequent exposure to the language is better to keep those networks alive and functioning.
I am sensing this also with my Italian. Between 2004 and 2014, I was frequently in Italy and now I am noticing that I am not so exposed to the language as I was back then, so I know I must make some more conscious effort to keep speaking and keep my Italian neural networks buzzing and vibrant.
And all in all, I absolutely enjoy tripping in and out different languages. I love flexing my brain networks, with the constant switching. It is almost like doing a brain “workout”. I am also getting hungry to learn more again and having played with a little Arabic, Russian and Chinese over the years, I am keen to now get my teeth into one or two of these and really come into mastering new languages. You know the neuroscientists actually say that learning a language is one of the best activities we can do for the brain to keep the brain “supple, flexed and exercised” and it is especially recommended for more mature people to learn a language.
So, if you learnt a language at some point in your life, here are some tips to retrieve your stored data in the brain and get back into that language. Your brain may actually surprise you and you may find that you start to reignite those dormant networks faster than you ever thought.
1. Immerse yourself into the language as much as possible. Surround yourself with vocabulary as triggers to remind you of it.
2. Read in that language, maybe change from your native internet into internet in that language just to trigger seeing the language again.
3. Switch TV or films into that language, even if you are passively hearing the language, your subconscious is always paying attention and is reactivating those neural networks. Be aware that your subconscious is always
4. listening, even if you are not consciously listening!!
5. Call old friends or acquaintances with whom you used to chat in that language and could chat again to catch up. Even if you start speaking slowly, be patient with yourselves, and allow yourselves the time and the space to retrieve the language and get it going more and more. It is really important to get the passive listening and reading into spoken and voiced language.
6. Go and visit the country. Plan little trips to get to rub shoulders with the natives. When you are there, play with the language and give yourself little missions to go and do – like asking for tourist information or engaging in small talk with someone.
7. Get curious about just how quickly you can get your brain back into the language. Never underestimate the speed of your brain. Remember there is a part of the brain called the Basal Ganglia which, for some people actually kicks in recognizing routines/repetitions just after three times, creating the potential for a long-term habit. So, believe in the potential of your brain to create habits and automatic programmes, it is in fact the most amazing “computer”
8. And, of course, get in touch with a Neurolanguage Coach, who can quickly connect you back in, as we believe in provoking those neural connections wherever possible, getting you to think and learn for yourself and getting you quickly and efficiently into normalizing that language in your brain. I always think that a Neurolanguage Coach motivates and facilitates, transferring knowledge whenever needed and assisting to correct and consolidate language already known. As the brain learns though association and repetition, we are constantly aware of how to provoke – I always say that we are “provocateurs par excellence”.
Our brain is the most intriguing mystery of our lives! Having an estimated 86 billion neurons and multiple neural connections, from research released this month June 2017 from the Blue Brain Project in Switzerland, we have now discovered that the brain is full of multi-dimensional geometrical structures and processes in up to 11 dimensions! The research found that groups of neurons connect into “cliques” and depending on how many neurons there are in one clique, the size of the clique would determine the dimensional geometric object, which could in fact be a “high-dimensional geometric object”. So, if you have learnt a language, just imagine the intricacies of the “clique of neurons” and the multi-dimensional geometric depth of this clique, potentially 11 dimensions 😊!
Awesome brains! We have to remember at all times, that we all have our own unique awesome brain!