Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Punctuated Equilibrium and Language Learning

The title refers to an idea within evolutionary biology that evolution occurs by fits and starts--organisms remain largely the same for long periods of time, and then something spurs a relatively quick and dramatic change. (I can't remember when I first saw or heard the term, but it was likely something I came across when I was team teaching Biology and felt I should have more of a clue about the subject matter.  In any case, it was probably something I found on Wikipedia.  Such is how we acquire knowledge these days, I suppose: in a haphazard, unmemorable, roundabout way.).

I thought of this term as we were driving back from Monterey on a road trip today.  I get mildly carsick sometimes when I try to read, so I was staring out the window and just thinking. Somehow, in that untraceable way that happens, my mind leapt from idea to idea until it arrived at memories of learning French.  Language learning is a long-term process, as I know from being a language teacher; but at least as reconstructed in my memory, it sometimes resembles this idea of punctuated equilibrium.  One memory stands out: Paris, 1997, a baroque church.  I want to say that the church had some association with one of the king Louis--was it Saint Louis?  Eglise St. Louis?  This one, perhaps, although it's not where it should be.  In my mind's eye, the building was located in the general vicinity of the Tuileries and the Louvre--perhaps off in the direction towards the Madeleine?  But it could well be in a completely different part of the city.

I recall a middle-aged woman, a docent, who was obviously eager to share her knowledge of the church and give me and my friends a free tour.  She had shoulder-length, graying hair, kind blue eyes, and a gentle voice.  We warned her that our French wasn't great--I could understand a good chunk of what I read and could actually communicate quite a lot with a patient soul, but I was still having trouble following the rapid French of Paris, and my vocabulary was very limited beyond cognates.  She was so eager to help us understand, so she spoke slowly, deliberately, with clear emphasis and repetition.  To this day, I remember moments from her tour as being integral to my comprehension of oral French.  As she guided us around the church, she repeated "un hotel" while referring to a stone piece within each small section of the church, as paid for by various wealthy benefactors.  I was confused as to why this would also be referred to as "un hotel" (a hotel).  It wasn't until much later that I realized she was saying "un autel" (an altar).  She spoke of the four gospels--Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and I finally made the connection that "l'evangile" was "gospel" in French (this was before I studied Latin and learned, of course, "evangelium".)  I remember, as I listened, that the artificial slowness of her French helped me to finally start putting the pieces of language together in a way that made sense.  And the realization that I was comprehending went far beyond the message or the few new words I learned that day: I was following a tour all in French, and I knew what was going on.  Not everything, but the great majority, perhaps 90%.  It felt incredible--after weeks of disappointment in realizing how slowly I was progressing, a breakthrough at last .

I know that "punctuated equilibrium" as a metaphor for what was happening is limited, at best.  I was hearing new words all the time, reading, writing, trying to think in the language, which isn't anything like the idea of "stasis" and long periods of no change that the evolutionary hypothesis proposes.  But I remember that moment, and others like it as I have tried learning other languages--and I wonder how much of learning happens in this way, when circumstances are just right, when the stars align, when we are ready to learn and there is a teacher eager to teach us.  Can such situations ever be designed, or is it just a matter of being prepared for it, and taking it as it comes?

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