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David Chandler's Journal of Java Web and Mobile Development

  • David M. Chandler


    Web app developer since 1994 and former Developer Advocate with Google now residing in Peru. I am currently offering public and private developer training courses in the US and Latin America as well as working on Android, GWT, and App Engine projects.

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Ruh-roh, I think my brain is re-wiring

Posted by David Chandler on April 26, 2014

Spanish is starting to sound natural to me. This is very, very good news. But English… I can hardly spit this out: I’ve been making spelling mistakes. With increasing frequency, Gmail or Google Docs has put a red squiggly under a word after I’ve moved on the next one. At first I questioned why the spellchecker didn’t have certain words in the dictionary. But as it’s kept happening, I’m afraid there might be a better explanation. Spelling mistakes are very much a new thing for me (go ahead and laugh–please remember that I was very disappointed when I came runner up in the 3rd or 4th grade spelling bee). The other night, it took me until the next morning to remember the instinctive spelling of “legitimate.” For a long time, I sat staring at the red squiggly. I tried all kinds of things that didn’t make the squiggly go away and only the next day while I was walking downtown or maybe sitting in the kitchen, the word suddenly sort of appeared in my brain and it was obvious again.

Spelling isn’t all that’s wrong, however. I routinely find, upon re-reading what I’ve written, that left a word out or put in one the wrong order. This is very troubling! I have rarely needed to double-check my writing for grammar and spelling mistakes. No the purpose of revision is to smooth any rough edges [ok, this is getting ridiculous--the errors in the second sentence were for fun, but I really did forget the comma after "No" just now]. There are two possible explanations for this phenomenon. One is that I’m getting old. Of course, I know better than that. The second is that as I learn Spanish, my brain is somehow re-wiring. If that truly is the case, then I am left in complete awe of the Creator of the human mind. The capacity for learning our first language is a miracle, especially when you consider that two year olds do it. But the capacity to learn a second language at age 43, well… it blows my mind.

4 Responses to “Ruh-roh, I think my brain is re-wiring”

  1. Kelly said

    I read an article once about “mastery”, which talked about 3 steps a person goes through in the process of turning from an apprentice to a “master” of something. From what I remember: At the point where someone learns the basics of a new skill (or, I assume, language), the frontal cortex expands to devote more resources to the learning process. With practice and time, an entirely new network of neurons is created to handle the work more or less automatically, and it becomes hardwired (literally), and second nature. Traditional apprenticeships are 7 years, or roughly 10,000 hours, and it’s believed that it’s the amount of practice time it takes to completely master something. You’ve become proficient enough at a new language that it sounds natural to you, and at the same time, you’ve noticed that your previously more-or-less automatic command of the English language requires more up-front concentration. Sounds like a re-wiring is taking place, for sure. I’ll bet that with more practice and exposure to the new language, it will become as second-nature as English is, and you’ll achieve effortless command of both languages. I bet it’s not age. I *hope* it’s not age! I don’t like the idea of a mind getting old and starting to malfunction by misspelling random words.

    When I think about the fact that my mind gets overwhelmed thinking about how it works, that seems like a pretty good case for being in awe of the hands that made it. :-)

  2. Robert said

    It is truly exciting to observe how the brain adapts to that.

    I’ve been through this twice. The first time with 16 (English), then it didn’t even occur to me to reflect on this (probably also because I ‘learned’ it in school before).
    But with 27 (Spanish) this was a very noticeable process for me. I’ve been to Madrid for more than four years so I went through all stages. First it is really exhausting, increasingly one starts to speak to oneself in the foreign language.
    Unfortunately this intra-dialogs never reached the level of quality of my mother tongue. I’ve always wondered if this also affected the quality or complexity of my thoughts, because certainly speaking in a foreign language makes you always feel inferior compared to the natural speaker, or say dumber.
    What I noticed in the first year or two was that I could not remember words I knew that I knew in my own language, when I was speaking Spanish. When I would then speak a few sentences in my mother tongue, then suddenly I remembered the word that I could not grasp before. Typically these were words I acquired during high school, e.g. words in Latin or scientific Terms or famous people.
    I explained it to myself, that Spanish occupied new areas in the brain that certainly were ‘overlayed’ to my mother tongue (say the word ‘pan’ was linked to ‘brot’), but the not-overlayed parts (say certain senior high school factual knowledge) were sometimes out of reach when speaking spanish.
    So both the mother tongue and the foreign language were intertwined yet led to different stages of my personality. Well I stop here, thanks for making me remember this exciting times.

  3. geezenslaw said

    Howdy, not-to-worry. I am still suffering the effects of living and learning abroad in a non-English speaking environment from more than 30 years hence.

    I’m no expert in this area but brain re-wiring is the only explanation.

    I just keep onelook.com and thesaurus handy and it helps.

    Still, I understand the brain confusion associated with 2 or more languages is annoying.

    BTW: I didn’t see how your family came out on the relocation to Lima.

  4. Excellent comments all, thanks for the insights. @Geezenslaw, our recent trip from Arequipa to Lima was successful as we all received our Peruvian residence cards. Thanks for asking.

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