What I learned in French class and how that relates to scuba diving

Posted: April 12, 2013 in Language, Learning, Mental Reboot
Tags: , ,

I mentioned in my “Which language should I learn?” post that I took two years of high school French.  And that I retain basically nothing from that today.  Well, it turns out that’s not entirely true.  The other day, about three weeks into the conversational Spanish class I’m taking, the generally very patient teacher stopped me after my attempt to pronounce cascarrabias (cantankerous) and in a fairly exasperated way asked me to pronounce the word for dog (perro).

Apparently I’ve been pronouncing the rolled R’s in Spanish in the back of my throat the way the French do rather than at the tip of my tongue the way Spanish speakers do.  Which is extra funny because to a native English speaker the Spanish way is much easier (at least I think so).  But now I have to break the darn habit that I seem to have actually cemented somehow during my very mediocre two years in French class thirty years ago.

So I was wrong, I did retain something from my high-school French class, it just wasn’t particularly useful for my attempt to learn Spanish.  Go figure.


The aspect of this that I find most interesting is that this little quirk from high school French became more pronounced when I started sitting in a classroom and attempting to learn a language in that environment.  When I was reciting back from Pimsleur podcasts and practicing vocabulary around the house this wasn’t as apparent.  Now, of course, that may be because I wasn’t being self-critical enough.  But the better explanation would be that placing myself in a context that was closer to my early learning experience helped bring up those memories.

The study that I keep seeing is uses scuba divers to test the hypothesis, since they can dwell in two well controlled and very different environments.   They are asked to learn something on the beach or under water and then recall it on the beach or underwater.  The various combinations are tested – Learn on the beach/Recall under water, Learn on the beach/Recall on the beach, Learn underwater/Recall underwater, Learn underwater/Recall underwater.  And the accuracy of recall was significantly better when the learning and recall environments were the same.  Apparently there have been similar studies for drunk/sober states and exhausted/alert states although I imagine they are a bit less controlled (so to speak).

In any case I’ve been collecting additional antidotal evidence recently.  Aside from the “French R Incident.”  The most obvious example was that whilst honeymooning in New Zealand my wife and I both learned to drive on the left side of the road, having never done that before.  I not only had vivid flashes of being 15 and learning to drive, but started recalling crazy stories that my driver’s education teacher recounted in class.

A friend recently told me that he gave up on learning the Dvorak system of typing even though he thought it was a really good idea because he started having nightmares about learning to type when he was thirteen.  Somewhat increased typing speed as an adult was apparently outweighed by recurring nightmares – I guess I can understand that.

I’m curious as to how general this phenomenon is.  Have you started learning a new skill or a variation on an old one and found yourself transported back to some related experience in your past?

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