Rubiks Cubes (and the complexity of language)
I’ve been thinking about Rubiks Cubes lately. If you Google “Rubiks Cube” you will find many instructions on how to solve the puzzle. This wasn’t possible 10 years ago. In fact, I never knew there were instructions. I’ve asked many people (not hundreds but several at least), “How did you learn to do that?” and they all answered the same – “…just played with it until I figured it out.”
Most of them couldn’t begin to explain exactly ‘how’ they did it either! There are types of complex knowledge we can ‘learn’ without realizing ‘how’ we know what we do. Language is one of these types of knowledge – so why don’t we ‘teach’ it that way?
Without a doubt, Rubiks Cubes are complex puzzles – after a sort, but not nearly so complex as a language.
The History of The Rubiks Cube School
Ah you say, “I didn’t know there was a Rubiks Cube School!” To my knowledge there isn’t yet. But it’s not hard to imagine one, what with all the instructions on YouTube. All we need now is to add a few tests, a blackboard and about 30 students into a single place (so that it’s possible to pay the overhead and teacher salary) then there would be a Rubiks Cube School. It might not take very long before no one would remember that people solved this puzzle without going to school to learn how! Of course the school would produce many failures – those like me, who would forget the proper ‘order of things’ or who ‘failed to understand why we are learning to solve the puzzle’ in the first place. It’s required – would be the answer. “This is an important skill and necessary when you apply for a job,” they will say.
So what has this to do with language acquisition?
This seems to be exactly the path language ‘learning’ has taken. Today, everyone has ‘forgotten’ that mankind has evolved to acquire language effortlessly – naturally. Teaching langauge is a historical recent thing. In the past, the common knowledge was, “Do you want to speak Spanish? live in Spain.” Now people question whether immersion really works. And as we look around us, it often seems obvious that it doesn’t.
If one generation thinks that the only way to learn how to solve the Rubiks Cube is through an instruction manual, the next generation will forget there was another way.
Effective communication in a foreign language requires much more than simply knowing something of the parts. Language is an expression of a particular world view, and the values of a particular social group. It’s not really all that hard to understand that the more one translates from their own world view and values, the more misunderstanding and miscommunication occurs.
There is not a faster, more efficient way to understand a people than to expose yourself to their ideas, thoughts, and culture – watch, listen, soak it up naturally. Nature has provided you a tool to use that’s quite good at doing this provided you’ll stay out of the way and stop trying to do it all manually – but please don’t think you’ll gain this understanding by translating one sound, one word or one grammar rule at a time. There are a few who seem to do this and succeed (and a very few indeed) but they never acquire an ability that comes close to that of a natural learner.