Blog Post

Neural Hardwiring, Focaccio, and Quarta Lezione

I've blogged a lot about this new project I'm doing on how we know theworld, on cognition and change . . . well, some days, learning isn'tall it's cracked up to be.


Today, for example. For lunch we were served an incomparable Focaccio Bogliascano. Only two towns (and Recco isn't much bigger than Bogliasco) specialize in this amazing dish, a special kind of focaccio--as light as an angel--made with a wonderful local soft cheese that can't be refrigerated and won't travel. So, realizing this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, I went back for seconds, then thirds. More accurately, seconda, terza. (Please, no corrections of spelling or grammar. I know that isn't the correct plural form, I just don't know the correct plural form.)


That's the point. I think at one naive moment in writing this book I was going to advocate learning a new language as a way to perk up the tired mind again. We know second-language acquisition (and third and fourth) occurs in different parts of the brain than first-language. We know adult-language acquisition is one of the most complex, cognitively taxing endeavors of all. Marine push-ups for the prefrontal cortex. And we know that the circuitry of second-language learning is complementary to first-language learning rather than duplicative. That's useful when one is trying out the new or protecting against the inevitable decline of one's faculties. (I'm not there, yet, but, hey, planning ahead is never a bad thing.)


A dear Japanese friend of mine, Ichiro-san, had a severe stroke some years ago and lost his Japanese, but, in the ambulance, he started calling out in what the ambulance driver thought was glossalalia, some wacky speaking in incoherent tongues. Fortunately, Ichiro's son could tell the driver his father was speaking French. He'd lost his first language but not his second. He hadn't lost his third language English either. But it was months of rehab before Japanese returned. Acquiring a new language is like having a cognitive spare tire, just in case.


In Italy, in residence with a marvelous group of artists, photographers, composers, scholars, and writers from Iran, Italy, France, Germany, the US, and elsewhere, we're all trying to speak Italiano . . . It's tough, my friends. Especially when one is so grateful to finally have some time to concentrate on writing a book. In English. Despite the best efforts of the lovely Anna Marie, our professoressa, the language is coming with glacial speed.  I manage to squeak out a few new Italian words each day, but not much more. Even more frustrating, I never can predict when a Japanese word will come into exactly the right place where my Italian lessons fail.


What is also frustrating is that I know in June, when I'm in Tokyo, these odd Japanese words won't spring automatically and naturally to my lips. It is precisely the process of struggle, the adrenaline rush and the exercise of searching for a new word in a new language, that calls up the process of having acquired that same equivalent word in Japanese. It's an interesting clue into how language-acquisition works, the translating function of the brain for an adult-learned language. Homologies. Mistakes. Anxieties. Eureka!


Language learning is about necessities, memory, time, investment, adrenaline---and the amount of home-made Ligurian focaccio one had at lunch, with two glasses (no less) of white wine.


The brain is not hardwired. It changes with what it learns and we learn as we change. It varies with circumstances. How much or how little sleep, how much or how little attention one is paying, the fullness of a belly or the urgency of a blog that needs to be written that day.


Sometimes I wish the brain were as inflexible as some accounts of it pretend. Somedays, giving in to biological determinism, to hardwiring fatalism (ah, reptillian brain!), is lots easier than learning. It's like believing one has a fat gene and so having an extra helping and not going to the gym that day won't matter anyway. And one gets fatter. See, the fat gene prevails again! Self-fulfilling prophesies are, to my mind, a much more convincing explanation of neural im-plasticity than hardwiring.


"The Brain is wider than the sky," Emily Dickinson says. And sometimes it is as shallow as Focaccio Bogliascano.


That said . . . Sated with focaccio, I think I will play hookey from Quarta Lezione today. If I were home I'd feel guilty. Or I'd blame it on being hardwired with inferior language-learning abilities. Instead, well, this is Italy: Perche si!


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