How we confuse minor failure with genetic impossibility

There’s a problem that many people have, where they think that the only learning that occurs is explicit learning, where they consciously add little bits of knowledge into their brain one by one in a deliberate order. This is commonly the idea transmitted by our school systems, where it’s required that the teachers test the students on the topic. It’s easiest to test the results when the students have to explicitly learn certain well-defined concepts, and then regurgitate them in an exam.

The big problem with this, however, is that many of the really interesting things that we can do with our minds can not be explicitly learned or assembled like an architect in this fashion. We have to absorb them through experience, and our mind automatically adapts itself in order to succeed at them. This sort of learning is not encouraged in schools, and many people are unaware of it. In fact, most people are so opposed to this idea that when they encounter a skill that must be “absorbed” in this way and can’t be explicitly learned, then they will start to claim that they’re actually completely unable to do that skill.

One example of this is juggling. I love juggling, but when I started I was completely horrible at it. I’d throw the balls up, miss them, and they’d all drop to the ground. Every time. It took me a lot of practice to actually just do the basic 3-ball pattern correctly for more than a couple of throws. Now I’m fully confident in my 3-ball juggling, and I enjoy learning new tricks. To other people, it appears that I just do it naturally.

When I’ve tried to teach other people, though, I’ve found that a lot of them are ready to give up really early. When they see me do it effortlessly, and then they totally fail, they somehow jump to the illogical conclusion that they’re actually genetically predisposed to not be able to juggle. Even if I tell them emphatically that I started at the exact same place as them, they tend not to believe me.

What I think is happening, is that they’re trying to follow my step-by-step instructions (which are very simple to understand), but they can’t successfully complete the task I’ve given them, they decide that they will never be able to. They say things like “I just don’t have the talent”, or “I’ve never been coordinated anyway”. They don’t seem to realize that even though the instructions are simple, it takes practice before your brain will adapt and be able to perform the skill accurately. You can’t just “decide” to juggle and then it suddenly happens. Your brain must actually reconfigure itself in some way in order to succeed.

Another interesting example is riding a bike. This is an interesting case, because many people can do it, and most of those people are actually convinced that they explicitly know how they’re doing it, but it can be conclusively proven that most of the time they don’t. Bike riding is an unconscious, adapted skill, not an explicitly learned step-by-step conscious calculation, but many people don’t think this is the case.

When you ask someone how they’re riding a bike, they’ll say something like “you steer with your hands on the handlebars, and you pedal with your feet”. Then if you ask them how the bike stays up instead of tipping over sideways, most people will mumble something they’ve heard about the spinning wheels acting like gyroscopes to keep the bike upright.

This is actually wrong, and it can be proven by fixing the front wheel so it can’t turn. Give somebody a bike that can’t be steered, and they’re guaranteed to fall over. It just can’t be ridden. The reason is that what keeps the bike up is not the spinning of the wheels, but the tiny unconscious steering motions that we make. When you learn to ride a bike, what you’re doing is training your brain to make those tiny corrections, which act to keep the bike underneath your body. If you can’t steer, you can’t make those tiny corrections, and the bike will tip, guaranteed.

Unicyclists tend to know this, because they’ve actually been explicitly taught that they must steer the unicycle back underneath them in order to stay up. It becomes much more clear somehow when you only have one wheel, perhaps because those tiny corrections have been magnified, and you have to learn how to do rather large corrections.

Either way, the lesson learned here is that there are many things we take for granted that are actually unconscious skills, and can’t be learned through consciously following a sequence of steps written down on paper. Our minds must adapt to them through experience, but some of us have been fooled into thinking that everything must be doable purely by following explicit steps, or it’s not doable at all.

Now, if we come back to the topic of languages, I think the same principles apply. There are many people who try to memorize some explicit rules in a classroom, but then they still can’t read or understand or speak the language. They have been trained to think that the memorization of explicit rules IS language learning, when in fact what they need to do is supply their brain with enough understandable experiences that it will adapt itself to the new language. Sometimes this can happen to a small degree by accident because they’ve spent so much time doing pointless grammar drills, but the real action happens when they get exposed to the language over and over again in comprehensible ways. This supplies the experiential material that the brain needs in order to get familiar with this new skill.

There aren’t really that many people who “just aren’t good at languages”, which I think should be obvious by the fact that everyone speaks one (certain extreme exceptions aside). The big problem is that people give up on learning a second one when they think that it must be done through explicit memorization of rules, which it just can’t. The real skill we need to learn is to let go of the feeling of control that those explicit rules give us. We need to trust our brain to do its job, which it does every day on many other things which sometimes escape our notice.

As I said in my previous article about breaking through plateaus, we need to find ways to expose ourselves to thing that are mostly comprehensible, but a little bit challenging…enough so that we’ll make some errors. With some correction or feedback, or just through experiencing the situation over and over, our brains will adapt to this new stimulus and we’ll get better.

Just like everyone sucks at juggling when they start, you have to realize that you’re going to suck at a new language when you start. In fact you might suck for a long time. You just need to keep exposing yourself to somewhat comprehensible bits of it that are a little bit challenging, and you’ll slowly adapt to it over time. It’ll become familiar.

The real process behind language learning is figuring out how to keep yourself exposed to it in various ways until it becomes familiar to you. You can’t know which parts will be familiar first. It’s an unconscious process, but you can consciously keep feeding yourself the material. That’s the job of the conscious mind in language learning…purely a logistical job. You arrange for various materials to be placed in front of your eyeballs and for sounds to enter your ears. You can choose what small distinctions to pay attention to, so that the unconscious can better train itself about those differences. Beyond this, most of the work is in reconfiguring neurons, and it’s not a conscious activity.

I’ll continue in a further article about those small things we can notice that will help us absorb the language and become familiar with it, but for now I’ll just leave you with a few thoughts. How many things did your brain unconsciously do for you today? Did you consciously walk to the kitchen by following an algorithm of “move left foot 45cm forward. Now move right foot 45cm forward”? No, you just walked. Did you talk to your friend by calculating the correct grammar order and conjugation of the words? No, you just talked.

Neither of these tasks were in-born…you had to learn them. But they still function unconsciously, similar to breathing or swallowing. And knowing this gives us a powerful understanding of how to teach ourselves a new language.


10 Responses to How we confuse minor failure with genetic impossibility

  1. Tanja says:

    love your articles! they are always interesting and keep up my interest in learning languages… sometimes they come up like a reminder.

  2. Bryan says:

    “Either way, the lesson learned here is that there are many things we take for granted that are actually unconscious skills, and can’t be learned through consciously following a sequence of steps written down on paper. Our minds must adapt to them through experience”

    They are unconscious skills because we first learned them consciously then integrated them into our subconscious. The reason why we suck at them at first is because we are consciously commanding each individual action which takes too long to do in order to perform the movement correctly. We don’t learn anything “unconsciously.” We learn consciously and integrate that data into the subconscious to automatize it.

    • Chani says:

      kids know how to speak before they get any grammar lessons. I dunno if you’d count that as “conscious” or “unconscious”, but either way, experience comes first.

      I knew how to use “their” “they’re” and “there” properly long before we got to that in school (and I dare say, almost nobody learns that in school, either they know it already or they never fucking get it). nobody taught me how to use them, it was just *obvious*, because I’d seen them so many times in books and had unconsciously picked up on how they’re used.

  3. Claudie says:

    Great post. Reminds me of a book I had read last year — “The Talent Code”. In it, they talk about the number of hours of practice you need to become great at a particular task. Unfortunately, the older we grow, the more we convince ourselves that we can’t become great at something anymore. Even if we believe that it just takes practice, somehow, it seems easier to have done it as kids, and so we give up before even trying.

  4. Andrew says:

    I agree and it also sort of supports Benny’s premise that you can’t learn a language just by studying all that explicit knowledge (grammar, vocab, etc.), you have to get out there and speak and by doing so you learn that implicit knowledge that you’re talking about. I think anything you would call a “skill” (speaking a language, riding a bike, doing something) as opposed to just academic knowledge (all knowing, no doing) falls into this category of something that can’t really be truly learned without doing (which imparts that implicit knowledge).

    So many things are best learned simply by diving in and going for it.


  5. One part I really liked about Avatar that most probably didn’t notice was how Jake treated learning Na’vi after a while – he started out as a person that considered himself bad at languages, but decided to treat it in the same way he learned any other military skill through consistent drilling and practice. Learning a language is like learning music – a good amount of theory that has to be known, but without practice you’ll never be able to play anything.

  6. Ryan Sharif says:

    I think those tiny unconscious and conscious signals which can only be obtained through experience are definitely the reason many people fail when learning a second language. Excellent post.

  7. […] Pete explains the subtleties of learning a language, how implicit learning works, and why you can re….  This is something Benny has talked about repeatedly and is why he emphasizes speaking so much: you can’t learn how to speak a language by any means other than speaking it.  What makes this post special is that Pete actually goes into detail explaining precisely why this is the case and how it works. […]

  8. Han says:

    Cool, I juggle too.

    And it’s true that people give up after three minutes, and assume I’m naturally just better than them. Nah man, I sucked just as hard when I started. It took me a long time to get out of the same mentality with languages, since I was also just so slow and sluggish in getting anywhere, when others seemed to race ahead. I’ve largely shaken that off now, thank goodness.

  9. MrWarper says:

    I’ve tried to juggle, to ride a bike, to learn martial arts, Physics and languages, and everything is learned ‘the same’ in a certain way. The human brain isn’t perfect, so you can’t learn anything on theory alone: you need to practice and automate stuff so you can do things at the right speed. But on the other hand you can automate only those tasks you really understand, be it because you’ve analysed them (provided you come to the right conclusions too) on your own by trial and error or deeper thinking, or because you’ve been told how they work in the first place. The latter is much more efficient, but it doesn’t suppress the need for practice.

    The other thing that you need to understand is that theory needs to go only to the right level of depth to be extremely useful. Deeper levels might be useful for something else, but not really necessary. So avoiding theory is a bad idea, especially because most of the time, you’re not avoiding that much anyway.

    Let’s apply this. Your theory on the bike is off. The gyroscopic stuff accounts for 1% tops of a real, moving bicycle with a guy on top. Let’s say I get you to understand 100% the somewhat complex underlying physics and that your pedalling and steer motions have such direction and magnitude as to continually adjust your gravity centre so its projection lies within the line defined by the wheels, cancelling the angular moment of your weight. So? You may get to know perfectly what to do and why, yet the first time you have to make those adjustments yourself you’ll keep falling until you finally automate the process, because calibration can be explained but not taught. But the theory can be reduced too, you simply need to know that you compensate the tendency of the bike to tip over by steering it a bit to the other side while in motion.

    With languages it’s the same, only with a considerably more complex theory to be grasped, necessarily over a longer period of time. Children learn their first language(s) compulsorily elaborating a ‘working theory’ of their own along the way, and adults who understand how languages work save a lot of time by studying grammar and stuff. In the middle ground there is the type of individuals who can’t tell “they’re” from “there”, etc. They’re much less likely to achieve any level of proficiency in a foreign language, even if they practice just like the more knowledgeable ones. Why? Because with a poor theoretical base, their practice can’t be as effective, and unlike bike physics, languages have quite some stuff you can’t escape to understand in some depth and is substantially harder to figure out.

    That’s why only people who study AND practice can really get anywhere.

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