Thursday, October 06, 2005

On Learning and Plateaus

I don't think it is much of a stretch to say that the problem of education is the problem of 'plateau-ing'. Here is what I mean: unless pushed, or moved in some way, we tend to settle. In most endeavors, we experience tremendous rapid growth or development, and then, for a variety of reasons, we taper off. I lived in Russia for 6 months as part of a pioneering English-teaching effort by my college, Brigham Young University. I lived with a Russian family and taught their son, 4-year old Andrei, English. I was also learning Russian, and this account will focus on my efforts, triumphs, and obstacles in learning Russian, and highlight my 'plateaus'. This account is typical of language learning for most people. I will divide it into a few phases.

Phase 1: Freshly arrived in Russia. I landed in Moscow, and was overwhelmed by the speed with which people spoke. I thought I had no chance to ever be able to communicate with these people. There was too much to learn!

Phase 2: A month or so later: I had now grown accustomed to some routine language used in the house and in my routine schedule: "Come for breakfast!" "Good morning!" "Good night!" "Do you want some more?" "Be careful, the doors are closing, next station...Shabolovskaya" etc. I could also use simple phrases to make my way around. I had come a very long way in a short time.

Phase 3: A month or so later: I could now engage in simple conversations with my host family, taxi drivers, and strangers. I could get around and handle most any problem that confronted me. I could on my own order Chambourgers (hamburgers), and buy fresh chleb (bread) and moroshna (ice cream). Again, I had come a very long way in a short time.

Phase 4: At the end of the 6 months: I certainly could engage in conversations more easily than I could during phase 3, but my perceived "pace" in learning Russian had slowed down significantly. From phase 3 on, I could get around; learning, or improving my Russian, was no longer a priority, I could function as is. I could add a word or expression here and there, but by and large, I was independent and could express myself with what I had. I had, in a word, plateaued.

It is possible that I had not really slowed down, but that my learning was not as apparent as it had been in the earlier phases. I think that it is surely the case that I was learning in less apparent ways, but I'm also convinced that my learning had slowed down. I did not need to listen as carefully now that I could get around. I did not feel the need to push myself to express what I could and continually expand my available language. I did not push myself to more and more fluidly speak, and closer approximate the understandings and utterances of native Russians. I was satisfied with what I could do, it worked for me.

We get accustomed to a certain standard and mode of communication, and close our eyes to its shortcomings. Occasionally, we have a conversation, or read something, and become aware that we still have far to go, but this sensation typically passes, and we find a comfort zone and pursue a path of least resistance to communicate 'adequately'. We find few people who can sustain a long-term apprenticeship to a language (or discipline). It requires a child-like attitude, humility, an eagerness to learn rather than show-off, a willingness to make mistakes and look foolish. In general, it requires a conviction that the issue is not to demonstrate how you can function as is, or that you can often pass off as a native, but rather the issue is to never be satisfied until you understand and speak as a native--which may never happen, but it is the appropriate course.


  1. My personal consumption of Jell-O has not risen in years. Your comments are like the clarion call I've been needing to push through self-imposed barriers to reach new heights in fat-free gelatin-based treat consumption.

  2. hrm. Compelling. Reminds me of how I often do the same thing with scripture study. Then a Sunday school lesson throws me for a loop and I have no idea who they are talking about and realize I have been lazy about it way too long. Nephi? Who? Good post, Ben. I think I am going to read my scriptures now and eat some Jell-O. Or perhaps the cousin, gummy bear, would suffice for gelatin-based treat consumption? >liz