August 5, 2009 | Russian

Sleeping as Learning Technique

In which dozing off provides language benefits.

On my way to teach a writing session downtown today, I had an amazing conversation in Spanish with a family from Spain consisting of a mother, father, and son, who was maybe about 15 years old.

The Canyons of Downtown Manhattan

It was the best Spanish I’ve spoken in a long time, and we talked about many things. Mostly I was speaking to the mother, but the father, who was also charming, participated as well. The mother said she could understand me perfectly and seemed very impressed. I was more confident, felt I had access to more vocabulary in my head, and remembered more grammar automatically. I also made fewer errors and got stuck less. I could really understand her quite well. It would be so interesting if this really were about my language center coming alive. It feels as though it is.

Today I had a bizarre and surprising language-learning experience with Russian. When I started Pimsleur lesson 20, I was initially feeling exhausted and kind of crappy. I was lying on the sofa in the office, and Brandt was lying on the massage chair practicing his monologue. We both fell asleep.

Now, sleeping through one’s work is not normally considered a good thing, but I experienced surprising benefits. I felt as though in my semi-awake state I tapped into instinct and shut up the reasoning faculties and the performance anxiety that get in my way sometimes. My accent seemed better, and I was relying on instinct to come up with answers rather than trying to place them in some grammar book nominative/accusative/dative case grid. My brain hasn’t been working fast enough because I’ve been trying to think the answers instead of feel them. I like to think that if Dr. Pimsleur were alive, he’d encourage me to do more of the latter. I really want to have both (thought and feeling, I mean), but if I’m going to do a good job on this project, I have to put more trust in the feeling component than I am accustomed to doing.

The word idet (he walks, he goes) is awkward because it sounds a lot like “idiot” in English. It makes me not want to say it out loud while I am walking around doing Pimsleur lessons, in case any rage-prone New Yorker misunderstands.

I love the word for “I can.” It’s pronounced magoo, as in Mr. Magoo.

In my grammar book today, for the first time I came across the written form of the word for “thank you,” pronounced spuh SEE buh, which I have been saying since the beginning of Pimsleur in early July. I had no idea it looked like this: спасибо. I had to write it 10 extra times to help me get comfortable with it and overcome my shock at its appearance. It’s kind of like I imagine Internet dating would be, i.e., where the picture bears little resemblance to the reality.

Post a Comment