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The strangeness of how we learn…

3 May


Have you ever taken a step outside of how you think usually, to assess how your own thought processes or behaviorisms work? What about how you learn? Don’t you find it strange how we don’t know something at first sight, then suddenly we just do? For example: Remembering the lyrics to a song – once learned all we have to do is open our mouth and it seems to just appear, as if magically, in our brains and just tumble from our mouths…

Or even, have you ever wondered how the brain comes to order the information it receives into a neat, recognizable format: as if it pieces million piece puzzles together for us in a split moment so that we can see concepts – final, structured and organized.

I wonder these things (and more) on a regular basis and so have come to realize that the human brain is truly an odd, yet most amazing, contraption indeed.


Recently I have been reading a book called “Musicophilia” by Oliver Sacks: a book about “the place music occupies in the brain and how it affects the human condition“.

In chapter 8  “Things Fall Apart: Amusia and Dysharmonia.“, Sacks writes the following passage:

“We take our senses for granted. We feel we are given the visual world, for example, complete with depth, color, movement, form, and meaning all perfectly matched and synchronous. Given this seeming unity, it may not occur to us that there are many different elements composing a single visual scene, and that all of these have to be separately analyzed and then put together. This composite nature of visual perception may be more apparent to an artist or a photographer; or it may become apparent when, due to some damage or failure of development, one element or another is defective or lost. The perception of color has its own neural basis, and so, too, have the perception of depth, motion, form, and so on. But even if all these preliminary perceptions are working, there may be difficulty synthesizing them into a visual scene or object with meaning.”

He then went on, in the latter half of the chapter, to talk about a woman who could not hear music as a whole – she could hear each different “voice” (instrument) as a wholly separate entity and so any music piece she listened to was fragmented and totally unlike how it should be. In a letter her physician sent to Sacks, he described her:

“agonizing experience of hearing all music as discrete, contrapuntal lines, being unable to hold on to the harmonic sense of chordal passages. Thus, where listening was linear, vertical and horizontal at the same time, now it was horizontal only.”


Now, you are probably wondering where on earth I am going with this all.

To be honest, i’m not at all sure myself – I just have an odd hunch.


Even though I certainly do not possess absolute pitch, I have pretty much always been comfortable with and confident in my ability to hear and to distinguish tone, tempo and pitch. However, I don’t just hear it – I feel it.

The same goes for language. I don’t just listen to how it is said, I feel how it is said, how it is formed in the mouth. I imagine the feeling of what the tongue must be doing, what the jaw is doing, what the throat is doing, what the vocal chords are doing – I replay these feelings in my mind over and over again, feeling what it would be like to actually mimic how it is done, before actually doing it.

I can also connect new sounds; to concepts; to writing – easily. Like with Japanese: the language on paper connects perfectly in my mind to the language I hear and the language I speak. It is all interwoven and fits together perfectly like a completed puzzle. As such I can hear a word I don’t know and repeat it straight off the bat to ask what it means; or I can mimic the tone of how an old person speaks – purely because I can feel how the language works.

I have become so used to this sense and figured that it was solid, unchangeable and reliable.

Until now.


I am currently supposed to be studying for my mid-terms in Korean. I have memorized the vocabulary and grammar assigned and can read to a good standard. In fact, I have noticed that I have an odd ability to feel the context of a piece of grammar within a sentence after just having seen a couple of examples. To explain: the books we use in level 4 contain no English translations so we have to rely on reading the Korean description of what the words mean – I personally don’t find this of much help and so just read the examples and somehow can pick out exactly the feeling of the grammar and how it differs from other similar pieces of grammar. For example:

The grammar structure “-면서” (-myeon-seo) is added to the end of an action verb stem before another action is described, and means “whilst doing- “. This is mind the following sentence “공부하면서 음악을 들었어요” (Kongbu ha-myeon-seo, umak ul tuleo-sseo-yo) could be translated as : “While studying I listened to music” OR “At the same time as studying, I listened to music”.

There is another piece of grammar that is almost exactly the same – “-어 가면서” (AVST+ka-myeon-seo).

Now “가다” (kada) is the verb for “to go“, thus the “가면서” (ka-myeaon-seo) bit seems to me like “whilst going“. To get to the point – for me this grammar had the sense of something in motion.

Sure enough the meaning is generally that as something is going/progressing (through a period of time) something else is also done (at intervals?). For example: Whilst cooking ramen, I taste-tested it (at intervals). So – during the duration of the action that was ramen cookage, I did another action that was related – taste testing.

Fun no?

Actually, I love being able to pick up on these small little nuances – most of the time there isn’t a better way to express the same thing in my native language and so it feels like in learning them, I am adding to my understanding of the world and how to express it (and myself) better through language.


SO yeh. That is something I –can– do.

But what I can’t seem to do with Korean (so far), that I usually can do with other things, is connect the dots. Unlike with Japanese, I cannot seem to make a strong connection between the spoken by others, the spoken by self and the written.

I can read and write reasonably well (with only a couple of mistakes in spelling mostly).

However, I cannot establish a strict pattern of intonation in the spoken – I cannot figure a general pattern from the beginning to end of a sentence or heard a distinct difference between a question or of a statement.

I also cannot figure out how the tempo of the spoken works either – it seems to speed up suddenly as random points in words or phrases to make a strange sort of complex rhythm.

It is as if I am partially deaf, and this is most frustrating.

My sense of feeling is rendered useless because I cannot maintain a strong enough grip on the words being said.

Furthermore, if I read passages while listening to their tracks on the accompanying CD, it feels like my brain sometimes struggles to understand that the written word read and the spoken word heard is the same thing. I can read what is on the page fine, but the spoken version just feels blurred and indistinct. It just doesn’t match.

This means that I find it extremely difficult to mimic how Korean is spoken – if I cannot have a strong grip on the words spoken, hear how they are formed, dissect each sound made and then re-piece them together in my head and feel what parts of the mouth and throat are being used, then I cannot reproduce them accurately enough.

This is turn means I am more likely to forget a word – I am the kind of person who has to have a complete image of a concept in my brain to be able to retain information. If there is only a partial image, my brain gives up and focuses on the things it CAN visualize in entirety. It’s a bit like having a corrupted file – there is no point in keeping it if you can’t restore it.

All in all, it feels like my perception of Korean is fragmented – a bit like how that lady in Sack’s book felt about music. It feels like the different parts of Korean, (Reading, Listening, Writing and Speaking) are completely separate from each other and it is difficult to weave them together to make a whole.


SO there we have it.

My random self-analysis of the day.

I suppose the only thing I can do is to keep going at it (Come on – Me?? Give up??? Pffftttt don’t be silly!).

It could be just that I am still in the “baby stage” of learning the language – the stage in which the brain has to gradually absorb information over a period of time before all the pieces come together and click. I did start Japanese technically when I was around 15 (but not properly till I was 18) and so my “Japanese” age is far more than my “Korean” age.

If you were to calculate these ages “from first contact” my Japanese age would be about 9 and my Korean age would be just shy of 2. But if you calculate it from “total submission” (aka. being thrown into an environment where only that language is spoken over a long period of time – like me living for a year in Japan and a year in Korea) then my Japanese age would only be just shy of 4, and my Korean age just shy of 2. Of course, this depends entirely on where you place the importance of language learning – on structured contact (which teaches you the language in its strictly structured form – how it is used officially), or complete submission (which teaches you the colloquial form of language – how it is actually used in its natural environment).

Either which way this would make sense – my brain is years ahead in absorbing and figuring out Japanese in comparison to Korean…. But it ain’t half frustrating!!!


Anyways, back to the grindstone~! (Gonna rip apart that exam tomorrow if it’s the last thing I do!!!)