This is Part 1 in a 2-part series on a relationship between language learning and self-knowledge, and treating language learning like a tourist. To read the second part, click here.
Leaving the U.S. will lead to new encounters, you’ll read, place you ‘outside of your comfort zone,’ and otherwise lay out a basic pattern for further self-development. Usually such articles maintain a culturally agnostic position — you’ll benefit from travel no matter where you go — but usually I see this narrative presented alongside pictures of southeast Asia or other tropical beach destinations.
And most people who have traveled will agree that the experience has great value — especially compared to just reading about a place in some book or website. While the breadth of factual knowledge you gain from the experience may not compare favorably — particularly when you calculate the time investment involved in getting to the destination — the travel experience feels greater somehow.
In many cases, people who have traveled or lived abroad will even make grand statements about how it has changed their lives. And travel stories, more often than not, get framed as journeys of self-discovery.
Learning from the Inside
But what’s really behind this pattern? I have something of a theory.
To learn something new, you have to connect it to something you already know. Our neurology expresses this relationship on the cellular level. We cannot learn without putting the roots of it down in something that’s already there.
If you study Calculus without first learning Algebra, you’ll have a hard time making sense of it. Likewise, if you read a book in Latin, you won’t be able to relate much to what it says. Even something like identifying a fruit fly’s slurping relies on our own understanding of eating and drinking.
And while I believe you’ll find no more efficient way to assimilate knowledge than from reading, it also means you’ll need to rely mostly on abstraction to make connections. You can, of course, connect something written to past experiences of smelling, hearing, seeing, and feeling, but this requires a constant and dedicated exercise of the imagination. It’s not always easy.
Knowledge gained through travel and direct experience, however, forces us to connect using any number of modalities. Not only do we get the sights and sounds of a people or culture — which we could perhaps get from a video — but we get the smells and tastes as well. We know what it’s like to touch things in another place.
Our emotional responses to the unfamiliar places around us, too, shape the map of these new experiences. Sometimes we’ll be having fun; other times travelers deal with stress, exhaustion, and perhaps even fear. What we learn takes root in this perspective. It grows to have a number of qualities inside of us, and forms an integrated character with these things, which it would never have when reduced to words on a page.
The Opportunity for Self-Observation
Learning by reading or by video or by some other indirect means is no doubt more efficient. But we also lose out because of it. Not just because the knowledge we gain by reading grafts itself onto us by comparatively attenuated means, but because we miss out on a richer chance for self-observation.
When we learn something new, we must, even if just in a small way, reflect not just on the thing we’re learning, but the part of ourselves that will serve to connect it with the rest of our experiences.
If we read about a war in the east, we can’t help but compare it to a war we studied in the west. Thinking about the topic calls upon our faculties of reason; it forces us to review our attitudes and thoughts about that western war.
But when we experience something new and different — perhaps a train station in Japan — we have not just our thoughts and attitudes to review, but any number of senses and feelings connected to our prior experiences of trains. It forces us to take a broader look at ourselves, and, by constant attention, helps us form a larger picture of where we’re coming from, and possibly who we are.