The Linguistic Moment of Clarity
"I was sitting here, eating my muffin and drinking my coffee, replaying the incident in my head, when I had what alcoholics refer to as a moment of clarity."
@courtesy A Band Apart and Quentin Tarantino.
When learning a language, it’s easy to get caught up in the academics of it all and forgot that the ability to acquire language is built into our brains. You do need the classes, or at least some method for learning the nuts and bolts of a language, so that you have a place to get started. And, once you get good at the grammar, the sentence construction, and the vocabulary you will have a good basis to approach the language like a WWII decoder, with the ability to decipher and even send messages in the language. But, transcoding one language to another in your brain is not speaking a language fluently — fluency is when you can speak and understand a language with almost no effort at all. And transcoding a language takes a lot of effort.
To reach this level of effortless fluency you need lots of practice, often obtained by full immersion in the language. If you do, you may get the chance to experience a linguistic miracle in your brain — the moment when the filter on a foreign language lifts and you can suddenly, and effortlessly, understand that language almost as if it were your own. I think of this moment as the “linguistic moment of clarity”.
This “moment” really is a moment, too. One minute you’re decoding vocabulary words in your head, following the conversation but doing a real-time translation and perpetually five seconds behind whoever is speaking. The next, it feels like someone put in a cheat code and you can understand the language. You can just listen to what others are saying without the constant language calculations happening in your brain. After this happens, you no longer need to think through every word that’s said to you, just the words that you don’t know, and even those are now much easier to pick up via context, more like a new word in your native language. And, after this moment of clarity, you don’t need to plan every sentence out that comes out of your mouth, you can talk freely and naturally. Though you will make the same mistakes as before, your fluency and comfortability with the language has changed. Making jokes, and flirting with cute native speakers of this language are all of a sudden on the table, and you feel 100x more confident in going out and talking with strangers in the language.
The 1999 movie The 13th Warrior shows this linguistic moment of clarity perfectly. While the greatest movie critic of all time Roger Ebert gave it 1.5/4 stars,
“With a budget said to be more than $100 million, it displays a lot of cash on the screen, but little thought”, and generally considered to be a disappointment by action movie fans, history fans, and Michael Crichton fans (it’s based on his awesomely-titled title novel Eaters of the Dead), it does have a scene that shows this moment of clarity with startling accuracy.
Antonio Banderas, exiled from his homeland in the middle east, is on a long adventure with a group of Viking warriors who exclusively speak Old Norse. Banderas listens and slowly starts to pick up bits and pieces, until finally the language becomes intelligible. A great scene in an otherwise mediocre (but fun) movie about Vikings fighting Neanderthals.
I’ve experienced this moment of clarity exactly twice. The first time was when I was a late teen and at a Spanish immersion camp at Lake Tahoe. It was my first time being fully immersed in Spanish, although it was a language I’d been studying since I was a kid). It started out tough, as I was in the highest class with a professor who spoke very rapidly. I struggled to keep up as we discussed Spanish short stories until, all of a sudden, it became easy. From one moment to the next, my understanding of the language drastically improved, so much so that I was startled and a bit confused. But from then on, understanding Spanish was so much easier, as if a neural pathway had finally finished being built and was now cleared for all traffic in this new language.
The second time was in Citta della Pieve, Italy, a beautiful Roman town at the top of a hill separating Umbria and Tuscany, staying with a close friend and her family. I spent the whole week speaking Italian, struggling a bit but enjoying improving my skills at the language. Then, one evening, we were watching the news while eating some bread and cheese (I highly recommend this in Italy), when all of a sudden that moment of clarity occurred and I could now completely understand most of what the Italian newscaster was saying. Nothing had changed with me, as I didn’t know anything more than I knew five minutes earlier, but a switch got flipped in my head and all of a sudden, I got it.
"If you’re going to learn Italian, there’s no better place to do it than Citta della Pieve."
Photo courtesy Stefano Coltellini
I don’t think this is an issue of “skill”, though I am sure it takes a certain level of skill in a language to reach the moment of clarity. Not to mention the stamina to get a ton of practice in the language (speaking a language poorly can be very frustrating for some people). My personal theory is that it’s actually a comfort-level thing — something triggers your brain to accept the new language as some kind of a new baseline, and just goes from there. Or maybe you yourself are now just comfortable enough with the language to actually relax and speak normally, now approaching the new language a naturally, rather than like a math problem.
Whatever the cause, I highly recommend to any and all readers that they try to achieve this linguistic moment of clarity, as it’s unlike anything else you will ever experience.
- Jack Connor