Travel & the Brain

The Language Barrier to Paradise: Backing away in Valparaiso and the neuropsychology of language development.

In Valparaiso the language barrier took its toll. With it came a profound sense of disconnection. What can neuroscience tell us about how we develop language? 

It feels iniquitous to speak with such negativity about Valparaiso. This was the home of Pablo Nerudo, one of my most beloved poets and he loved the place with an appetite that’s conveyed in his writing. He mused at its foibles but adored it all the more for that very reason. In Valparaiso Neruda found inspiration and the words poured forth.

There is a kind of dark magic to its name, it evokes all sorts of beckoning tales as the word rolls off your tongue. Val-para-iiso. But for me, in Valparaiso I retreated into silence.

An exert from Neruda’s poem, Ode to Valparaiso.

The Lonely Planet will tell you that Valparaiso is one of the highlights of a South American itinerary, citing its “… spectacular faded beauty of chaotic cerros (hills), some of the best street art in Latin America, a maze of steep, sinuous streets, alleys and escaleras (stairways) piled high with crumbling mansions…”

And for sure, Valparaiso is a spectacle but these attractions are, for the most part, limited to a small section of the city in the Cerro Alegre neighbourhood. For safety and charm, you’ll want to keep to these streets but the rough authenticity that the city supposedly sells won’t be found here. Cerro Alegre is a tourist village.

We stayed for two long weeks in a private apartment and perhaps that was the problem. At this point in the trip, about 4 months in, the language barrier began to take serious toll on me. Not being able to freely communicate with the people around me felt like being condemned to a glass box. Conveyor belt tourism – simply passing by. Tangible human experiences felt out of reach and so, depressed, I began to retreat.

On pen an paper my Spanish is actually not so bad. Nor am I incapable of expressing uncomplicated needs. I have a basic grasp of the language that serves me well in terms of asking specific questions, making requests etc. Things begin to disintegrate when I’m offered a reply. The avalanche of Spanish, coming at me 100 miles an hour stops me in my tracks like a deer in the head lights. I panic, frustration rises and my working memory goes to sludge, along with it all the appropriate Spanish conjugations that its tasked to help fetch from the recesses of my brain. The levels of discomfort that I begin to feel send me recoiling at the first possible exit. And there my Spanish education ends. A vicious cycle.

I spent more hours than I care to admit in that apartment, as lovely as it was. A private room in a hostel probably would have been a better bet.

I’m sure many will agree that behind each meaningful travel experience is the human element – In the same way that live music is so much better than a recording. You won’t get far running solely on the fuel of the wilderness. And this is the paradox. We may purposely seek out the tranquillity of nature, but without human contact, things start to fall in on us. Oxytocin declines, leaving behind a feeling of hollowness. This is the hormone that makes you feel bonded and connected to those around you. Removed for too long from the social sphere, our brain chemistry goes awry, even for the introverts among us. In fact, some think that the true reason why us humans are so sensitive to the cold is because its an evolutionary mechanism to keep us in close proximity with others (and their radiating heat), ensuring the group continues to work together. Clearly the thinker behind this theory never spent time in the Caribbean, but research by Hans Ijzerman and colleagues does show that being socially excluded leads to a marked drop in skin temperature.

Warmth and bodies aside, language is our bridge to the human social world.

Our capacity for language is somewhat of a recent development in evolutionary history, arising within the past hundred thousand years. Nothing of its sort has been documented in other species. Language is something that makes us uniquely human and there is no evidence to suggest that it has evolved further since its initial appearance.

The human brain arrives in this world ready for acquiring language in seemingly effortless ways and caregivers have an almost instinctual knack for directing speech to naturally attract the infant’s attention. Sing song tones, emphasis on important sounds and positive emotionality, this is referred to as ‘motherse’ and babies are even able to recognise the voice of their mothers from prior exposure through the womb.

Unlike the adult brain which has been pruned like a garden hedge, the young mind can discriminate between a much wider range of acoustics. Motivated to listen to these joyful sounds, babies quickly develop a “mental filter” that acts like a perceptual magnet, attuning them to the native language around them. But what is increasingly recognised as the yoke of it all is the reciprocal nature that governs the exchange of language between two people. Back and forth, back and forth. Like “I scratch your back, you scratch my back”, the role of social emotional intelligence is pivotal for the development of language and studies show that infants who are more adept in this department tend to develop better language skills in the long run.

In 90% of people, language is lateralized to the left hemisphere, but it normally involves information processing between both hemispheres. Language is widely distributed across the brain, recruting many different regions to do the job. Broca’s area, in the left frontal lobe, controls the production of speech sounds. It is linked to motor areas that specialize in the formation of words by the mouth, lip, tongue, and larynx. Another region called Wernicke’s area is located in the left temporal lobe and is involved in language comprehension – understanding meaning conveyed by written and spoken speech. Neurological disorders resulting in the loss of language are referred to as aphasias.

So what does all of this tell us about why its so exasperatingly hard to learn a second language?

Many researchers believe that the struggle has to do with less plasticity in the brain, that essentially, there is a critical period for learning language when the brain is a “blank slate”. As one gets older, certain neurons diminish and the wiring consolidates, making it harder for the emergence of the vast connections that are required to support a new language. However, this wholly cognitive explanation is really only half of the story. If an adult had to dedicate the same amount of time and emotion as an infant does to acquire language, we’d probably see the second language emerge in similar time frames. Instead, the chief obstacle is an emotional one.

Recall the importance of reciprocity in the development of language. There is enormous pressure on both speakers to return an utterance, to play the game. Foreign speakers seldom alter the pace and pronunciation of their speech, meaning that the only time to formulate a reply is once they have stopped speaking. The silence can be deafening. The urge to hurriedly fill the gap competes in your mind with your attempts to produce the appropriate words. If embarrassment sets in, its all downhill, and this is really what sets infants apart from mature adults.

Babies only begin to recognise themselves at 18 months of age. Before this time, they have very little awareness of being a “self” in relation to an “other”. Since shame and embarrassment are human emotions that can only emerge under conditions of self-recognition, prior to this time, the child is free to stumble and stutter their way through language learning. They don’t care what the world thinks as they point and mouth a sloppy version of the word they are trying to express. They have endless patience for their own imperfections.

Self-consciousness is therefore one of the biggest barriers to learning a new language. That, and patience, because no matter how relaxed you are at fumbling through your words, getting to know the inner world of another human being probably requires a fairly substantial command of their language and knowing that you’re barely managing to skim the surface can begin to feel demoralising.

How have I managed? Well, I’m still figuring it out.

Me cooking our first batch of plantains in our Airbnb apartment in Valparaiso.

Have any of your own experiences or tips to share? Please leave a comment.

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2 thoughts on “The Language Barrier to Paradise: Backing away in Valparaiso and the neuropsychology of language development.

  1. Interesting stuff! I love your writing – it’s beautiful AND it makes you think. So true what you said about self-consciousness and patience.

    To share abit about myself, I grew up speaking two languages – English and Mandarin. In my adulthood, I went on to learn Arabic, French and Spanish (though both Arabic and French went out the window after I stopped going for classes). I live in Spain now, so I speak Spanish pretty fluently still. I think when you are raised in a bilingual environment, your brain definitely thinks in a different way and it’s more susceptible to new languages. It’s much easier for people like me to learn another language (But hey I’m no neuroscientist).

    I’m raising my daughter in English and Spanish now. At 2, she already knows who to speak English with and who to speak Spanish with. Now if only I can put in more effort and actually teach her my mother tongue Mandarin!

    1. Hi Nellie, thank you for this wonderful feedback. Wow, it seems like you certainly have a knack for languages. Even though emotions and personality do play a big role, I have read that some individuals have a cognitive edge. Like some do for math etc. Seems you’ve got it!

      Your daughter is lucky to grow up bilingual. While she is young you should definitely teach her Mandarin, even if it’s just the basics. I think familiarity goes a long way toward breaking good down the fears associated with a new language.

      As for me… I don’t know what’s going on exactly but as my Spanish has improved I’ve been losing my second language (Afrikaans– a bit like Dutch). But it’s ok- I think the act of learning itself is beneficial for the brain, like gym for the brain…. and on some days as I stumble through my Spanish, it certainly feels like a workout! ?

      Thanks for reading!

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