Potentially Useful Insight Gained While Learning a New Language at 68
I’m involved in an emerging project involving 360 degree video and a prominent arts organization in Cambodia, which I described in an earlier piece. My hope is to help some people there get started with a new technology that could extend their reach, and then get out of the way.
I have enjoyed the company of the Cambodians I have gotten to know a little bit, so I decided to try to learn some Khmer with the idea that any progress I made will probably make my next stay there richer. I will be returning in October, staying in an apartment. I’d like to be able to buy food in the market speaking Khmer. I know I’m not going to have deep conversations, but just to communicate about the everyday basics feels like fun to me.
I started on July 5th, using Memrise, a free online self-paced language learning site. For about one month I spent a few hours every morning memorizing vowels and consonants — learning to recognize the sounds, what they look like, and how to print them using my keyboard with the Khmer character set installed. They look like this:
I am not especially good at languages, but I’ve never had this kind of motivation before. When the newness of Memrise began to wear off at some point in August, I felt like it was time to find a teacher. There were several options for live private lessons and my instincts led me to the website that felt the most professional, with good reviews. I scheduled a trial session and was instantly hooked. It was completely engaging to speak, or try to speak, with someone live, back-and-forth, using my rudimentary vocabulary.
I have now had three full one-hour lessons, a live connection between Phnom Penh and Orcas Island, WA, and I can’t wait for the next one. I now know for certain that speaking Khmer even at my level will deepen my experience there. In addition, it has brought out very clearly the factors that contribute to my learning and my enjoyment of it. I’ve already mentioned the personal motivation; that’s pretty obvious. What has stood out more than I had imagined is the way my teacher is teaching me. She has just the right touch to make me feel OK when I don’t get something right and she has to correct me, which happens dozens of times per hour, and to make me feel good, while not overdoing it, when I do get it right. It seems to make her sincerely happy when I say a difficult phrase correctly. Seeing that motivates me as much as anything. It feels like she has personally invested in me, in my progress, and I want that to be a good investment.
I took that idea further today. My age, 68, is in the title of this piece partly because people don’t usually learn new languages at this point in life. The late 60s is a major life transition time. Physical changes tend to accelerate. Many people’s relationship to work changes in a big way. Aspects of married life often need to be renegotiated. There’s a lot to learn as it is.
A few days ago one of my important body systems stopped working right. It was a semi-emergency and now I have stuff in me I’m not used to having.
I’m learning how to be with this new maladjustment right when I’m learning Khmer. I had a live lesson the day after the emergency and it was great because I got into such a flow state that I forgot about everything else for an hour. When the lesson was over and some of my attention returned to being screwed-up, I wished I could have a teacher to help me learn screwed-up like I’m learning Khmer. Then my wife came into the room and said it was cool that I did the online lesson under the circumstances, and she said that I was handling things well. It was just like my Khmer teacher saying, ‘good going, Tom, you said that correctly.’ It was sincere. It wasn’t cheer leading. Any time someone in my family, or a friend, or just anybody, says, ‘good going,” and means it — that’s teaching, because it supports learning.
Sixty-eight year olds aren’t the only ones who need to be learning fast in a world that is changing faster and presenting more challenges than we have ever seen. We have consumed ourselves into a crisis that we need to invest our way out of — invest in the planet and invest in each other. Obviously these investments need to be made at scale, but the same principles hold for you and me. Investing in each other at the personal level means supporting each other’s learning as we all try to figure out how to be crew members on spaceship earth, members of a team that is as deeply connected as it is divided. We need to do it the way good teachers always do it — by caring and noticing and showing appreciation when someone gets something right.