Thursday, March 29, 2007

Teaching an Old Dog New Tricks

Everyone knows that learning a new skill is easiest when one is very young. Indeed, in early childhood the brain is primed for the rapid growth and development necessary for learning to walk and speak. As we get older, our capacity for language development diminishes and it becomes more difficult to learn such things. After my first ski lesson at the age of 24, however, I wonder if there are factors besides the lack of a sponge-like brain which prevent older people from learning the way young ones do. I believe another reason why children learn quickly is that their minds are uncluttered with the ideas and experiences that occupy the minds of adults. In other words, as much as you may want to learn something new when you are grown up, everything else you know can get in the way.

When I was in high school, I volunteered to help chaperon the mentally and physically handicapped kids on a trip to my favorite southern California amusement park, Knott’s Berry Farm. It was a great day for them because they got to hang out with “normal” peers and go on rides all day and it was a sweet deal for us because we didn’t have to go to class. One boy in my group, Brandon, refused to go on all but the tamest rides in the park. Naturally, we were surprised when Brandon joined us in line for Supreme Scream, a new ride which takes you high into the air and then lets you free fall several stories down. We asked Brandon why he wanted to go on this ride when it was clearly a lot scarier than a number of other rides he had avoided. “I’ve never been on this one before,” he said. I sat near Brandon on this ride; he looked terrified during the drop and I doubt that he has ridden Supreme Scream since that day. In a sense, Brandon’s behavior was similar to that of many young children – what they don’t know can’t hurt.

Adults are more apprehensive about jumping into new situations. As we grow older, we rely on our past experiences and knowledge to inform decisions about the unknown. Whereas Brandon had to actually experience Supreme Scream to know that it wasn’t his cup of tea, an adult would have only had to take one look at the size of the ride to realize that he/she should sit that one out. Most of the time, using this kind of logic helps us make good choices, but occasionally it becomes a hindrance.

By some mysterious miracle, my first ski lesson began smoothly. I mastered the bunny slopes quickly and didn’t fall down even once. Mickey had to spend more time with the instructor and was jealous of my success. After lunch I felt confident enough to attempt a real slope and our experienced friends were kind enough to guide us on the lift. As soon as I saw the end of the lift, the part where you must let go, balance yourself and ski out of the way, I had flashbacks of exiting the chair lifts with a snowboard in Lake Tahoe. I crashed ungracefully every single time and crawled out of the way on my hands and knees in pain and humiliated. These memories came flooding back to me when I saw the end of the lift in Klosters and, of course, I panicked and fell. I wish my instructor had allowed me to fall just once during the lesson because then I would have seen that I could fall, pick myself up again and be okay. But this was my first fall of the day and the fear of it happening again on this steep hill without the colorful, smiling cardboard animals that line the bunny slopes paralyzed me. I barely made it down that slope; my body forgot everything it had learned that morning and I cried. It was the beginning and end of my skiing career.

When Paola told me how trying Elena’s first week at ski school had been, I wondered why she would want her child of not even three years to start learning. Now I realize that Elena will never be plagued by memories of disastrous exits from the lift and tears on the slopes; she will always know how to ski. Now I realize that Paola was doing her a favor.
I left my Monday night German class throwing my hands up in the air. “Six different ways to pluralize a noun?!” I complained to Hannah. “They need to streamline this language.” I had just learned that nouns can be pluralized by adding six different endings to the word, or in some cases, by adding nothing at all but always changing the article to ‘die.’ There are patterns, but no set rules for what kind of word must have which ending in the plural form. Maybe, just maybe I could handle all this if the changes made to the words were always suffixes, but German doesn’t work this way. Sometimes, in order to pluralize a noun, one must also change the tone of the first vowel in the word and when I learned this, my friends, this was when I wanted to throw in the towel. Why is learning a new language as a young child so much easier? Of course, it is because your brain is ready for it, you learn in a more natural setting and you aren’t as embarrased about making a mistake. But it is also easier because young children are not cognizant of the fact one needs only (usually) to add an ‘s’ to pluralize a noun in their primary language. They don’t realize what they are up against, and in this case, that is a good thing.

I have begun taking a belly dancing class with my friend Sirpa on Tuesday evenings. Because I love to dance, learning something new has been less painful, but we are still required to move our bodies in ways that feel completely unnatural. I wonder if it would be easier to belly dance if people started at an early age. I can’t teach Giulia how to ski or speak German, but maybe I’ll show her how to shake her baby belly.


Nan said...

I am getting old. Actually, I am old. But I'm not going down without a fight. I try new things and have learned to live with the frustration of imperfection.
This year I have learned text messaging, set up a pay pal account, and set up and use a laptop/lcd projector for teaching. I have even reset my car clock for daylight savings time. Learning new things has taken a new meaning for me. My willingness to try means I am not giving in to complacency. I don't want to be one of those seniors who state aver offhandedly, "oh, I could never to that." I don't want to miss the fun. Example today. I couldn't remember my gmail password, couldn't remember my username either evidently since the 10 attempts led me nowhere. In the past I would have given up in frustration and called myself names. Instead, I logged on to gmail and looked for a lifeline. Great company google, they had one that said "I can't access my account." Perfect. Keep trying. Enjoy the trip and forget those who see you fall. When I was a college student in New Jersey, it was a certainty that EVERYONE would fall at least once each winter from the library steps. Included in the experience were ripped stockings, a little blood, and a full view of one's arse and panties for all to see. Get up, laugh it off. Next blog I'll tell you about the time I walked 1 mile on a city street with my skirt tucked into my pantyhose waistband. Thought all the honks and whistles were admiring me! Love it!

Bert said...

forget skiing, you should have gone snowboarding. or is that not "cool" or "chill" as you would call it? :) I was just thinking about ya and read all of your blogs. (well at least all the europe ones). good sh**. take care of yourself and mickey out there.