Recently, I decided that I want to learn to speak and understand a little Italian. I never thought of myself as someone who is very good with languages, even though I studied a few over the course of all my schooling. But it is such a pleasure to go into an Italian restaurant and say to the hostess, “Buon giorno!” And even more fun to say to the waiter, “Scusi!” and “Grazie” and “Prego”—and to walk out the door, full of satisfaction after a nice meal, and offer a wave and a “Ciao!” Italian is just so darn romantic. I wanted to learn more!
So, in my typical way, I got on the Internet and started to research audio language courses. If I wanted to learn un po Italiano(just a little Italian), my research pointed me to the Pimsleur audio series. Lucky for me, a co-worker happened to have the introductory course of 18 lessons for me to borrow. And off I went!
I had never experienced an audio course like this and, I have to say, I absolutely loved it. The way they go about teaching the basics of the language makes it so easy. But above all, it makes you feel so good! The velvety voice of the narrator walks you through each phrase, each word, each syllable, step by step, chunk by chunk, until—before you know it—you are actually having a conversation with some senorina while drinking coffee in Venice!
The course starts with the learner being asked to listen to a conversation between a man and a woman who are speaking Italian. I listened to the conversation. I initially felt completely lost and overwhelmed. I had no idea what they were saying, although I could tell that they were speaking Italian and having a meaningful conversation. Then the narrator told me that by the end of the first lesson (30 minutes), I would understand and be able to participate in that very same conversation! I thought this was dubious at best. But, okay, I’ll give it a try.
Then the narrator says that he is going to teach me how to say “understand” in Italian. It is fascinating to me that this is one of the first words that I am going to learn, but I guess it makes sense. Everything is based on understanding, capisce? So he has some handsome Italian guy (I picture him as handsome) say the word, capisce. Now, the narrator says, you try saying it aloud. Listen to it again. Say it again. Now listen to the last syllable, sce. Say it. Hear it again. Say it again. Now we pair two syllables, pi-sce. Hear it, say it. Hear it, say it again. Now all three, ca-pi-sce. Hear it, say it. Hear it, say it, again.
Oh, my goodness, I felt like a million bucks! I felt such a sense of mastery! Out of confusion came confidence. Not only did I feel capable, but I felt smart. My guides were so warm, friendly, and encouraging that, surprisingly, I not only felt smart but I felt gorgeous! I must admit, it was a very unexpected emotional experience.
Two or three patient, wonderful Italian people walked me through a few phrases, believing I could do it. They broke it down into such simple steps that I forgot how complex it was, as well as the fact that I knew nothing at all at the start. My anxiety turned to excitement, my excitement turned to satisfaction, and after thirty minutes, well, frankly…I wanted more!
As I reflected on this experience, I realized that the Pimsleur method precisely mirrors the way that the mind develops. Psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion laid out a very intriguing model of the mind in his famous paper, A Theory of Thinking. He believed that we come into this world without an apparatus for thinking. As in my experience learning Italian, first we are bombarded with thoughts (words) that we do not understand. Under the pressure of confusion and anxiety, we are compelled to develop an apparatus (mind) for thinking these thoughts. The thoughts come first, then the mind for thinking them.
Bion put forward the idea that the way we develop an apparatus for thinking is by being in relationship with someone who already has such a well-developed thinking apparatus—picture this as a baby in a relationship with a mom or dad, or a patient in relationship with a psychoanalyst, or a student with a Pimsleur teacher. The mom or dad helps the baby learn how to think by sort of “lending” their capacity to think to the baby. In other words, the mom or dad thinks on behalf of the baby, breaking confusing thoughts down into smaller chunks, and then encouraging the baby to think for him or herself. Like my wonderful Italian teachers, moms and dads take their mastery of life and speak to us, with gentle encouragement, breaking things down for us into a more manageable form, so that we can try for ourselves.
This kind of process works great for things like learning how to transport ourselves—from sitting up to crawling to walking to running to riding a bicycle to driving a car. Bit by bit, step by step, with assistance from a master, we learn how to put thoughts and skills together to become more masterful ourselves.
And this is essentially how we come to be able to think our own thoughts and feel our own feelings—basically to understand what the heck is going on with us. We begin in confusion. We get in relationship with a translator who meets us where we are and walks us through our own experience. We overhear the conversation between mother and baby: “Oh, you seem upset. Maybe you are hungry. No, not hungry? Maybe you have a wet diaper. No, you’re dry. Maybe you are tired. Oh, yes, I see you are tired. Let me hold you, you are tired. Just close your eyes. Take a little nap.” And off the baby goes into peaceful slumber, feeling less confused, more understood and having more understanding of himself. Unexpectedly feeling loved, feeling like a million bucks!
One of life’s great delights is learning something new. I believe we all have a lot of untapped potential for learning new things. One of the reasons that such potential remains untapped is that we must thrust ourselves into confusion in order to learn. We must become like babies again. And that is scary and makes us feel so incompetent. So we rarely do it. But when we have the courage to expose ourselves to the unknown, we give ourselves opportunities to grow our minds. We get the chance to find clarity out of confusion, mastery out of incompetence—even beauty out of ugliness.
In developing our minds, we also give ourselves the gift of depending on another for help. While this can evoke feelings of humiliation (who likes to feel that needy?), it can lead to wonderful feelings of being supported, encouraged, and even loved. That last bit really surprised me. It surprised me that the experience of being helped to learn could lead me to feel loved. Imagine that.
Rarely in adult life do we get to have such a pure, live experience of being a baby in the hands of a loving parent. Ben fatto!, Pimsleur. Well done!
This is exactly why I’m doing the AIDS ride!… to expand myself, to learn, to do something I never thought I was capable of (although a little more physical than academic, still learning nonetheless) but also to get out of routine & I think that is part of the vulnerability you speak of, taking a risk. This really hit home & inspired me to possibly also learn a language I’ve been wanting to learn for a while. Thank you for the inspiration! and the reassurance. Perhaps doing this ride is not as crazy as many have told me it was…
Thank you for this insight! I am lucky enough to observe my son and his wife interact with a 1 year old and 3 year old in precisely this manner and with amazing results. I had not thought of applying this to myself…but will try to keep it in mind as I struggle with new technology and strange situations.