A recent article by Dan Hurley in the New York Times suggests as much. Hurley starts by describing a “memory game” where kids have to remember “which window a cat was in.” First, it's in a window just before, then in a window a Level before, and finally in a window two Levels before. It's as simple as that: “The cats keep coming and the kids keep remembering.”
Working Memory and “Fluid Intelligence”
Apparently, the “cat game” is one of the games that some researchers say can improve “working memory,” which is defined as: “the capacity to solve novel problems, to learn, to reason, to see connections and to get to the bottom of things.” All of us use “working memory,” Dan Hurley explains, for remembering telephone numbers, doing math in our head, understanding metaphors or analogies, for making sense out of language, etc. The sum of the skills of working memory is what we call “fluid intelligence” (as opposed to “crystalline intelligence,” which is produced by long-term memory skills).
Long-term memory and “Crystalline Intelligence”
It seems clear to us that language learning requires long-term memory skills. You need to acquire a good store of vocabulary, grammar structures, and (foreign language) sounds in your brain to be able to communicate, and thereby enhancing your “crystalline intelligence.” But “working memory” is just as essential. We, at GamesforLanguage.com look forward to research that analyzes the relationship between second language acquisition and improvements of “fluid/crystalline intelligence” in adults.
Language Fluency and “Working Memory”
Just learning words, with the many flash card games now available for phones and tablets, is a good way to accumulate a store of vocabulary, and rules for pronunciation and spelling. But flashcards alone won't make you fluent. Fluency requires the ability to speak and communicate. And this, in turn, involves a “working memory” that is well-engaged. A new language confronts a person with many “novel problems.” The learner will have to decode and use new grammar patterns, new sound combinations, to figure out the meaning of new words, and so on.
Language Learning Requires Practice
We can well imagine that real and continuous efforts to acquire and try out a new language will make you smarter by boosting your working memory. As Hurley states: “practice improves performance on almost every task humans engage in, whether it’s learning to read or playing horseshoes.” However, the required practice is often the greatest hindrance to becoming proficient in a new language. And as Hurley cautions: “Just like physical exercise, cognitive exercises may prove to be up against something even more resistant to training than fluid intelligence: human nature.”
Language Games to make Practice Fun
Games can make language practice fun, and by taking the boredom out of the required language practice, you’ll improve your “working memory” playfully. Will you end up being smarter by learning a second (or third) language? Hurley's article seems to suggest as much! But we're also looking forward to more research on that particular topic. In any case, if you start learning a new language now, you'll be ahead!
A couple of days ago the national Spanish newspaper El País ran the following article:
The article then continues: “Can one become fluent in a language without traveling? Yes, according to the Minister of Education, José Ignacio Wert. No not entirely, according to the majority of experts.”
Now that we have stayed in Barcelona for a couple of weeks – we rented an apartment for a month in the Gracia neighborhood of town - it makes total sense that being in Spain adds a huge level of reality and relevance to the Spanish words, phrases, and sentences that we learned with our Spanish 1 course to prepare for the trip.
Traveling is great - Practicing is essential
Yes, Barcelona is totally bilingual – we also hear and see a lot of Catalan (which we actually can read pretty well, see an earlier blog). Still, Spanish is all around us. We've been immersed in Spanish right from the moment of arrival, when our taxi driver greeted us with a rush of Spanish, and then patiently engaged us in Spanish small talk about the weather, the traffic, FC Barcelona, etc.
It's great that we can use Spanish for everyday life. No problem doing our food shopping at the market or in one of the many little shops around; or, ordering meals in cafés or restaurants and paying for them. We can ask directions, ask for information, and for explanations. We can even make small talk with people standing next to us in shops, or sitting at a table next to us in a café. (We often use the phrase: ”Gracias, pero quiero practicar mi español” - when somebody tries to be helpful in English...)
But for us this is just a start. What then are the next steps to getting out of the “eternal intermediate level,” as Alejandra Agudo, the writer of the article, aptly calls it?
The most important one is to continue to build on your language skills: Continue to acquire practical and relevant language and absorb its grammar in a meaningful way.
Real-Life language helps you to communicate
Beyond that, Alejandra Agudo points to two other recommendations that we subscribe to enthusiastically:
- Learn the language that is really spoken - “el lenguaje de la calle” (the language of the street). Don't just learn textbook language which also may be a little outdated. A couple of examples for here in Spain: We hear the word “vale” spoken dozens of times a day. Literally, "vale" means "it's worth." But in Spain, it's the equivalent of OK, and everyone says it in any situation. Or, a shopkeeper or waiter will say “Dígame ...” to ask what we want. And, in general, much to our surprise, the casual form of address is used a lot here, even with us!
- In the best way that you can do it, make the language you are learning part of your life. Start keeping a journal in your new language, even if it's just a couple of sentences a day. Whatever self-talk you do, do it in Spanish, German, French, etc. Look up and learn the words of everything in your surroundings and of your daily activities: chair, table, door, I'm setting the table, I'm getting the newspaper, etc. and say them to yourself, aloud, if possible. In that way, learning a language successfully is almost a life-style choice.
Language learning is a process of building. You create a good base of knowledge and understanding, and then, thoughtfully, gradually, with many repetitions, you start adding to it. Traveling or not, your language skills will improve dramatically.
Dining in Barcelona
One of our pleasant surprises in Barcelona was the plethora of very reasonably priced restaurants, especially in our Gracia neighborhood.A couple of days ago we stumbled upon what we thought was a real find: “O'Gràcia” - located on the “Plaça de la Revolució de Setembre de 1868” [sic]. We saw the evening menu advertised for 15 Euros, IVA (tax) included, and decided to give it a try.
O'Gracia is a small restaurant, with two tables to seat 4 or 5, and four tables for 2. We were early, with with only one other couple there. We were seated without a reservation. (But read later online that we may have been lucky and also saw it listed in the Loneley Planet's Barcelona Guide - so others found it before us!)
Our Menu Choices
The menu,(shown above) in Catalan and Castilian Spanish, showed a choice of seven(7) “Primeros” and six(6) “Segundos”. We chose “Esparragos verdes con queso de cabra” (Green aspargus w/ goat cheese) and “Crêpe de Jamón O champiñones y queso” (Crepe w/ ham, champignons and cheese) as Primeros, and “Pollo a curry” (Chicken curry) and “Lubina al horno” (Baked sea bass). Included in the menu price was: a bottle of water, ½ liter of wine or local beer, as well as a choice of desserts. Both Primeros and Segundos were delicious, and when we asked for a copy of the menu as we were leaving, the maitre'd was happy to oblige.
Catalan Clues for Castilian Choices
We are using the menus to both learn about the local cuisine as well as to decipher/compare the Catalan and Castilian terms. For example: If we had not known “queso” (cheese), the Catalan “formatge” with its similarity to the French “fromage”, would have been a clue; on the other hand, the Catalan “pernil dolc” (ham) told us less than the Castilian “jamon”, which is close to the French “jambon”.
But there are plenty of words, where none of the languages we know is any help. We understood from the waiter that “Lubina” was a fish (“Llobarro” in Catalan), however, could not identify it, when it arrived on a plate, head and all. We later looked it up online and saw that “lubina” means “sea bass”.
We should have solved the mystery of “al horno” right away, as the Catalan “al forn” - close to Italian “il forno” or French “le four” (the oven) – would easily translate as “(baked) in the oven”.
We continue to have fun unraveling the mysteries of Spanish food and dining expressions. We also know very well that language courses such as our Spanish 1 and other beginner courses cannot cover the astounding variety of lunch and dinner offerings that we find here in Spain. It takes curiosity, persistence and, yes, a little dictionary work!
PS: A few days ago - on a Saturday evening - we went back to O'Gracia. We discovered that there was actually a second room in the back that seated another 24-26 people. The food was as delicious as the first time; the fixed price evening menu still included a Primero, a Secundo and a Postre (dessert), but the beverages were now extra and the price had increased to $16, still a deal!
Good Friday in Barcelona started with rain again. Undeterred, but armed with umbrellas, we decided to follow in the steps of our "hero" David. Those of our users who have completed Level 1, may recall that David's aunt Carmen lived on Calle Mallorca, (which is not far from our apartment in Gracia). As you see on the picture, most streets in Barcelona, however, use the Catalan name for "street", therefore "Carrer de Mallorca".
If you follow Carrer de Mallorca to the Northeast, crossing the "Avinguda Diagonal", ("Avinguda" is Catalan for "Avenida") you will soon see "La Sagrada Familia" appear above the rooflines. It's an impressive sight, the still unfinished masterpiece by Antonio Gaudí (1852-1926) and arguably Barcelona's call sign and most well-known monument!
Good Friday was quite obviously not the day for us to visit the interior of the church - the waiting lines stretched around an entire block. But we took our time, circled the entire complex and will be back after the holidays.
Walking towards the harbor, we passed by another impressive complex, the Plaça de Toros, the bull ring. (note the Catalan form for "Plaza", using the French "ç")
With the sun out, the walk along the harborfront promenade was delightful. We drank a freshly squeezed "zumo de naranja", enjoyed the sidewalk performers with the many, young and old, who had also ventured out on this first day of the long Easter weekend.
Today is only our second day in Barcelona. We experienced unusual thunderstorms and heavy rains during the night, but ventured out anyways in the morning drizzle. Our first goal: to get a metro and bus pass. The number of choices are amazing! Using our basic Spanish (learned with GamesforLanguage Spanish 1), we found out about passes for 10 trips, 50 trips in 30 days, 30 days unlimited, daily passes, etc. etc. We finally settled on a pass of 70 trips in 30 days for families (including couples). The price: Euro 51.80 - which breaks down to only $.74 per trip for each of us, if we use all of them. Quite a deal!
With this pass, we took our first subway trip to the Plaza d'Espanya and the CaixaForum. Inaugurated in February 2002, CaixaForum is the Barcelona headquarters of Fundació "laCaixa" - a social and cultural foundation belonging to "la Caixa" savings bank. The Forum is situated in an old but wonderfully renovated textile factory.
Benefiting from the free admission, we saw two fabulous exhibitions: one of Francisco Goya (with many works lent by Madrid's Prado), the other of Eugène De La Croix (with works lent by Paris' Louvre). All descriptions of the paintings were in two languages: no, not in English – but in Spanish and in Catalan. Barcelona is indeed a bilingual city.
Not having had any exposure to Catalan before, we were surprised that we could easily understand the Catalan descriptions of the paintings as well as the Spanish ones.
But why be surprised? Yesterday, fresh off the airplane, I bought the “blue” edition of “el Periódico,” the local newspaper. Sitting in an outdoor café, we skimmed over some of the headlines and read a few articles. We only realized after a while that we were reading the Catalan edition! (The Spanish edition has red as a background color.) As stated in the Lonely Planet guide, Catalan “belongs to the group of Western European languages that grew out of Latin, including Italian, French, Spanish, and Portuguese.” Many of the words in our newspaper resembled Italian and French. A knowledge of both of these languages helped us understand the newspaper articles and the descriptions in the CaixaForum.
At both lunch and dinner, our menus came in two languages: Spanish and Catalan. So all you anglophiles: Brush up on your romance languages, if you want to know what you are seeing and what you are eating in Barcelona!
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