Usually when people have a “no pain, no gain” attitude, I tend to be pretty dismissive. People assume that really learning language necessarily has to involve “pain.” And when they say “pain” they usually mean boredom, or frustration, or disappointment, or embarrassment, or a feeling of failure or hopelessness, but very rarely do they mean actual physical biological pain. For a lot of these people, they’re trying to hit it hard, get angry, knuckle down on language learning and what they’re feeling is tension. I don’t like that kind of language learning pain; life is hard enough as it is.
However, there is a kind of pain involved with language learning that I heartily endorse. It’s the throbbing headache you get when you have to start speaking the target-language more than you’re comfortable with. I usually associate this target-language headache with immersion situations, but a good language class where you only speak the target language–and you speak it a lot–can bring on the throbbing as well.
I noticed this throbbing when I first arrived in Paris 21 years ago for my semester abroad. It lasted about two weeks and usually came on around long conversations at the dinner table. I felt the same headache when I went to study in Rome, and it also involved long conversations in Italian at the dinner table. I have similar experiences in Spanish and Chinese immersion situations; when I first arrive and have to speak a lot, I will start to get a headache and it lasts for two weeks.
Here is an article that explains that people’s brains physically change during language learning. Your brain’s wiring (neurons, dendrites, axons, and synapses, etc) physically develops: new pathways are forged and get reinforced; maybe something gets rerouted or duplicated for the sake of speed and redundancy. The result is that the target language, which was once a costly, tedious task for your brain to preform, becomes fast, convenient, and automatic.
When you start learning language, it’s like you’re hacking a new path through the jungle with a machete. Maybe you’ll get lost, maybe the path will get overgrown the second time around, who knows. It’s hard. By the time you’re fluent in the target language, that path that that you were once hacking with a machete is now a grade separated, super-high capacity maglev super express bullet train with 20 departures per second.
In the real world we build infrastructure like that with concrete, steel, and elbow grease. In your brain, that kind of infrastructure is built with oxygen and good nutrition. Your brain does the physical labor automatically, but the fuel needs to travel there through the blood stream. The throbbing headache you feel when you dive into an immersion situation is blood flow; your brain has started construction and is demanding oxygen.
It’s my understanding that the brain likes to rewire itself at night, and that’s why we all need sleep. However, in a target language immersion situation, the brain can’t wait for sleepy time; it needs to create that infrastructure now, now, now…. which is why you feel like you may want to lie down.
I get this headache every time I go back to France; it doesn’t matter that I became a French speaker 20 years ago. Usually it lasts about two weeks, and then it goes away. Also, it takes me about two weeks to give up on trying to sound perfect, and just let my hair down and make whatever mistakes I want to make. Two weeks.
I speak Spanish every day in Seattle, either at work or out in public, and there’s no headache. But if I get in a rare situation where I’m having extended conversations, then I get the headache. It doesn’t matter if the conversations are deep or not. In fact, I think I get more of a headache when I’m being around extended conversations that are spontaneous and clowny… I think wit is more taxing than philosophy.
I felt the headache today, after four hours of talking my face off in Chinese class today. I’m actually learning more vocabulary now than I can manage in my notes, and I’ve been surprised by the sentences that seem to be falling out of my mouth sometimes. Maybe that’s why I took such a long, sweet nap after class; my brain is rewiring itself for Chinese.
Or maybe it was my new pillow.
In any case, there are things you can do to make sure you’re getting good blood flow to your brain: eat nutritious foods, improve your circulation through easy exercise like walking; or rigorous exercise like going to the gym. I imagine flute players and tuba players probably walk around with super oxygenated blood all the time; those horns in particular require liters and liters of air per minute.
In conclusion, if you’re speaking a lot of target language and your brain is throbbing, congratulations, that’s the feeling of learning. Infrastructure is being built in your brain so that the target language can become automatic. Don’t fear that pain, you’re not sick. If it really bothers you, you can sleep it off, but if you have a lot to learn, it will be back the next day. Around two weeks, you’ll feel like you can manage, no matter what level you are, and I think around that time the brain goes back to a night-time construction schedule.