Training Wheels and Language Learning

It’s all just language. Eventually you learn it or you abandon it. Blogging, writing, photographing, running, swimming – whatever you’d like to name – is just a language that you learn with time. Often through mistakes and lots of wasted time. With patience, you can become fluent in anything.

This isn’t a new truth. But sometimes I think there’s an important difference between knowledge and understanding; you can know a fact without truly understanding or experiencing it. I feel I’ve understood that I can pursue whatever I’d like and that, whatever it is, I’ll get it with time.

Lately, I’ve spent an ungodly amount of time with Microsoft SharePoint and Excel. I’m in the process of teaching it to a coworker and I can see the gears turning in her head. Sometimes she gets frustrated at formulas or remembering where a particular tool is but, with patience, she’s learned a lot.

I suppose the same is true with my experience with Adobe Photoshop. When I started, my photographs were always colorized neon and I used too many filters. As time progressed, I learned subtleties. Photoshop became a language I learned to speak and I dove in and out of the rules. Choosing what brush to use and when to use it. Sure, others could reach a similar end product to mine, but the way we reached it was entirely our own.

The things that you find challenging now will, mostly likely, become easier with time. If you choose to stick with them, they could become second nature. It’s often not a matter of resource or wealth, but a meaningful persistence or patience.

My focus now is on orienting myself in directions I want to explore. I’m pursuing meditation. I’d like to become more of a blogging conversationalist and focus on writing. I recently took up swimming again (it’s been 6 years). Lots of reading, too.

This post wasn’t meant to be much more than a gentle shrug or encouragement towards whatever you’d like to pursue. Find something you’re interested in and start walking in that direction, don’t worry about skill or beauty, it’ll come with time. Training wheels, in fact, help kids learn to ride bikes. Don’t worry if you have to use them to start, or if you’ve been using them a long time, eventually you’ll get where you’re going.

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Coherency at Night

I won’t lie, tonight I’m tapping my face to stay up and try to write. Switching shifts can be difficult and it feels weird to be up this late! What’s interesting is how the mind works when the body is tired. Why is it difficult to write or think straight over time? What is it that the body really requires from sleep?

Typically when I write in such a state I forget prefix and suffix on words. I’ll go to re-read them in the morning and I’ll realize that I forgot to but “ing” to make running or “‘t” to make can’t. I wonder if this can be explained in terms of psycholinguistics. Do we know words as a base “run”, then add “ing” to it, or is “running” it’s own word? If we only remember base words when we’re tired, why is that? Or if running is a different entity, why do we drop the “ing”. Either way I’m tired. I’ll write more tomorrow!

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24/31 Blogtober

Choice of Wording

Words are so unusual. They’re just sounds that we create with our mouths. Yet, each word bears a different value. “I love you” has stigma but “nothing much, wbu” can be thrown around in text messages. Why is it that the sounds that form “love” are so different from others?

Words like “fuck”, “shit”, “goddamnit” are not allowed to be played on the radio but you can talk about the same concept, as long as you use different words. “Gosh darn it” is another way of saying “goddamnit” but yet one is more socially acceptable. They refer to the same thing but use different sounds to describe it.

So why is it so hard to say “I love you” and so easy to say “fuck you”? Why do we treat words as if they are tangible?

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Cont. “Language as a Barrier”

Yesterday’s post was about language and miscommunication. I explained how language is imperfect and a substitute for more tangible experiences. For example, when I say ‘street‘, a picture appears in your head. You imagine what you remember as a ‘street‘, which limits our communication. Your version of a street is different than my image of a street.

Then we moved onto less tangible words and moved onto emotions, like ‘good‘ and ‘happy‘. Again, these words are placeholders for a memory of an experience. Therefore, inevitably, your ‘good‘, is different than mine. We tried to define what ‘good‘ means but we couldn’t arrive at a conclusion without using other empty words.

We then moved onto internal dialog and discussed thought patterns. To have a conversation, we must have at least two people. We are always talking to ourselves and labeling the world. The conversation we’re having is between two ‘people’; the experiencer and the examiner. At your core, you are the experiencer, you experience life. But another part of you is the examiner, where you label the world as ‘blue‘ or ‘beautiful‘.

Today I wanted to further this discussion and say that it’s important to turn down the voice of the examiner. We use words as placeholders for memories of experiences. We remember what ‘hot‘ feels like or rough‘ food tastes like. Rather than experiencing, we live through our memories.

When we focus on wordlessness, we begin to feel more. There’s no reason to internally label a food as ‘spicy‘ because we know it. The words are useless because we’re directly at the experience. It’s like jumping into a pool of water and thinking ‘wet‘; it’s a useless thought that reduces an indescribable feeling into something that it isn’t. You can’t fully explain what it feels like to be immersed in water, nor can you explain ‘heartbreak’. It’s just a feeling you have to experience.

The reason I felt obligated to write about the same topic is because I wanted to simplify what I wrote last night. It became many words longer than I originally intended it to be. I wish that I could write this in a simpler way but language is limited. The table is… there are no words to fully describe the experience of stubbing your toe. You can try but you can’t fully communicate it. Language only passes a certain amount of information, not all of it. So instead of trying to label the world, just feel the world. When you need to explain something to another person, you can, but know that it’s limited. Perhaps you already understand this, it is simple but complex. Nonetheless, strive for wordlessness.

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Language as a Barrier

The difficulty with words is that they serve as placeholders. Each word represents something, from ‘table‘ to ‘tongue‘. When we speak, we make a series of sounds to communicate an idea. When I say ‘street‘, most likely an image appears in your mind. It isn’t a particular street that you could find, only the concept of the street. You see some asphalt or dirt leading in a direction.

The word symbolizes the idea of a street, not one specifically. You could be speaking about any of the 10,000 I’ve seen in my lifetime or you could be speaking about any of the 15,000 you’ve seen during your lifetime. The difficulty is that we may not have ever seen the same street. So when I say it, you understand the concept, not the exact street I’m thinking about.

Occasionally the words don’t like up properly and we have misunderstanding. If you grew up in England, when I say that I want ‘chips‘, the concept in your mind is fried and served at McDonald’s, while mine is crunchy and found in a bag. The word ‘chips‘ represents two separate concepts.

More likely a misunderstanding would revolve around a subtler difference. I could say “drive to the end of the street and turn right”. In our minds, an ‘end‘ to a ‘street‘ could represent multiple values; like a dead-end, a change from asphalt to dirt, or when the name of street changes. Any of the above could cause confusion.

Our minds define ‘end‘ differently and the word represents two different images. When I speak about the ‘street ending‘, I speak as if we have the same definition. So I speak with confidence that you must turn when the street ends. Unconsciously you pick up that confidence and believe me. You must turn when the street ends. Now you trust that, if you don’t want to get lost, you’ll change directions when the ‘end‘ appears. Your ‘end’ is different and now you are lost.

If we want a more common example, we’ll use words that have lost their meaning. When you ask someone “how are you doing?”, they may respond with ‘good‘. What does this word mean? We all know that ‘good‘ is less than ‘great‘ and better than ‘fine‘, but, by itself, what does ‘good‘ mean. Moving to other words, what does ‘fantastic’ mean? Is it a lot of ‘good‘? Well we still don’t know what ‘good‘ even means. How could something be ‘very good‘ or ‘exceptionally good‘?

Feelings aren’t tangible and therefore don’t stimulate the same concrete images as many nouns. When you say ‘wood‘, I have something to reference. My mind is full of images of forests, bon fires, chopping blocks with ‘wood‘. However, our feelings don’t represent images in the same way. When I say that I’m ‘happy‘ (another empty word), we can remember a feeling from a moment when we were joyous. But what is joy? Are our definitions equal to each other? Do you understand when I speak to you?

Now you may see the problem, language is flawed because it cannot communicate completely. When I say ‘ceiling‘, we are thinking of similar concepts but not exactly the same. Mine could be made of glass while yours is tiled like an office building. However, to say that language is entire flawed would be to discard an incredibly useful tool.

We may not think of the same ‘street‘ or ‘ceiling‘ but we generally understand one another. I can say that I replaced my ‘roof’ today, and you’ll know what I’m talking about. If I shout “call the police”, you’ll (hopefully) react by pulling out your phone and getting help. Language is incredibly useful!

Returning back to my original statement, words are placeholders. They represent concepts we have in our minds. When we use them, we speak as though they are made of concrete and tangible. “Turn left after the purple building”. I speak as if you understand me, and for the most part, you do. But you don’t fully comprehend what I’m saying. When I tell you that I’m ‘fine‘, there isn’t a reference or something you can touch. It’s subject to your interpretation. ‘Fine‘ to a girl may be synonymous with ‘depressed‘ or ‘unhappy‘, while, to a guy, it may mean ‘alright‘ or ‘okay‘.

Now that we see words as concepts and placeholders, we see language as a tool. We can pick the tool up and use it to communicate. But when do we set it down? At this moment, pause and pay attention to your mind. What words are going through it? Perhaps it appears silent now. Eventually you will start talking to yourself. You’ll notice that the chair you’re sitting in is uncomfortable and that tomorrow you have work.

Your mind communicates with itself through language. Therefore there must be two of you; one to experience life and the other to examine it. There’s a person who feels the rain when you walk outside and another who complains that it’s cold or very wet. They are not the same person. Here’s a famous exercise to demonstrate it;

Wherever you are, sit tall. When you finish reading this paragraph, you’re going to close your eyes and try to stop thinking. You don’t want a single thought to go through your mind… Go ahead and close your eyes and try…

After you’ve done that, you’ll see that thoughts just arise. You can’t control them, they just appear. Still don’t believe me? Where do your thoughts come from? Where is the beginning of a thought? How did you start thinking about lunch?

You understand that there are two ‘selfs‘; one that experiences life, when you touch a table or stub your toe, and there’s another that curses loudly or criticizes you for tripping.

As the day progresses by you may think about the weather or what you’re going to eat for lunch. Since you don’t actually know what you’re going to eat for lunch, you fill your mind with words. These words are placeholders because you don’t actually know what you’re going to eat for lunch. You don’t know how it will taste or the exact temperature of the sandwich. You just don’t know.

So you describe it with words; “my lunch is going to be a PB&J sandwich with yogurt and tea”. These words are placeholders for what you remember a PB&J to taste like. When I say ‘yogurt‘, you may remember the last time you had some. Unfortunately today you left yours in the sun and it’s going to taste a little different than you remember.

We were discussing misunderstandings earlier when two people speak. When you have a mind, you have similar miscommunications. Your mind says, “we’re having a sandwich”. You remember the last time you had a sandwich, and create an expectation. You remember a chewy bread with peanut butter, so this one should be the same, right?

This internal dialogue creates many problems. By having two ‘you‘s, you have miscommunication. Instead of turning on the wrong street, like we mentioned earlier, you create an expectation and either fulfill it or fail it. You tell yourself, “I’m going to have a good day at work today”, then you either do or you don’t. The language isn’t concrete. When you say those words to yourself, you don’t actually know if you’re going to have a good day.

The trouble is, we continually have conversations with ourselves. We’re constantly talking and labeling the world around us. We look at the grass and say ‘green‘. We look at a puddle of water and think ‘wet‘. Both of these statements are probably true and there’s no reason to doubt them. However, both words are unnecessary. We don’t need to tell ourselves that the grass is green or a puddle is wet.

What is happening is the two of you in your head, the experiencer and the examiner, are separating. The examiner says ‘green‘, ‘stiff‘, ‘dry‘, ‘needs water‘. Because the examiner labeled the grass, you no longer need to experience it. Instead of actually looking at the grass, you’ve reduced it to words, or placeholders.

When you reduce the world to words, you cease to experience. You’ve labeled everything and now you’re remember what each descriptor means. ‘Dry‘ reminds you of running through a field as a child and getting stabbed by the blades of grass. ‘Green‘ reminds you of the algae in the pond by your house. Instead of experiencing what is in front of you, you relive your previous experiences.

This makes sense, because we experience many things ever moment. If we felt the grass when we walked barefoot, noticed the heat on our skin, gravity holding us to the ground, the 90 degree day, the ocean smell, tired eyes, and the other thousand feelings we have, we’d be overwhelmed. There’s so much sensory input that when we’re young, we teach ourselves to replace these feelings with words.

We can focus on our thoughts, how we feel about the moment, what we’re going to do in the future, et cetera. If you notice, when you go to a new place, you look around. You can always tell if a person is new by how much they move their head. As time goes on, people start to walk with their heads facing forward. They have already experienced the drive to work, so there’s no need to look around anymore.

Unhappiness stems from here, when we stop experiencing the world and we decide to label it. We relive the past rather than experiencing new feelings. We stop living.

What is the solution? Pay attention to everything as it happens… but don’t label it. Don’t walk into a building and think ‘gray‘, ‘tall‘, ‘bright‘, ‘open‘. Just feel. It sounds simple enough but it takes time to learn how. You have to let go and stop judging the world. Let everything be as it actually is. The grass just is… The water is… Sitting feels like…

It’s very difficult not to finish those sentences but you need to learn how to. When you stop communicating with yourself, you stop miscommunications. There isn’t any need to have conversation with yourself. If your mind is a tool, you don’t always need to be using it. When you’re done with a tool, you set it down.

Unfortunately there isn’t a good way to explain how to feel, you just have to do it. Take in the world and really experience it. Stop filling it with words and placeholders, the world is so much more than just a memory. It’s an experience! So take this as a lesson to start feeling the world and finding a silence in yourself. No more conversations or thinking about tomorrow, just feeling what’s in front of you.

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Language

You cannot prevent the suffering of others, you can only teach how others can alleviate suffering. People don’t understand that even though there’s thousands of words, there’s even more feelings and sensations than we can describe with. It’s impossible to explain everything though language. There are things that can only be understood through experience.

You cannot explain heartbreak to someone who has never felt it before. In the same way, it’s not possible to prevent others from suffering. You can’t fully explain how to stop heartbreak, or even that it will end. You can tell them “everything will pass” or “you will move on with your life”, but the words aren’t enough.

The truth could be told to you but if you don’t understand it, then it’s useless. Remember that words fall short of actions and experience. You tell more about a person by the way that they live, than by explaining it. Life transcends linguistics.

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Why you should stop saying “I’m Fine”

The more that I blog, the more I realize that words often negate the deeper meanings in life. Instead of feeling an emotion, we like to label how we feel as “happy” or “sad”. While language is great, the real range of emotion is much more than what a simple word can describe.

How many variants of “I’m fine” can you think of? There is the shallow one, spoken quietly and reserved. While the next could be stern and show the speaker doesn’t want to talk about their emotion. Often at work I pass coworkers in the hall who ask me how I’m doing. Neither of us stop to continue the conversation but instead reply with “I’m good” or “I’m fine”.

What does “good” mean? When you say that you’re doing fine, what is “fine”?

When we say this out loud, it’s to simplify conversation. Saying that you’re doing “great” is easier than explaining why you feel great. However, many of our conversations aren’t spoken aloud anymore. When you write that you’re doing good, you negate a greater meaning.

Let’s take a look at a simple conversation:

“Hey, how are you doing?”

“I’m good, you?”

“I’m doing fine.”

Now that we don’t have body language, we don’t really know how you are. Are you “fine”, meaning that you don’t want to talk about it? Or are you “fine” as in your day is neither good or bad? This is why it is important to use a wider variety of words.

Personally, when somebody asks how I’m doing, if I’m in a good mood, I say that I’m doing wonderful. This shows that I’m happy. If I said that “I’m good”, I could be alright, fine, mediocre, or a wider variety of other emotions. By using a word that is slightly less common, I’m able to better communicate with others.

Online, by using a broader vocabulary, you are better understood by other people. You can fill your writings with “everyone”, “anywhere”, “a place”, or generic substitutes like these, but your writing will be uninteresting.

Don’t write “we went to a new place today”, say “Today, for the first time, we went to _____ (specific place)”. Instead of writing “my sister’s friends came over”, word it like this, “my sister’s friends _____ and _____ came over”. While too much specificity is boring, when you write with greater detail, you make it much more personal.

Now that I’ve explained this to you, notice it in your own life. When you’re waiting in line to check out and the cashier is asking the person in front of you about their day, watch their interaction. Maybe they’ll say “I’m doing well” or “I’m alright”. When it’s your turn, switch it up and describe how you feel; “It’s hot outside, but I can’t complain” or “My sister came to visit, so I’m doing great!”.

What you’ll notice is that when we use more uncommon replies, people better understand how we are. They’re more likely to respond and interact with you and to talk about themselves. It stimulates conversation and makes like flavorful! Just try it and you’ll see a change in your life!

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