By Jorge Majfud
Translated by John Catalinotto. John Jay College, New York.
Not a few times I’ve heard that the disadvantage of learning a new language is that if it isn’t used, it is lost. This is technically inaccurate, since losing the ability to use knowledge does not necessarily mean that one has forgotten everything or all that is needed. In fact, the same thing happens with our own mother tongue. In our memory there are tens of thousands of words (you can check by opening a dictionary), but we use just a tiny fraction. This is just one example, since the problem is rooted not in quantity but in quality. According to some studies conducted with students in my home country, new generations of students use only 500 words, which is contradictory considering the new written media in the digital age. Contradictory, but not inexplicable: you cannot emerge unscathed from having mastered the ability to manage emoticons and other forms of intellectual poverty and laziness, so characteristic of the “click” culture.
Sure, you have to respect the changes of the new generations; a generation that doesn’t change is a lost generation. But neither can you cozy up to the younger generation, in a complicit and cowardly manner, while neglecting to point out all they have inadvertently lost because they probably never encountered it. At least until it is shown that the one old habit of reading 300 pages of antiquities (on paper, why not?) by some genius of history is a futile and anachronistic exercise. Then all worldly power will remain concentrated in the hands of those few who come from top universities, redoubts and bastions of the “old” literacy, while the rest will be limited to another traditional role: their function as consumers of novelties.
The old catchphrase of “a picture is worth a thousand words” is far more popular but no less true than its opposite: “a word is worth a thousand pictures,” and not only for abstract thought and the most profound emotions. We also see it every day in the media: images, with the false aura of objectivity, are almost always slaves of the text accompanying them, of the speech that says who is the base and who is noble in that war, in that street brawl, among those children dying of hunger. In these cases, what is bizarre is to hear: “The images speak for themselves.”
Learning is often a pleasure, but any serious learning involves a great effort. If it were not, the world would be almost perfect and no title, no recognition and probably no skill would have any social value, like a medal in an Olympic tournament that is valued for its selective discrimination. Of course not all knowledge and all skills mean a breakthrough for humanity. For example, stupidity is not innate. No one will find a stupid child two years old. That is, stupidity is also a skill that is acquired after a careful training.
Languages, then, are not the only example of something that requires care to grow and maintain itself. In the same way you learn any subject, including those that require physical training, you also can lose many skills and much knowledge when you don’t use them. The muscles of a bodybuilder deflate much more quickly than the exotic words we learn in a sightseeing trip.
I studied mathematics for many years in formal education in my country and for a few semesters I even taught math (at a time when, not without contradiction, my main job was to solve practical problems in construction projects) before leaving all of this for literature. Sure, to leave is also an imprecise verb. Everything is still there. However, my ability to solve differential or integral equations, which at one point in my life was a fascinating exercise, has significantly diminished. One day I started to refresh some of that know-how and I realized, not without difficulty, that the high-walled city had not disappeared, it was somewhere in my memory, but a little bit buried, or maybe more so. Or maybe that this ability that formerly served to solve the equations or structural calculations that computers now do, is dedicated now to influencing my life in some other unsuspected form.
Either way, we know that the same thing happens to an athlete. The brain is, after all, a muscle, a greasy muscle that consumes almost one third of the total body oxygen. We do not know if it’s there that the spirit, the soul and all emotional activity lie, along with the intellect, but it is surely the central station of all these life experiences.
The game of profit and loss also occurs with the most complex feelings and emotions and with the most basic and elemental ones like love and hate, sadness and happiness.
Once a teacher friend in the United States saw that I was worried and when I told him my vague reasons (the world, my own uncertainties about the future) he warned me about the following: you always have problems and, of course, it’s best to take them seriously and solve them. For a problem there is nothing better than a solution. But then, if you live in a constant state of worry or unhappiness, even when you’ve solved those problems that were troubling you, you will fail to notice what has been done or, worse, you will be unable to be reasonably happy, because you will have lost the training or wisdom needed to reach that state. You learn to be unhappy and then, as with a mother-tongue, it is more difficult to lose that perspective. Still, no learning is irreversible.
If you do not practice certain feelings, you lose them. It is possible to recover them, however. Sure, it is easier to understand this intellectually than to do it. But understanding is almost always the first step.
Keeping memory (and now also intelligence) in hand, is not something that will go unnoticed by the intellectual muscle, just as it would not pass unnoticed if a tennis champion should replace the traditional court and racket with a PlayStation. While universities manage robots that look more and more like human beings, not only for their intelligence but now also for their ability to express and react to emotions, our habits as consumers are making us more and more similar to the robots.
That is, not only are the unused language skills being lost, the basic skills that make us human beings face the same fate. In the first case it is obvious because there’s always a language from which to observe the loss, in the other it’s not so obvious, because once you lose the human condition you can no longer notice it, just as a robot cannot really see that it really is not a human being, no matter what it says, thinks or feels.