Language, emotions, and memories

Latvian countryside

So, this was what I promised to write more about. Learning a language teaches you so much more than just words. I learned that in our brain words, memories, and emotions are inextricably linked to each other.

My introduction to a new language

My first time visiting Latvia was two years before we moved there. We spent a month. We both knew we wanted to move there but we also knew it would be wise to give it a test run.

I spent most of that month feeling like I was in my own little world. The friends were so welcoming. They treated us like royalty. But they didn’t speak English or they were embarrassed to try or they purposely didn’t so I would be forced to learn Latvian faster. I kept pestering my husband for translations, but he soon got tired of doing that.

At times I would listen attentively to everything going on around me, making guesses and hoping to piece together something of what was being said. Other times my brain was too fried to even try and I just sat there, letting everything wash over me.

Immersion

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A quaint little train station that I passed every day on my commute to my Latvian class. Photo credit @murmurmuliite

Two years later, we moved there, to the same city we had visited. It felt like coming home. The first few months were quite a blur. I spent every morning going to language class and every afternoon in the ministry practicing what I had learned. I really studied hard. Having such an accelerated course meant I was learning grammar I certainly couldn’t use yet, so it was difficult. But I was so determined to make this place my home that I didn’t mind a bit.

One of the first things we did was attend the biggest event of the summer for Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Regional Convention. It’s a three day event, and in a small country like Latvia everyone goes to the same one. It was a great way to start out, because we got to meet a lot of new friends right away.

My conversations were primitive since I hadn’t learned much Latvian yet, though at the time I thought we understood each other quite well despite the language barrier.  The following year at convention I found that I could remember faces of the ones I had met but not names, and nothing at all of our conversations. Pictures, but no words.

I began to realize that our brains use language to help store memories.

The link to emotions

I was amazed to discover that words gradually gain more emotional impact as they become tied to specific memories. For example, my mind knows that the Latvian verb ‘to love’ is mīlēt. But the number of times my brain had connected that word with the feeling of being loved was relatively few. So my brain understood but my heart didn’t. Apparently, if it doesn’t cause an emotional response, the brain files that thought under “not important”.

On the other hand, if someone started using foul language around me or even at me, it didn’t bother me at all. Those words were just a string of sounds with zero emotional meaning.

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Our mysterious brain

I never expected that learning another language would allow me to feel how powerful words are. How they shape our memory of events and our emotional reactions.

There was a big hole in my life when I couldn’t communicate freely. I discovered how very much I need people and interactions and conversations, the exchange of ideas. In English, I prided myself on being able to choose just the right word to express exactly what I meant. Now I was restricted to a basic set of vocabulary. So, in my case, it was desperation that helped me learn.

What should you do? 

Total immersion into Latvian worked for me. It had growing pains. It was a shock to the system. The most agonizing moment was the time I met a sweet older lady who really wanted to know if God cares, why do people suffer. My language capabilities only allowed me to say, “The answer is in the Bible.” After much study and a few months of practice, I was able to return and answer her question, thankfully!

Language and communication are truly a gift. I never understood that as fully as when I learned a new language, full immersion style.

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Endings 

So it’s the end of the school year. Another year done. Finished, complete. That means my baby is getting older!(sobbing voice, sniffle). But I’m so proud of her for all she has accomplished this year.

I’m such a rookie mom, but I hope I’m starting to get a few things figured out. Having my oldest start school was like entering a whole new world. I have had little to zero contact with the world of formal education since my own graduation from high school. Not only has it been a long time, but times have changed, and the style of education has changed too. I’ve changed. Now I’m approaching it from the perspective of a mom not a student. School years seem to go by quickly and slowly all at once. One school year ends. The next one will start up before 2017 gives way to 2018. My newfound mom perspective makes the time seem to fly.

I’ve been thinking about how deeply children feel the changes involved in their school career. They say goodbye to a beloved teacher, they move on to a new classroom, often with a new group of students. Some switch to a new school. Everything starts again. It’s true, they have the experience of past years, but essentially it’s a new start. It’s almost like changing your entire family every year. There’s a new mother or father figure, new siblings. If the child is moving into upper grades, there could be a complete structure change, from one classroom most of the day to different ones per subject.

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I can see the positives of these changes. If there’s a bad mix of personalities in a class, well next year there will be a new group. Also, the teaching style has to change with the development of the children. But the emotional aspect of it all took me by surprise. Imagine the emotions you would feel if you literally had to change parents and siblings. The time it takes to build trust again. To understand your new family and your place in it. To mourn the absence of your old family. That all seems to happen on a mini scale. The summer break softens it a little. It gives an emotional respite, some breathing room to regroup.

As for myself, I look forward to the summer, to having my girl with me all day every day. To being the main adult in her life again. To not having to share her with perfect strangers most of the day. On the other hand, when the new school year starts, we all enjoy having the added structure to our days, accomplishing something that is measurable in lesson plans and report cards.

My conclusion so far has been that the benefits of change have outweighed the drawbacks. Sure it can be tough in the moment. But we also want our little ones to learn how to be resilient, adaptable. And each teacher leaves his or her stamp on the children’s little minds. You never know which one will be the one to unlock your child’s hidden potential or help them spark a lifelong passion.

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I overheard the sweetest goodbye speech by our K-3 gradeschool’s art teacher to her third graders. She reminded them that everyone’s an artist. She said even if they don’t know it yet, each one of them has a talent they can enjoy and share with the world.

Each school year is a milestone. Maybe it seems more so to me now than it did when I was in school. In my mom perspective it marks the calendar with a date that symbolizes the physical and mental growth my child experiences with each passing year. A stamp that marks off the passage of time.

That one day, The Last Day of School, embodies all the achievements and growth, all the challenges met and overcome, all of the inches and shoe sizes gained, all the baby teeth lost.

Another school year gone, never to return. Did she learn what she needed? Did she enjoy the process? Did she make friends? Was she a good friend? Did she stand up for herself and for what she believes in? I hope and pray the answer is yes. Because what comes to pass in these formative years will leave it’s indelible mark on her mind and personality.