Monday, August 07, 2006

wrong action

They say that children acquire new languages more quickly than adults.

I'm sorry, but that's just crap. After eight months in Mexico, I spoke Spanish much better than any of the eight-month olds I met there.

You wanna know what I think?


Well, then why the hell are you reading this blog?

I think that kids are not so much better at language than adults as they are better at screwups. Think about it this way ... a kid's life is a life rife with screwups and everybody seems to think that's adorable.

Kids don't know nothing about nothing. They don't know how to do or say anything right. Strung with muscles and tendons that they don't know how to operate, their fat little legs are wobbly, their fat little fingers are wonky, and their crazy fat little arms randomly shoot out in odd directions. The balls they throw land at their own feet or even behind them. They talk to themselves. They call pasta "sketti." They eat dirt.

... at least they used to before the Germ Police took over the Childhood Safety Administration in our collective heads. But, left to their own devices, kids would at least sample the many offerings of Chef Mother Earth ...

And what do we do?

We cheer them on. We beam. We clap. We toss them into the air. Of course, we "correct" them when they do something really dangerous but otherwise, they can do no wrong, even when they're smearing birthday cake all over their faces or calling a cookie a "tootie."

Why do we do this? Because we know that kids are self-correcting. They are little mistake-making machines because they learn from their mistakes. Over the course of six or seven years, they learn how to operate their extremeties and their tongues. Then, hopefully, they spend the next fifteen or so years stuffing their heads with as much information and skills as possible.

As we get older, the number of praiseworthy errors we can make shrinks to zero. Nobody beams at us when we misspell "necessary." Nobody tosses us in the air when we fumble a football. And the whole cafeteria might break into applause when we drop our tray but it isn't because they think it's cute.

Certain errors are permissable, but most definitely not praiseworthy, because, at 25 or even 30, we're still "young." But eventually, we reach a point at which we're not supposed to make any mistakes ever again. Have you noticed that? Are you there yet? Tripping, forgetting something, flipping a bitch, we can feel such profound embarrassment. How much worse do we feel if we screw up something really important?

And yet, ten or 20 years ago, if you tried something new, someone would throw their hands up and say "YAAAAAAY!!!!!!!!" even if you landed on your ass in the attempt. On some deeply subconscious level, we know that a kid has to try (and mess up) to learn and get better. Why don't we cut ourselves the same slack?

That's why they're better at learning language. Learning a language demands screwups. It demands trial and error. A kid throws out a semi-random series of words ("Doggie bees sofa") and we throw back a set of interpretations ("The dog was stung by a bee on the sofa?" "The dog is on the sofa? Oh. The dog is on the sofa ... RUBY! Get DOWN. NOW!"). We begin to understand the kid's syntax, but more importantly, the kid makes note of ours! That's how she learns. If a child didn't speak until she could speak perfectly, she'd be a mute.

Something similar happens with pretty much every skill you acquire until you achieve stasis (see definition #2). And then failure (ie trying new things and acquiring new skills) must cease and desist!

Why? Why must we achieve stasis? Why do we torture ourselves over mistakes? Why do we fear failure? It isn't as if anybody's going to die because our book didn't get published or we screwed up an audition. So why do we dread it so? Why do we sometimes choose to not try rather than to try and risk failing?

The Zens say that you should live a life of right action. But if you ask them how you learn right action, you know what they say? Take wrong action.


Blogger Stacy said...


because as the zens also say, taking no action is choosing not to take action, which action.

10:11 AM


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