How Languages Are Like Learning To Play A New Instrument

I recently bought a concertina. It was sort of a whim — in fact, I had never even heard of a concertina before, and upon my first day learning what it is, I did some research and ordered one with overnight shipping.

I've always had a fascination with the full sound of the accordion, and a desire to be able to recreate that sound for others. I may one day move on to learning a full accordion, but for the moment, I'm really excited about this little button box and learning how to put together notes in a way that is quite unfamiliar to me.

This is very much like learning a new language.

Throughout my life I've had a fascination with other languages, and a desire to speak them with others. Just as music is universal, so is communication. But just as music can be expressed in many different ways, so can words.

In my youth, I learned to play the trumpet — a fairly simple instrument where one hand simply holds the instrument while the other chooses the notes. Later I spent several years playing guitar and bass, both of which were an easy transition, as one hand chooses the notes, but now the other hand adds the responsibility of rhythm.

But on the concertina, both hands form the rhythm, and both hands choose notes. And to make it even more difficult, the notes you choose are different depending on whether you're pushing or pulling. It's very much like learning a new grammar.

As I struggle to push and pull the correct notes out of this little device, I'm slowly beginning to notice patterns. Sure, I've found them explained on paper (just as grammar is explained in textbooks) but it's meaningless until you pick up the instrument and do it yourself. Now, after just a couple of weeks, a set of sounds that seemed completely illogical and foreign to me is beginning, just barely beginning, to feel less foreign and to make more sense.

And how am I learning? The same way we learn language, of course. Sometimes I just make sounds and get familiar with them. Other times, I try to string together a thought, frustrated when I get it wrong but celebrating when I get it right.

My first true goal is to learn one song completely, from beginning to end. Just as my first goal in language is to complete a thought — a story or an email, perhaps. Later, as I learn more, I want to revisit what I know and learn to remember — to feel — where each note belongs, much as in language we want to develop instinct and automaticity.

Today, I make a lot of noise. I make more mistakes than anything sounding like music. With this lack of success (and lack of practice) my attention span stays short and I give up quickly.

But with each day, I get a little better. Each day I make a little less noise, and I get a little closer to playing that song that I know will bring a smile to the face of anyone who recognizes it.

So what are you doing with your new instrument (language)? Have you picked out a song that you want to learn? Are you working each day to build the skill you need in order to share it with others?

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Author: Yearlyglot
I'll lead you through a 12 month journey from knowing absolutely nothing about a language to having professional fluency.

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  • So how is Greek going?

  • Actually you are making it much harder for yourself to learn. Start by just holding one note down (or the mute/open hole for quiet play) and practice the timing of moving in and out for long and short notes - along with a record or the radio. Do this for at least 5 minutes before moving on.
    Next get the fingers pressing the note keys down but no movement in and out. Again in time with a backing track. Again 5 mins.
    Next hold one note and push or pull for a long note in time with a track (the note is not relevent its the combining of the two processes together).
    Then shorter notes to match the pulse/beat of the music.Do this for a couple of days and the mechanics will start to become easier. Don't try and do any more than this otherwise you'll undo the mechanic learning.After that then you can start learning what presses match what note and play some simple tunes (look for beginner piano tab or the booklet that came with the concertina).Kind regards, Spencer

  • You know the Guns 'n Roses song "One in a million"?

  • Well, no, but I just looked up the lyrics. Are you saying Yearlyglot just wants to get away from it all, that I'm the one fan in a million for actually caring that he's gone, or because of the lyric "It's all Greek to me"?

  • I thought it was obvious, but yes, it's the line about Greek. I thought the fact that you and I have written more here than the blogger in the past 6 months might have been the giveaway :-)

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