There’s a neurological concept called Hebb’s Law that’s basically summarized as “neurons that fire together wire together.” This principle explains why it is that, when we hear an old song on the radio, we might immediately be flooded with memories and emotions that remind us of our first loves, best friends from high school, or educational topics that we learned in childhood. All sorts of associations can surface when we encounter something from our past, even if it’s been years since we’ve thought about those past remembrances.
I find that the same is true with languages. I studied French in high school, college, and grad school, and I’ve also picked up a few other languages through friends and travels. I can speak at least a few phrases (if not more) in Spanish, German, Thai, Khmer (the language spoken in Cambodia), Ewe (an indigenous language in Ghana), Czech, Italian, and Japanese.
The thing that amuses me is that sometimes these phrases emerge randomly, out of nowhere and there are certain phrases that I associate with one particular language over the others. In a few instances, there are idiomatic expressions that I automatically think of in foreign languages before they come to me in English.
Recently, I was in a situation where I had to engage in a conversation with someone who doesn’t speak a word of English. While I spend most of my time thinking in English…and I’m aware of how my brain operates when it comes to other languages…I was still amazed at how quickly my “foreign” vocabulary came back to me.
Words that hadn’t crossed through my conscious mind in years suddenly popped into my head, and some words that I’d never even encountered managed to come out of my mouth. I was able to get through a technically complex conversation much better than I had anticipated, which really shouldn’t have surprised me, given that I’ve done this numerous times over the years.
This got me to thinking about how languages work in our heads. It’s similar to how my fingers remember how to play scales, arpeggios, and chord progressions on my flute or the piano, even when I haven’t really practiced these instruments in months. My fingers seem to go into autopilot and play things without me consciously thinking about what to do.
Just like language (which some people would argue includes the “language of music”), our brains have the capacity to come up with all sorts of associations without us making the conscious effort to cultivate those connections. This can include memories from childhood that have long since disappeared into the crevices of ancient memory.
While many of these associations can be beneficial, sometimes our mind’s ability to “connect the dots” can cause internal conflict or pain. Anyone who has ever heard a song that reminds them of a painful breakup or romantic rejection can relate to this.
We don’t always notice when our minds are making these connections, though. An example that I often use for illustration is the way my own brain responds when it hears loud, sudden noises. As an infant, I had a traumatic experience when a 4th of July performance of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture (complete with booming canons to replicate battlefield explosions–check out the link for a recording) occurred on the same day that I fell onto the pavement and injured myself. As a result, for most of my life, I would be startled whenever I encountered an abruptly loud sound, even though my training as a musician had encouraged me to embrace those sounds. Just the sound of a balloon popping was enough to make me jump.
Meditation can help us to change our neurological wiring because, through that practice, we’re able to calm the fight-or-flight center before attempting to rewrite the narratives that hold us back.
So if there’s a particular belief or old story that is getting in the way of our ability to move forward, we can start to uncouple the associations that have been built up in our brains, including those unconscious connections. Hebb’s Law can be a beneficial thing, in the case of language recollection and communication.
But when we’re trapped under the weight of traumatic memories (such as my early childhood trauma due to the loud noise that I encountered at a 4th of July festival), it’s possible to rewire our brains so that the neurons that were previously firing together will no longer wire together.
Meanwhile, I’ll try to keep my language neurons firing and wiring in such a way that my French vocabulary sticks together, somewhat compartmentalized from my Spanish vocabulary. The alternative (which has happened on occasion) is that I start out in one language and then transition into another language. Given the strange looks that I’ve received when that happens, I try to keep the blending of languages to a minimum.