A few months ago, I said “shoes” in a conversation with my husband, and one-year-old Ira appeared in the doorway carrying his Stride Rites. That’s when we realized he can understand everything we say. It seemed to happen overnight.
Every day Ira learns a new word or two. “Doggy, doggy, doggy,” he squeals as the neighbors’ poodle trots over. “Bawk bawk,” he calls to the hens. Meanwhile, he’s guiding himself through a crash course in running, climbing, and riding a strider bike.
Four-and-a-half-year-old Ezra is teaching himself how to read, write letters, draw, paint, ride a scooter, and take photographs.
It begs the question, is it easier for kids to learn new things?
Scientists used to think so, especially when it came to language acquisition.
But new research in neuroplasticity suggests otherwise. It turns out our brains optimize themselves throughout our lives, reorganizing sometimes in dramatic ways, like after someone has a stroke.
That’s great news if you’ve always wanted to learn a second language or become a painter. If you put some effort into it, you can probably do it.
Here’s a little example from my life:
When I was about five, my best friend and I put on a concert for our moms. We sang “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”
When we were done, both of our moms applauded.
“He’s a natural,” my mom said, beaming at my friend. My friend was undeniably musically gifted. He went on to later sing in a band.
I, on the other hand, sounded a little bit like a wounded tabby.
Into adulthood I struggled to stay on key even when I was singing along to my favorite songs. By the time I reached 30, I figured I should erase singing, at least in public settings, off my list of past times. Most people who heard me politely agreed. Read: my husband.
Then Ezra was born. When he was about a month old, I was pacing up and down the hallway in the middle of the night rocking him as he wailed. On a whim, I sang a lullaby I halfway remembered my mom singing to me.
Ezra grew instantly quiet and gazed at me.
Singing, it turns out, is a maternal super power. So, of course, I was going to continue singing even if I needed to buy a case of earplugs for my husband and cats. I crooned the same lullabies over and over — at naptime, in the car, at bedtime.
A few months later, after I (coincidentally) finished singing” Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” my husband grinned. “You taught yourself to sing.”
He was right. For the first time in my life, I could hold a tune. Effortlessly.
What had changed?
I’d paid attention to it.
As I’ve written before, we often forget the astonishing power of our attention. Paying attention to something invariably transforms it.
“Whatever you pay attention to thrives; whatever you don’t pay attention to withers and dies,” Karen Maezen Miller writes.
We tend to pay attention to what we’re interested in. So if you’ve always wanted to learn something and haven’t yet, maybe it’s time to ask yourself whether you’re really interested in it.
Or, you could try to find a screaming infant who loves the sound of Spanish verb conjugation or PBS painting shows.
Have you learned to do something new lately? Do you want to? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.