A few years back, I was surprised to read this story in my friend Nassim Taleb’s book, Antifragile. He and I had lots of long talks while traveling in the Middle East and also over plates of pickled vegetables and vodka in Kiev, and so this tale must have popped from my mouth one of those nights. Little did I expect it would make its way into print. The amazing thing is, it’s true! But Taleb turned it into a parable about acquiring knowledge in non-traditional, direct, and authentic ways.
“Punished by Translation
Another forgotten property of stressors is in language acquisition—I don’t know anyone who ever learned to speak his mother tongue in a textbook, starting with grammar and, checked by biquarterly exams, systematically fitting words to the acquired rules. You pick up a language best thanks to situational difficulty, from error to error, when you need to communicate under more or less straining circumstances, particularly to express urgent needs (say, physical ones, such those arising in the aftermath of dinner in a tropical location)….
“Yet the best way to learn a language may be an episode of jail in a foreign country. My friend Chad Gracia improved his Russian thanks to an involuntary stay in the quarantine section of a hospital in Moscow for an imagined disease. It was a cunning brand of medical kidnapping, as during the mess after the end of the Soviet rule, hospitals were able to extort travelers with forced hospital stays unless they paid large sums of money to have their papers cleared.
Chad, then barely fluent in the language, was forced to read Tolstoy in the original, and picked up quite a bit of vocabulary.
My friend Chad benefited from the kind of disorder that is less and less prevalent thanks to the modern disease of touristification. This is my term for an aspect of modern life that treats humans as washing machines, with simplified mechanical responses—and a detailed user’s manual. It is the systematic removal of uncertainty and randomness from things, trying to make matters highly predictable in their smallest details. All that for the sake of comfort, convenience, and efficiency.”
From Antifragile, another excellent book by Nassim Taleb.