Ego Sum īgnāva

I haven’t written part two of the essay. Part of the reason is that I’ve been distracted by something more important, but the other part is that it’s hard and I’m still struggling to overcome my academic laziness.

I am not proud of this. I like to hope that announcing my weakness will motivate me to overcome it. I see it as similar to telling everyone I’ve started a diet. Which I haven’t. Just to be clear. So no weight comments, please.

I was scrubbing the grout on the kitchen floor yesterday and entertaining myself by listening to a lecture about the Middle Ages. (Synopsis: Black Death=Bad; Printing Press=Good)

I was sort of tuning in and out when the professor mentioned the shift in scholarship from the Continent to Britain. For a long time all of the great church scholars had been from Italy, but all of a sudden you had guys like Thomas Aquinas and William Ockham coming out of England and Ireland and taking over the academic world. Why was this?

It’s because they didn’t speak Latin. Rather, they didn’t understand Latin natively. Italian is derived from Latin. French is derived from Latin. Spanish is derived from Latin. But English is not. English is a Germanic language that is completely unrelated to Latin. The theory is that Continental scholars didn’t have to work as hard in their studies (all in Latin) because they already spoke a language that was very close to Latin.

They were lazy students, and the Brits took over the world because they had to study harder to learn anything.

I contemplated this point as my aunt and I met with her surgeon this afternoon. He moved to the U.S. from Vietnam when he was in his teens, learned English, graduated from a local high school, and got a bachelor’s degree in Electrical Engineering. He spent five years at IBM before going to medical school and becoming a surgeon. He’s been in practice 10 years.

Obviously this man is brilliant. More amazingly (to me, anyway) he’s an incredible student. I can’t imagine ever being motivated enough to get the education required for either an engineering or a medical career. He’s done both.

I’ve read that graduate students in science and engineering at the top American universities mostly come from foreign countries where English is not the native language. I’ve observed that the three local M.D.s I’ve talked to this week grew up speaking Vietnamese, Turkish, and Spanish.

It has me wondering: is there some truth to this theory that people who are forced to overcome a language barrier make better students of subjects that require intense study? Are we undergoing a cultural shift whereby most of America’s doctors and engineers will speak English as a second language?

Something for me to ponder as I avoid serious thinking.

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Categories: Brain Workouts

4 replies

  1. Actually, I’d be willing to bet there are a lot more factors at play than just learning language – ones that are a lot more potent.

    The first is a simple one. Who do your kids dream of becoming? Dreams are persistent; believe me, I should know. When I got my undergrad, I was a burnout case to end all burnout cases; despite this, I was entertaining silly ideas of maybe going to grad school while working… someday. Things happened to make first the MBA and, later, the doctorate, more persistent; when I finally found myself in a position where I realized that I *could* go for my doctorate, I nearly hyperventilated. Dreams are what keep you going when it’s 2 AM and you’re dead tired but you need to finish the latest bit of your research. But… who dreams of becoming a scientist anymore?

    The next… at some point, a kid needs to be challenged. I don’t mean like a drill sergeant forcing some kids into some mental boot camp; until the kids are ready to push themselves, that’s worse than useless. I mean giving kids some games to think about and see how well they do. Mom and Dad used to give me fun problems all the time to think about, something to get the brain going; heck, there’s one problem that Dad gave me that I’m still trying to figure out even decades later. What does this teach? PATIENCE. It takes time to work on a problem, and it’s easy to get discouraged; it’s the person who learns to stick with a problem early on who can tackle tough problems later on in life. The play I had when I was eight and nine and ten years old prepared me for the play I have at thirty-five.

    (BTW, thanks, Mom & Dad, for that.)

    To illustrate this in another way… I once took an IQ test that had as a recommendation that I solve roughly one problem a DAY. Oddly enough, the suggestion was correct; despite this warning and despite the fact that I took several weeks to finish the test, there were at least two problems I missed that I should have gotten because I went for the quick answer, and didn’t play around with the problem a bit.

    Finally… I’m going to say something rather blunt. Unless a person is called to it, is academia a better life for the average American? In my case, I could probably make just as much or more out in industry – but where would be the fun in that? A lot of the experts and pundits on news shows and finance shows are what is known as ABD – All But Dissertation. There’s a reason: they didn’t need any more education for what they wanted to do. The father of one of my (well, now former) officemates started off as a poor farmer in India. To him – and to the lessons he taught his daughter – education was a stepping stone for a better life. (Hey, Big M – sound like a pair of someones we know?) Never discount the motivation – or the lessons – an empty stomach provides.

    As an expansion to this, look up the amount of money the average grad student lives on over the course of the degree. The U here paid me, on average, $22k a year while I’ve been here – and that’s remarkably high for grad school. Do you really want to live on McD-style wages for the next five years? A lot of Americans aren’t willing to make that commitment.

  2. I’m guessing that most doctors in the U.S. are native born and will be for a very long time.
    However, to undercut my own perception: my father-in-law. A native Spanish speaker, he learned English while he was becoming a psychiatrist and a neurologist. He immigrated to the U.S. and built a practice here. He also has a vast, deep interest in history, archaeology, and languages. In his 70s, he continues not only to practice medicine but to study intensely and take more tests to specialize in treating sleep disorders.
    People like him boggle my mind. :)

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