Languages and Chess

It has struck me that studying languages can be a little bit similar to the experience of studying chess.

bishop chess piece on black rock at daytime
Image credit: jachymmichal.com

I’m not that serious about chess these days, and to be honest in fact I’m pretty rusty, but I went through a phase some years ago where I was studying different openings and tactics every day. At that time I was frequently playing chess games online against random opponents. It had an interesting, unexpected side effect.

As a result of all that study and practice, my mind was full of meaningless bits of chess all day. I would be eating dinner and would suddenly imagine a rook lift, out of context, or a bishop move that would check the king on a certain square.

I didn’t imagine these things deliberately, and they didn’t have any particular purpose, but they continued popping into my mind anyway. I suspect it was part of the process (or a harmless effect of the process) of my mind digesting and making meaning out of the positions that were still relatively fresh in my memory.

Just recently, as I’ve been studying German a little bit more intensely, I’ve started noticing something very similar going on. I have little meaningless bits of the language floating about in my brain.

The other day it was jeglicher and unerbittliche, and then yesterday niedrigere. Today it’s abgetane. Something about these words causes them to snag on the fabric of my consciousness and get caught there.

The words roll around in my head all day, always in the background but never fully gone. I taste them with my mind, drum their rhythms, scrape fingertips across their varied textures, chime their pure vowels, feel the rumble of their jostling consonants underfoot.

I suppose whatever we’re focusing on and putting time into must leave a sort of mental residue, more powerfully in proportion to how much work we put into it. Judging such residue might be a good way to get a sense of what holds a central place in our lives at any given moment, and of whether we’re happy about it.

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