Friday, July 9, 2010

Life skills

When I was a teenager my mother made a comment in passing about skills for life.  It wasn't particularly insightful and I doubt if she remembers, and yet I've long pondered what she said: 'There are three skills I wish I possessed: to be able to type, to play a musical instrument and to speak a foreign language.'

Why don't you learn then, I thought.

But of course that is easier to say than to do, especially when you have a family to look after, a job to hold down, a house to clean...  And whilst we know that children have an innate ability to absorb knowledge, we also know their capacity to learn has peaked long before they are teenagers. By the time most of us have reached our twenties, tackling new skills is all too difficult.

Perhaps that explains why it was, by the time I came to Wales in the Eighties, I'd not mastered any of my mother's wish-list. To be fair, I had other skills: I could draw and paint and climb and tie knots and paddle a kayak and navigate in the dark...  And I suppose I knew lots of 'stuff' that others might not: the names of moths, philosophy, economics, even how to sell advertising (boy, does that feel long time ago).

But still it niggled that I couldn't do any of the 'the list'.

It was the coming of computers that taught me to type; that and a pirate copy of a Mavis Beacon program.  Despite her stern warnings, I still look at the keys out of habit, but I'm better than a two finger basher and can manage about fifty words a minute on a word processor.  I'm convinced that I couldn't write seriously if I didn't type, largely because editing and re-editing, and re-editing, and...  is the way that I craft my words. My mother was right; it was a useful skill to master.

I often wonder if there is something about our twenties - a reaction to school; a need to get on with our careers - that turns many of us away from formal learning.  I was certainly like that; and I notice many of the young people at work seem still to equate learning with 'studying' and all its negative connotations. In truth we continue to learn whether we study or not: becoming parents, getting promoted, coaching the soccer team... But these things are not quite the same as the lifelong skills implied by my mother's list.

For myself, I was in my thirties before I returned to formal learning. It happened gradually: I read more widely, painted more seriously, started to write. I became more introverted too; I'd say more creative and aware as well. But most importantly, I came to enjoy the process for itself.  So it is strange that it took me so long to tackle number two the list.

This January I started playing the banjo. It's been a revelation. I'm not much good, but the process is so different to anything I've done before - the gradual coming together, the sense of achievement - and to some extent the sense of loss that I didn't try when I was younger - has fascinated and pleased me. I shall never be great player, but with diligence (which I have in abundance) I might be almost as good at plucking as I am a typing. And if I can mange that, it will no doubt give me immense satisfaction. Yes, my mother was right again.

So what of the third item on the list?

I should probably ignore it; accept that foreign languages are not for me. After all, in my last French exam, aged 13, I scored 2% (for spelling my name correctly) - and that was better than my mark for Latin! I could use the same energy and learn something different - just as valuable, probably more useful.

Yet something about that list still niggles.

And every time I go to Wales it niggles me all the more.  They do special courses for beginners; it would be more useful than French; my English teachers thought I couldn't write either.  Maybe when I retire, I think. I'd have more time then...

Just maybe.

Nos da.


  1. I find that I have acquired all three skills on your list, at least to some extent.

    My typing ability has evolved slowly, following months or years of "hunt and peck" typing that started with punched cards of FORTRAN code for computers. No classes, no formal learning, but my mind now "knows" where the letters are on the keyboard without my having to search for them. I even made the transition to a French keyboard layout, that is slightly different from the UK one. How many words per minute? I have no idea....

    I learned to play piano as a child but stopped playing when I went to university. This might have been a mistake, but I had a need to play an instrument, so, rather than be frustrated by my rusty skills on the piano, I picked up a flute at the age of 34 and became fascinated. I will never be a great player, but I play well enough for enjoyment, and I love playing with others, as in the Harmonie wind band at St Suzanne. The flute has the advantage of sociability (and transportability) over the piano. It frustrates me to know that my rate of improvement is so much slower than it would have been as a teenager.

    Foreign language? I was quite good a french at school, but never really practiced it afterwards, although I felt I "should". I had some fluency in speech remaining when I moved here to France at age 50, but it has improved, of necessity, since then. But the key skill is in understanding spoken French. It's all very well being able to express yourself adequately, but if you can't understand the response, you're sunk. Telephone conversations are especially difficult, since your conversation partner can't see your bewildered expression.

  2. Bore Da
    I loved this post, so full of wisdom.
    I am not learning Welsh as it is not my 'native' language but can't help picking up bits along the way.
    I agree with you about typing and writing. Many moons ago I taught myself to type (not 'properly') and did a postal course in Speedwriting - both got me jobs and both skills are still of tremendous use to me. My son taught himself the guitar - he doesn't read music but he writes songs and plays his instrument like a dream. I love the fact that it is never too late to learn anything.

  3. I know what you mean... I was pretty good at French at school but bailed out purely because I was bored and switched to German (which I failed miserably). Since then I've often thought about picking up French again but....! Same with learning an instrument: I bought myself a guitar when I was 17, tried valiantly but unsuccessfully for a couple of years and then gave up... the only thing I've ever stuck with is writing. I sometimes think it's only possible to dedicate yourself to one discipline... or maybe that's just an excuse for laziness?

  4. I point out that me and you and your commenting friends all got here naked and with an empty brain. Odd as it is, we put things in there that keep us alive: how to eat, what to eat, and so on. The stuff we put in there doesn't keep us going and often uses up valuable space, but it is nice to reflect on a trip down memory lane, back to a honeymoon, over to the house where we were born, back to school...

    I say goat's milk, especially just out of the nanny, makes makes any kind of breakfast cereal taste bad. I never can imagine the makers of cereal not trying their brand with warm goat's milk -- they would add something to make it taste better. Who in the world has goats? About half the population. And the rest of assorted cows, horses and pigs, though I never heard about milking a sow pig.

    Typing. The Army tried for 8 weeks to teach me how to become a company clerk. I never could type their way. I still use two or three fingers on each hand and one thumb and used to type as fast as a person could talk. And Commanding Generals talk pretty fast.

    I had a dirty joke that I won't repeat about the kind of instruments I might be taught to play. I never learned to read musical notes but my friend can listen to a song and play it on anything. He can't read music either.

  5. My aunt tried to teach me to type on one of those cast iron Underwoods, but my father put a stop to it on the grounds that just because I was a girl it didn't mean that I had to be a typist!
    My handwriting has always been abominable so when those first Sinclair machines came out I bought one and it kept me happy for years, producing tidy documents that people could actually read.
    It's still two fingers and two thumbs, but I'm pretty quick so I'm not puzzling the brain by trying to look professional.

    Languages...I hated French at school, then had to get to grips with it for work, only to plunge into it in moving to France - to discover that everyone around me spoke patois!
    Since holidaying in Costa Rica I'm getting to grips with Spanish...well,Costa Rican Spanish with a glottal stop've guessed it, all the neighbours speak patois...

    In both cases it has been necessity that has pushed me to acquire skills...and necessity has never pushed me into playing a musical instrument.
    Music moves me, but I have never had any desire to do more than to mangle it in singing when I have the house to myself.

    Idle bugger, that's me.

  6. Bore da!

    Typing - sort of because using a computer means it has to be done. Could do better though.

    Instrument - no. But I'm in a choir.

    Language - yes. Started Spanish 12 years ago because I go and live with Spanish people from time to time. Bit like going to Wales a lot really.

    I'd add driving to your list. It's probably taken as read by most people these days, but coming from a non-driving family I didn't go through that rite of passage at 17 years (soon to be 18) that most people do nowadays. I found it very hard to master and failed my test 4 times :(

  7. Very wise. Most people I have known (who dont play already) say they plan to learn an instrument, but I suspect most of us will never "get round to it".

  8. Your list: I can play the piano (rusty) but aim to restart it (do have a piano but not living in the same house as it just yet); languages - most of 'em - water off a duck's back but still not too happy with maths and science. (Can cope with numbers OK but it's not in my blood as it is in my sister's.) I type not correctly but my fingers do the job. I once tried for a temp job in Nottingham at one of the temping agencies..I think I lasted 3 seconds. I much prefer working in pubs to earn money (behind the bar!!!!! just realised what I had typed then! A half an hour ago I realised that I can type what's in my head before I know it i.e. I'd typed something as I thought it and only realised it later when I read the word order. I knew that how it was in my head wasn't matching how the words should flow. Does that make sense?)

    I read about Joan Bakewell wanting to write a book in life as her English teacher had put her down at school. I think as long as we have that thirst to do something different with our lives (whatever the age) then that's brilliant. I deliberately go out of my way to try diverse things to prove to myself that I can do them. That's the only reason I can deduce as to why I was in banking for ten years!