Learning a new language often involves as much forgetting or letting go as it does memorizing new words and creating new patterns of speech. On a recent trip to Mexico, I had a chance to renew my Spanish language studies. As I did, I noticed how my mid-life brain struggled to remember and retrieve unfamiliar words, and the surprising things it would do to meet the new demands. As a practitioner of human systems dynamics, I pondered what this experience could teach me about the role of difference in pattern formation. This blog explores some of my reflection.

Riding my bike down the dusty, bumpy road to Spanish class, I start composing my reply to the greeting I’m sure to get when I arrive: “Como éstas Laura?”  I’m working on advancing from “Yo estoy consado” or “I’m tired”  (which is how I feel after climbing the last hill before I get to the school) to adding details about what I’ve seen on my way to school, or weaving in one or two new words I just learned. I so want to share these observations, to more deeply connect with my friendly, kind, and thoughtful teachers…and it takes a lot of work. My expressions are limited by the small number of verbs I know, mostly in the present tense. I’m a very long way from being eloquent in Spanish, but it’s a start.

One of the persistent and disruptive challenges I seem to have when I’ve got a gap in a sentence I’m forming, is that my mind often offers up French before it retrieves the Spanish. French is the only other non-English language that I’ve really studied; my last class being over thirty years ago. Why would my brain pull first from something I learned so very long ago?

This seems to happen whenever I restart my Spanish after a break. My brain seems to go first to this English/non-English distinction, lumping together all the non-English words I know in one bucket. With work and practice, the Spanish eventually becomes more dominant, progressing to the point that when I actually try a French phrase, the Spanish word comes first! In some sense this is progress, but it still isn’t exactly right. I’d rather my brain notice the differences among the languages faster—and give me the words I want in the language I need.

I’ve been reflecting, of late, on this reflexive sorting into familiar/unfamiliar and how powerfully it may keep me from seeing the interesting, curious, and generative differences among what’s less familiar to me. For example, one of my classmates in my Zumba class confided in me that the dancing helps her reconnect her mind and body as she continues a long recovery from a terrible car accident. Her experience sparked her interest in developing a class that would be friendly and accessible to anyone however differently abled they are. It’s not what I was thinking when I was striving to get the moves right. What a gift to see the class through the differences she was noting, and hear her vision for what was possible.

In all the ways that I may be part of a dominant, mainstream experience—like being able-bodied, white, middle-class, U.S. citizen—my privilege masks differences that I might otherwise be compelled to notice. While those categories, those labels, do not fully capture my complexity—they do capture some of the dominant patterns that shape my life. 

To be clear, I am grateful to my brain for recognizing patterns; for not noticing every distinction surrounding me at every moment of every day. To do otherwise would be immobilizing. At the same time, being conscious of the process of pattern recognition does allow me to notice which differences I’m tracking.

In human systems dynamics, thinking about differences is one of the three key parts of Pattern Logic. This is the process that I use to move beyond my reflexive sorting to consider other differences that could shape what I’m encountering.

I realize now that entertaining (or wrestling with) some of these differences beyond my first reflexive choice is the path to shifting my language patterns and likely any other pattern I want to shift as well. When I dive through the surface of the first set of differences that seem to matter, new worlds emerge. Even with language, I think about the concepts with no direct translation from one language to another. There are some ideas and concepts that another language captures beautifully, that my native language does not. That recognition alone hints at worlds left to explore.

This is the kind of discovery that makes me love human systems dynamics. The possibilities are always beckoning. Our discovery is never over. Nothing is intractable.

Where are you seeking to create or influence new patterns? What differences have you found grip you tightly, and which ones give way to new sets of difference that seem to have more potency, or maybe more room for curiosity? What tension propels you to do this kind of exploring?

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