Before learning Spanish, my haircuts were full of silence.
Conversations with Nidia, a Colombian grandmother with photos of her family taped on the wall, were stiff and awkward. We exchanged formalities in between the snips of her scissors, but we both knew her English wasn’t good and my Spanish a struggle. After the small talk fizzled out—it always did—my eyes found the floor where I silently stared until it was over.
One day, after I had been taking Spanish classes for months, I finally worked up the courage to strike up a conversation with Nidia in her native tongue. It went something like this:
Ahora estoy estudiando Español a la universidad. [Now I’m studying Spanish in school].
Even though I stumbled over the words, her face lit up in the mirror.
“Si?” ¿Porque quieres aprender español?” [Why do you want to learn Spanish?]
Fast forward six months—my trips to the barber shop have completely transformed. Last week I made a joke in Spanish and she actually laughed – can you believe it? She’s told me about her family in Colombia, and that although she’s been taking English classes for years, she’s still lacks confidence even though she understands more than she lets on. We spend the haircut alternating languages so that we can both learn, switching to our native tongues whenever we’re unable to express ourselves in our target language.
Nidia has been picking up English since she first came to New York twenty years ago from her hometown of Pereira, Colombia. She tells me that while Spanish is intuitive and sounds exactly as it’s written—suena como se escribe—the pronunciation in English isn’t exactly logical, and it often comes across as a bunch of confusing exceptions that don’t make sense.
I’m not sure why that had such an impact on me. Maybe because it proved how easily we take for granted the knowledge of our native language—we don’t even have to think about it. It’s automatic. We did most of the hard work when we were young, subconsciously absorbing everything around us, and now we can express ourselves freely, at whatever speed we like, without so much as a second thought.
But on the other side, there’s someone struggling, who would kill for your knowledge and understanding, and is committed to spending years of hard work to learn a language that often contradicts with the basic foundation of grammar and pronunciation they’ve harnessed since birth.
And the beautiful thing is, for both Nidia and myself, we’re witnessing each other change through that process, become a little less hesitant and a little more confident expressing ourselves, joking in our target language, and bonding over our shared pursuit. Maybe I’m getting a little romantic here, but that probably wouldn’t have happened if we didn’t learn about our mutual goal, and my haircuts would still largely consist of me, head down, feigning interest in the floor and watching a flurry of brown hair collect around my sneakers.
There’s no question that learning any language requires an incredible amount of patience and persistence, discipline and motivation. It’s hardly consistent: there are days when you feel on top of the world and others when you question why you’re even doing this in the first place. It’s a wheel-of-fortune of focus and apathy, frustration and joy, confidence and self-doubt, and every day is like a new spin. I’ve touched on this in an earlier post, but here are some of most important things I’ve picked up about the language-learning process since, reminders for the days between haircuts when I feel like giving up.
1. There is no such thing as the language gene, an inherent trait that separates wannabes from fluent speakers. This is a myth you’ll tell yourself to rationalize why you haven’t yet made the progress you’d like, but it simply isn’t true. It’s not that you’re not incapable of learning the language, it’s that you don’t want to put in the time and effort necessary for the reward.
If you’ve been learning for a while, you’ve probably seen others get leapfrog over your progress, or have seen the ease with which fluent or native speakers communicate and thought to yourself, “I just don’t have what it takes.” Everybody occasionally feels this way. There’s nothing wrong with you—there will always be people better at learning and memorizing than yourself, but this isn’t a competition. The equation is simpler than it seems: work plus time equals strides. Whether your progress is slower or faster than others couldn’t be less important to the process.
2. More important than making few mistakes is your willingness to make as many as possible.
Having no prior knowledge of Spanish, Connor Grooms sought to achieve a conversational level in just one month, the process for which he recently featured in a self-released documentary. Part of tracking his own progress included recording conversations with native speakers along the way, and halfway through the film Connor sits down to chat with a smiley Colombian named Adrián. Spanish speakers—or anyone following along with the provided English subtitles—will easily be able to pick up on Connor’s mistakes in grammar, accent, and basic understanding of Spanish.
But Connor isn’t shy about making mistakes. Here’s what he tells the viewer right after the conversation:
“You may have noticed that I made quite a few mistakes, but I don’t regret a single one of them. In fact, if I hadn’t been willing to make lots of mistakes, that conversation would have never happened.” 1
So often our pride hinges on how well we know the language, and we don’t realize that’s the very thing holding us back. We skirt around phrases and constructions we’re unsure of and instead stick with what we already know by heart to avoid the bad taste of being wrong. Since we only reinforce what we already know, the unfamiliar goes unused, and we never actually improve.
Something about language learning makes us instinctively feel like our goal is to make as few mistakes as possible—as if we can somehow manage to circumnavigate making mistakes, we’ll be better off for it.
But this couldn’t be further from the truth. Learning a language isn’t about making the fewest mistakes, it’s about the willingness to make as many as possible. You can still technically be one-hundred-percent correct when you use the same five phrases in every conversation, but the trade-off that comes from protecting our ego guarantees that we’ll never actually improve. It’s the hiding-under-a-rock method: if you never try, you’ll never fail. And that’s when you plateau.
The alternative is to push beyond comfort and express yourself even when you’re uncomfortable or know some part of what you’re saying could be wrong. Despite the reflexive pang of frustration when someone corrects you, that correction is actually the best-case scenario, because if you learn from it, you won’t make the same mistake again. Even then, it’s important to remember that the idea is never wrong, just the tools you’re using to express it, which can always be refined.
Making mistakes is a strength—not a weakness—because it means you’re reaching beyond your ability as opposed to shrinking within your limitations. Obviously, mistakes alone aren’t going to get you anywhere if you don’t make the effort to learn from them. But mistakes are the only stepping stones to improvement, the only hand reaching down from the top of the cliff, and the only way to get where you want to go. If you’re not mistakes, you’re not working hard enough.
3. Everybody wants to be fluent. Few are willing to work for it.
If I were handed a life menu, here’s what I’d order…
• Appetizer: Ridiculously good-looking
• Entree: CEO of Uber
• Dessert: All-star point guard for the New York Knicks while I have time off from touring the world as the guitarist for the Red Hot Chili Peppers and being the President of the United States
It’s easy to look at anything in life and feel the “want” reflex—be it a beach body, amazing social life, or fulfilling career. But what are you willing to struggle for? Author and blogger Mark Manson argues that this question is what separates fantasy from reality.
“…if you want the benefits of something in life, you have to also want the costs…”
“…Everybody wants to have an amazing job and financial independence — but not everyone wants to suffer through 60-hour work weeks, long commutes, obnoxious paperwork, to navigate arbitrary corporate hierarchies and the blasé confines of an infinite cubicle hell. People want to be rich without the risk, without the sacrifice, without the delayed gratification necessary to accumulate wealth.”
“… Everybody wants to have great sex and an awesome relationship — but not everyone is willing to go through the tough conversations, the awkward silences, the hurt feelings and the emotional psychodrama to get there…”
“…If you find yourself wanting something month after month, year after year, yet nothing happens and you never come any closer to it, then maybe what you actually want is a fantasy, an idealization, an image and a false promise. Maybe what you want isn’t what you want, you just enjoy wanting. Maybe you don’t actually want it at all.” 2 – Mark Manson
You have to put the work in to build up the capital necessary for cashing in on the reward. To a master a language, you have to also want—or at least accept—the hard work that process requires. Anything else is just dreamsturbation.
4. Consistency beats intensity every time.
There’s something romantic about the idea of mastering a language overnight. It’s the kind of thing you might see in movies: transforming from the painfully bored, disaffected, get-me-out-of-here attitude of the average high school Spanish student, to suddenly ordering off the menu at your favorite Mexican restaurant and and joking with the waiter in perfect Spanish without batting an eye. The bartender drops his jaw in astonishment and all the other diners in the restaurant instantly drop their silverware at the sound of your impeccable accent.
Sure, that sounds great—but this isn’t a movie, you’re not a director, and learning a language is not an overnight process. Forget about how you crammed for tests in college because that’s not the way to internalize a language. Spread out your studying and don’t expect to be a master overnight.
You’ll rarely actually see progress, and when you finally do, it will have already long been made. Improvement is not always visual; the gears are still churning even when you can’t see them. If you’re putting the work in, trust that you’re getting better, even though you might feel like throwing the papers in the air or one-arming the proverbial chess set off the table.
5. If you only learn when you feel like it, you’ll never learn.
For most of us, learning a language is something we do for fun. There wouldn’t be consequences if we suddenly dropped it entirely: bills will still get paid, the lights will stay on, and we’ll continue about our daily lives without much difference.
The tricky thing about this is that your progress is solely determined by you. If you’re not in a class or taking private lessons, you have to hold yourself accountable for every aspect of this process. There will be no one else to blame if you haven’t studied for a week or if you chose to watch Netflix over practicing your verb charts. You can “stay home from school” and get away with it, in the way you that never could as a kid.
But if you’re serious about improving, you have to put systems in place for when motivation isn’t enough. You’re rarely going to feel like it, so make a commitment to practicing even when it’s the last possible thing you’d like to do. By default, we’re hard-wired to make decisions that prioritize short-term comfort and instant gratification—polar opposites of the discipline and patience required for learning a language. But with the right habits and systems in place, we can position ourselves for success.
Here are some ideas:
- Start a video diary on your computer and record two-minute videos of you speaking in your target language, good way to measure your progress over time.
- Sign up for weekly Skype lessons (I’ve had good luck with online classes from PLQE, a small Spanish school in Guatemala, and Italki)
- Set an alarm on your phone to remind you to study at the same time every day. See how long a streak you can manage.
- Find a friend or language partner to hold you accountable for the goals you set, in addition to some or all of the above.
6. Stop romanticizing fluency. Focusing only on becoming fluent will make you miserable, every hour of practice a nightmare. More important than becoming fluent is everything that happens along the way.
What’s the rush?
Sometimes we get so caught up in the desire to improve that we forget language learning is a long road. Take a moment to appreciate where you are now compared to when you started. There’s something beautiful about sitting down and committing to learning a language from a culture outside your own.
Fluency often seems like the end-all and be-all, the light at the end of the tunnel, the language equivalent of enlightenment… when we really have no idea what it will be like.
Part of what I like so much about Spanish is its expressiveness, the way each word flows into the next and the rhythmic quality of even a dull conversation. Right now I can happily work on perfecting the pronunciation of a basic sentence like “That car is red and it’s very fast,” or “I should go buy laundry detergent from that store because it’s cheaper there.”
But some of the magic could be lost along the way. Maybe after I become more familiar with the language, that initial excitement will wear off, the way spoken English is for me now. Fluency may even have its downsides, like the disappointment of finishing a good book. Maybe this obsession with reaching fluency is more ego than anything else. If we’re not satisfied until we reach fluency, we may never be satisfied, or we might discover it’s not as fulfilling as we imagined.
Of course, fluency will undoubtedly have its benefits, most of which are obvious. But we shouldn’t wait until we’re fluent to be satisfied with our progress, because we’re effectively pining our well-being on a moment that might only come in years time, or never at all. In the end, more important than actually reaching fluency are the colorful steps and stories along the way. Fluency is just the icing on the cake.
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