Don’t Lose Your Sense of Adventure in Language Learning

I actually like the day-to-day grind of language learning.

Listening to long podcasts? Working through grammar drills? Reading stories full of words I don’t know? I love all of that stuff.

It wasn’t always like that for me. But now that I know how to learn languages and can recognize when I’m making progress–even when it’s slow progress–I can sit and do the hard work without getting bored or burned out. In fact, the boring stuff is kind of fun to me now.

Image Source

By Gerhard GrabnerBitboy0 [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], Image Source

With that said, I didn’t get into languages just to bury my face in a book. I got into languages because I wanted to be able to travel the world and use my linguistic skills to communicate with people in exotic locations.

In other words, I like the opportunities for adventure that language learning gives me.

And I’m willing to bet you’re the same way.

So it’s puzzling to me when I go on language forums and see so many people arguing. Like, really arguing. At any given moment, inevitably there are heated arguments about the most mundane language topics. And these discussions are about as unadventurous as it gets:

Michel Thomas is better/worse than Pimsleur.

You should/shouldn’t try and learn like a child because you’re not a child/children are great language learners.

Never/always try to learn grammar. It’s a waste of time/absolutely necessary.

[So-and-so] polyglot on YouTube is a genius/fraud/jerk.

…and on and on and on.

Look, I’m all for intelligent debate. And I recognize that I freely offer my opinion on this site, and have participated in language-related arguments in the past.

But I try my best not to ever claim that I have all the answers about language learning, because I don’t. No one does. The exact mechanisms by which we acquire language are somewhat of a mystery, so if anyone says they’ve got it all figured out, then you should immediately put on your skeptic glasses.

And I don’t think the arguing is that productive.

First, it’s all just incredibly negative. For whatever reason, language enthusiasts often frame their arguments by attacking other people’s approaches rather than selling the merits of their own ideas. They defend their methods with an almost religious devotion.

Second, arguing about the minutiae of language learning is about the lamest thing you can do.

Third–and most importantly–the people who are most adamant about having all the answers just seem to have lost their adventurous spirit. There’s no one way to learn languages. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of approaches and tools out there. Textbooks, classes, courses, spaced repetition, apps, language exchanges, immersion, comprehensible input, language shadowing, and on and on and on. But some people are perfectly content to confine themselves to one approach–usually one similar to how they were taught in school.

Try out different things. Experiment. Don’t be afraid to make some mistakes. Yeah, the risk is that you might lose a little time if something doesn’t work for you. But the reward is that you might find something that really, really works for you.

I was taught Arabic via a very translation-based approach. At the end of my studies, I could read and listen to high-level media, like economics magazines, but had a little trouble maintaining basic conversations.

Conversely, I learned Spanish by taking self-study courses and watching TV and listening to podcasts. I could maintain basic conversations and could read gossip magazines, but couldn’t tackle high-level publications.

Those were two vastly different approaches, and they each had their pros and cons. By trying both, now I have a better sense of how to structure my studying to get different effects.

The bottom line is, you’re learning a new language in the first place because you have an adventurous spirit. Don’t put that spirit in a cage by getting caught up looking for the “one true way” to learn languages.

I’m willing to bet that the simple act of giving yourself permission to try different things will free your mind up to make some incredible progress.

  • Meredith Cicerchia

    I completely agree. I love the thrill of assembling a language learning plan and mixing and matching solutions, approaches, skills (e.g. 20 minutes of drills, 3 pages of a textbook, 1 article from Aljazeera, a lesson from Maha, a meal cooked with a TL recipie ). Nothing could be further from the truth to say that applied linguists have it figured out. There will never be ONE great language learning solution because the nature of language study is it must be adapted to the individual in the same way as language itself is integrated into your existing lexicon…great post!

    • Ron G.

      “…the nature of language study is it must be adapted to the individual in
      the same way as language itself is integrated into your existing lexicon…” <— Great way to put it.

      Your sample routine sounds great. Making good progress with those kinds of activities? (I have to imagine you are.)

  • Roberta Gentile

    Thank you for the post! That’s exactly why I studied foreign languages and I’m afraid I’ve forgotten it. My sense of adventure, my willing to travel and to meet new/different cultures are the most important for me. Just because the society makes you believe that you have to find a stable condition I was slowing down or even bottling up my willig to travel and to find contact “with the abroad”.

    • Ron G.

      My pleasure! I think I wrote this article to remind myself as much as anything. It’s really easy to fall in a routine–in studying, in your career, and in life in general. It’s interesting that you mention “stable condition.” For me, I’m trying to provide that for my son so that he feels secure and has a sense of home. But I also want to instill in him a sense of adventure and a love for travel. It’s a constant endeavor to try and find that balance.