I have an English degree. This means a couple things.
First, I’m broke and always will be.
Second, I read and wrote a lot as an undergraduate student.
I had been a professional translator for a couple years before I went to college, so I was no stranger to language. Spending several years immersing myself in both a foreign language and my native tongue made me realize something:
You can never master a language.
Don’t get me wrong. You can get really good at a language and make it do things for you (more on that below). But there are always going to be vocabulary words you don’t know, occasional miscommunication is inevitable, and linguists can’t even agree on what grammar is.
Language is a beast. Sure, a word is a substitute for an object or idea. The word “apple”—whether written or uttered—represents a real-life apple. But like all metaphors, the substitute is not and can never be the real thing. No matter how much I concentrate or wish or grit my teeth, the word “apple” can never provide me physical nutrition the way a real apple can.
To complicate matters, some words have no physical-world equivalent. Abstract concepts like “love” and “justice” are defined not by some tangible referent, but by other words.
To complicate matters still, words and grammar are not set in stone by God or the universe, but by groups of people.
So to recap, language is this stand-alone entity that is linked to but forever separate from the physical world, that in a lot of ways defines itself, and whose rules are set at the whim of groups of people.
How would you ever expect to master something that’s so expansive, dynamic, and fluid?
When I pause and think about a language, it’s like I’m looking out at the ocean. I can’t own the ocean. I can’t make the water do what I want.
So what, then?
Like a surfer, I ride language.
A surfer gets out into the thick of the ocean, wrestles with its waves, and tries not to wipe out. And every once in a while, he stands up on his board, enjoying a fleeting moments of victory in which he neither submits the ocean nor is submitted.
That’s exactly how I try to approach languages. I try to coexist with it, figure out its patterns, and express myself in it. Sometimes I cruise along. Sometimes I get a little more aggressive.
So how does this relate to foreign language learning?
The central tenet of this website and of my personal philosophy is that languages are not something to conquer, but something to enjoy yourself in.
Yes, with the languages I’m studying, I am absolutely aware of my profiency level, and literacy, and vocabulary knowledge. But “being good” is not why I study language. I study language to get the real benefits of communication:
Making people laugh.
Appreciating novels, comic books, and song lyrics.
Understanding other people.
Keeping myself out of trouble.
This is the approach I’ve always taken with languages, and this is why they’ve maintained my interest.
Hopefully, it’s an approach some of you will adopt as well.
The Art of Imperfect Language
If there’s one thing I want someone to take away from my website, it’s that you don’t have to be perfect in a foreign language to enjoy its benefits. You don’t have to be fluent, or even that good really.
The benefits of learning a new language start almost immediately.
I’m not saying to be complacent with your mistakes and to be okay with being substandard. I’m just saying that if you take it easy on yourself, accept your limitations, and use the language you have (and not pine for the language you wish you had) you’ll be communicating in another language almost immediately.
You’ll start to enjoy your new skill, and then speak the language and read it and listen to it because it’s fun, not because it’s work. Then when you keep using it, something magical happens: you get better. Before you know it, you’ve reached a respectable level of proficiency in your new language because you’ve actually been using it and not letting it sit in a textbook.
Here’s an analogy: Riding a bike.
When you were a kid, you tried and you fell. Then you learned to ride it, but maybe you were a little wobbly and couldn’t make turns. Then you kept practicing and got good enough to ride with your friends. Then you got better still and maybe even learned to do a couple tricks.
You hurried to enjoy your new skill right away, and you didn’t care that you weren’t passing biking proficiency exams and that you didn’t know the anatomy of your leg muscles or the names of all the bike part. And you certainly didn’t put pressure on yourself to win the Tour de France.
So why do so many people do the equivalent when they’re trying to pick up the skill of a foreign language?
Below are some articles I’ve written related to the concept of imperfect language. Please use them to motivate yourself, and maybe examine why you’re really trying to communicate.
- The Art of Imperfect Language
- What I Learned about Languages from my French Taxi Driver
- How I Learned “a Little” German – And How You Can Too
- Making Mistakes: The Magic Bullet to Learn Languages Faster
- Why Perfect is the Enemy of Good in Language Learning