Language Philosophies

Language Surfing?

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.

Expressing myself.

Appreciating novels, comic books, and song lyrics.

Understanding other people.

Keeping myself out of trouble.

Having fun.

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.


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  • Newspeak Magazin

    :) I have to share this one with you. :) 10 minutes ago I fnished watching a movie “Surfer Dude”, very positive story about surfing the ocean, about learning it. I’ve found very fascinating what the main character said as being asked what is special about surfing: surfing is about going deep on a mystery, to ride that mystery for so long it is possible. And when it ends it is cool because you were there. So I tipped without thinking surfing linguistics and your blog pops up. I like those word you have said about language as an ocean. You can not know it all, but you can swim with it, you need can have joy of life. And please forgive me my English.

    • Ron G.

      Thank you very, very much for the note, and I really appreciate the compliment. And I completely feel the same way. I’m not a surfer surfer but I love the ocean, and I definitely see the connection there too. Also, your English is great, so you have nothing to worry about.

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  • Lindsay Dow

    I love this idea! I agree when you say you’ll never master another language. :)

    • Ron G.

      Hi Lindsay! Thanks for the note. By the way, checked out your website…love your blog and videos. Definitely adding to my blogroll.

      • Lindsay Dow

        You’re welcome! :) Cool, thanks Ron! Glad you like it – keep an eye out for another video tomorrow…!

  • Fabiano Felipe

    Dude, just, duuuude are you a poet? Because this is poetry! That was the ever best fockin’ definition of language i’ve seen. I learn english by my own (still learnin’) just ’cause i want to watch american series and movies who i couln’t find in portuguese (brasil) and i start to love study foreign languages BUT ‘TILL TODAY THIS WAS THE BEST FOCKIN’ BEAUTI-FULL DEFINITION OF LANGUAGE AS A ENTITY and tool of conection i’ve seen seriously!! Congrats, amazing site, keep doing your good work. I like to download some material to study english, french and german if u have upload it, it will be a great addition.

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  • Roman Shinkarenko

    What would you say about knowing many languages “by the dictionary” as we Russian speakers say, rather than one on a C level? I’d prefer to be able to speak a little with anyone on SharedTalk than only with a few.

    The shameless plug continues:

    • Ron G.

      Hi Roman! I think it’s great. It’s not my particular goal, but I certainly respect it as a goal for others.

      When I lived in German and didn’t speak much German, I was very grateful for people who struggled in English to speak with me. Many weren’t at a very high level in English and some were clearly anxious about their skills, but they for the most part knew enough to communicate, and without their efforts I wouldn’t have been able to order food for my family, get help down at department stores, get help setting up my Internet, etc. etc. One of the reasons I wanted to learn German, besides the personal challenge, was so that I didn’t have to rely on my neighbors’ kindness in order to communicate with them and I could take some of the communication burden.

  • Nina

    Wise words.