One problem with seeing the end-result of any feat, is not understanding the processes that went on to get to that point. As my friend Khatzumoto said to me once;
Olympic coverage really ticks me off… you can’t just go up to a person on game day and say how talented they are. So I came up with this rule, that in order to earn the right to watch the Olympics you should have to watch all of their training too!
This issue of ignoring the work that person had to go through to get to the point you see him is a huge problem in language learning. It’s easy to see someone speak a foreign language and dismiss that person as a “genius”, or say that it just comes naturally to them. As if it was their destiny, or a universe-conspired explosion of luck. This is discouraging as each of us thinks about how much we have to struggle, and study and fail because we don’t have natural talent.
While I will always strive to learn as quickly as I can, the fact of the matter is that I can’t, and no other learner can, skip the frustration involved and required to reach a useful level in a foreign language. One reason the title of this blog tends to annoy a lot of people is because of this presumption that I perhaps claim to go to the country, hang out with pretty girls and party all the time in glamorous James-Bond style and magically speak the language at the end; it’s just not fair, so it can’t be true. Learning a language takes hard work, and since spending “only” 3 months on it isn’t hard work, I must be lying.
But here’s the thing. Three months is a really long time. It’s not about counting the months, but counting the hours and the quality of those hours that makes the difference. A lot of my time, especially initially, is spent quite a bit outside of my comfort zone, and actually being tremendously frustrated, and this is something that very few learners do much, even if they spend “lots of time” studying.
The only way to get anywhere meaningful is through hard work
And I’ll let you in on a little secret that those who think I party my way to fluency don’t know: I’m pouring blood, sweat, tears and a crapload of sacrifices into this mission. More than the vast majority of those who have been “learning the language for years” can ever imagine. It’s about priorities and insane devotion to the task, not simply “working hard”. This is something that anyone else can do, but sadly most don’t.
One reason it will indeed take you years to learn a language is if you make sure you are comfortable the entire time. Stay indoors with software that mostly requires that you just click a few buttons, sit down with a book or go for a pleasant jog with a podcast on, go to a class and let the teacher do all the talking, or do exercises only at the level prescribed to you. Even if you are pouring everything into studying hard, is that really trying as hard as you can? Working hard is not the same as living hard.
In my mind, this isn’t good enough and it’s too academic. The real world presents you with problems and learning opportunities before you are ready. The more you are exposed to them, the faster you’ll be forced to learn.
To illustrate this, let me give you a comparison of what I am doing and what a typical expat learning the language might do:
My own long road through the shortcut: a typical day
Most expats: Get up, work, study some vocab in the break, after work get the weekly one hour private lesson, and speak in English the entire time, go home and study for an hour, then go out with your English speaking mates for the rest of the night, complaining about how hard Chinese is… in English. Satisfied that 2 or 3 entire hours of “hard” work mean he’s done his part on the “long road” to speak the language some day.
Me: Wake up to a radio in Mandarin telling me the news and desperately force myself to pick out as many words as I can, and wish I knew what was going on in the world after I understand only fragmented basic words. Start off grumpy.
Go somewhere completely different for breakfast today to force myself to get out of the lazy routine I was getting into, since my favourite place already knows what I want and I just confirm it with 2 or 3 of the same words. It’s possible I’ll order the wrong thing because of this. Order in broken Mandarin, with no more pointing and just saying “that” and consider it a success if I get what I wanted. Starting the day off with the wrong breakfast is damn annoying, but you can bet I won’t make the mistake again next time.
I really could have done with that filling hot egg and spinach muffin they have at the Starbucks across the road… but deal with the fact that a breakfast is a breakfast. At least I ordered it in a way that forced me to practice beyond repeating the same words I already know.
Study for several hours, then after doing work for several hours after that (yes, I have to work too! Luckily it’s part time for the moment) get out of the books and out of the house to do the important spoken project of that day (e.g. explain my way into having my cellphone repaired, go get a quick tea somewhere and force myself to ask a non-tea related question of the waitress, ask directions to something that I know the answer of to help me get used to expected vocab, record a video in Mandarin for Youtube commenters to take dumps on me etc. – anything that forces me to speak the language) Every experience is like pulling teeth as I am way out of my comfort zone, but each time I learn something important and remember the minor victories.
Then it’s time for the gym! But treadmills and dumbbells are boring. Instead I go to dance lessons included in my membership. An entire hour of instructions being shouted at me and others… in Mandarin of course. Trying to divide my attention between mimicking the instructor’s body movements precisely (luckily I have some experience dancing, so I keep up fine), and trying to figure out if I can contextually figure out what he’s saying and learn some new words. End the hour exhausted physically and mentally.
Go to a crowded cafe with lots of people speaking and try to study there until they close. Studying is the easy part. Sitting in a comfy chair with nice music and nobody pressuring me or waiting for me to say what I want to say… I could do this all day! Which is exactly why I shouldn’t…
An expat walks in with his local girlfriend, speaking in English, and is soon joined by several expat friends. I sigh about the fact that I still don’t know anyone in the city yet (I’m certainly not too shy to make new friends, just not able to do it effectively in the local language yet and not interested in the slippery slope of hanging out “just a little” with English speaking expats), and put my earphones on with the radio (some easy listening station, since love songs have much easier to distinguish slower lyrics) as I continue to study. My time to shine and really get into the meat of the part of language learning I love most will come in a few short weeks. All this studying is based on the issues I actually have with speaking, not on blindly going through courses.
Come home, and try to communicate with my terribly broken Chinese in an online chatroom. Succeed in convincing someone to meet up with me next week! Then realize how incredibly unprepared I am to sit down with someone and talk for more than 5 seconds in Mandarin. Anyway, I’ll figure that out when the time comes…
Then finally it’s time to “reward” myself with two hours of non-work-related English to end my day, but I keep it entirely online to make sure I actually speak as little as possible or no English at all in that day.
I naively think that they Internet is going to be a warm friendly and encouraging place, and then see forums, blog posts, comments, youtube videos reminding me (as if I haven’t heard it enough already) that I’m going to fail miserably and am not “taking this seriously”. After a pretty rough day of taking it seriously I get angry with Internet trolls and waste my wind-down time feeding them. Ironically these comments are helping me because I’m getting great negative reinforcement about exposing myself to English. When I speak in Mandarin everyone is friendly, and smiling and encouraging… and I feel energised after each time I’ve tried to say something new to someone, despite how awkward it is. But when I discuss speaking Mandarin in English then it’s doom and gloom.
The solution to this problem is obvious. More Mandarin, less English.
I shrug off the discouragement, and filter it out for some useful comments and feedback and take that to heart. As well as this many people are indeed giving me useful encouragement, which is crucial, and something I really need after the day I’ve had. There is an important process of dealing with the immense amount of negativity I’ve been getting for this project, and your own doubts that slow you down, and a process that has been the core of helping me to learn faster that I’ll discuss in the next post.
Then I remember that there is a big X at the top right of the window and I can turn them off… and I go to bed to start the process all over again the next day.
Are you under pressure to improve all the time?
It’s not fun to be stuck in this stage, and the whole point of it is that if you want to stick to your guns and be 100% devoted, you can’t start sharing your frustrations with anyone in person yet, because you don’t even know the word for “frustration”. But I know from experience how much all this hard work can pay off in terms of friendships and exposure to sides of a culture many passers-through never get to see.
Despite the fact that I’m not enjoying myself much in this stage of the language learning process, I am enjoying the language. It’s the most logical, consistent and straightforward language I’ve ever come across!
Studying the grammar, vocab, tones, word order and characters are the easy part. The hard part is to force myself to actually use them instead of just sitting down with a book all day, which is so tempting as that is well within my comfort zone. The hard part is to go up to someone when I speak so desperately slowly still, and doing it anyway.
All of my frustrations are based on the interactions I force myself into, as it’s quite lonely to have to go through this rough stage of not being able to express myself at a useful level yet. Many expats don’t really have this frustration, because after a few brief attempts at trying, they will go back to their friends and vent in English. I know that if I can stay with this frustration a little longer, then the level of frustration will very quickly start to evaporate.
Since I didn’t make it clear before, I’ll specify it now: I’m learning Chinese so that I can speak it for the rest of my life. This is not like some other missions I had in the last year or two where I was just checking out a language and learning what I needed for that single experience. So all my work is focused on long term benefits for short term sacrifices. I am not hanging out with the many fun and interesting Taiwanese who speak English because this is only the first time I’ll be in the country, and I want to make sure I can see the many sides English speakers are prevented from seeing, in my last month here on this visit, as well as helping me fully appreciate mainland China when I get to visit it after these 3 months are up.
If this means I have to have a rough one or two months of really frustrating entire days and way less socialising than I like (but still plenty of speaking) before I can use the language confidently and start to make deep friendships, then it will have totally been worth it.
Everyone struggles, but some struggle more efficiently
Those of you who will have seen my first video attempt at Mandarin, will see in my face how much I’m trying to think to force basic words out of me (or in this case… ba…sic….syll…a…bles), and may appreciate that maybe there is no quantum leap of merrily skipping through frustration for anyone. This is why I shared that video with you, and will likely make another one again in two weeks – just one video at the end could not possibly tell the whole story.
Everyone struggles, and I hope you can see that I’m going through the same problems any language learner has to go through, and actually many other issues that most language learners don’t have to go through because of my intensity and avoiding of English speakers, leading to all of my interactions throughout the day being superficial.
There is a huge difference in how I’m approaching this. Instead of skipping frustration, I do what few others will – I charge into it and fill my entire day with it. It’s like tearing off a band-aid; most people do the “hard stuff” of feeling like an idiot in early stages of language learning in very small doses. I’m doing lots of study of course, but what really defines my day is what I do away from the books and audio and comfy chairs.
While I got the usual Internet “warmth” of people laughing at me, or reminding me… again… that what I’m aiming for is impossible (seriously people, look impossible up in a dictionary or figure out what it really means will you!) after uploading that video, I also got some useful feedback of what to focus on next, and having produced the video forced me to learn things I hadn’t before, that no book could EVER teach me.
The video isn’t so impressive and that’s the point. I’m not pulling any rabbits out of any hats in this mission and I’m not merrily skipping my way up to higher spoken levels overnight. I’m struggling, but doing so more efficiently and more consistently than most learners would. When learners tell me that it takes “at least 5 years” to speak Mandarin, I have to ask them frankly – what the hell were you doing for those five years? I’m not smarter than you, I’m just more willing to take more punishment and feel like a complete idiot most of the day.
I feel like the myth that you are “smart” if you learn languages, makes too many people unwilling to accept that they will not be able to argue politics and deeply share their feelings if they dared to speak in their first weeks, before they are “ready”. Any idiot can learn a language, and knowing this means that I can accept that perhaps I have to be that idiot.
You feel really stupid when you try to use a language in situations that are outside of your comfort zone, and that’s precisely why you need MORE of these situations, not less of them.
If you charge into the frustration, embrace it, and fill up all your free time with it, then you WILL get to the other side much quicker. Too many learners only do these annoying practice things, once in a while, and it’s what slows them down tremendously. Doing it the hard and intensive way is damn stressful, and I can confirm that. I’m not interested in the easiest way to learn a language, I want the most efficient way.
Enough of this easing yourself in gently nonsense. That’s precisely why it’s taking you so much time.
Hopefully my next video will be much more interesting (unlike the first one, something I’d be very happy to show to a native) and it will be because I’ve been through hell to get to it But I’ve been to hell and back several times by now and know the path intimately.
Totally worth it every time.
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This article was written by Benny Lewis
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