The pessimist says the glass is half empty. The optimist says it’s half full. The pragmatist says its liquid contents are at 50% capacity. The ironist says it’s half full of air. The practicalist says the glass is twice as big as it should be. The psychoanalyst says the glass is your mother. The punk sitting next to you on the bus also says the glass is your mother. The zen master says, “There is no glass.” And me…, I say, “Waitress! Refill!”
Each one of these is a different perspective on exactly the same thing. A negative one is by far one of the biggest issues people have that holds them back from learning languages, in my opinion.
In the last 7-8 months blogging and being much more public about my missions, I’ve gotten lots of positive feedback and an equal about of scepticism. Scepticism is good, and I’ve shown that I too don’t believe in ridiculous claims so easy.
Despite this, I have achieved these goals. I learned how to speak Czech in two months and I spoke Portuguese like a Brazilian in 3 months. I am confident that I will speak and read Thai in just 8 weeks (at the moment I am aiming to do better than my initial goals with regards speaking; more on this later).
This is much less thanks to genetics and natural talent, and much more down to an efficient approach and a great deal of optimism throughout the task. Optimism isn’t just having a smile on your face despite setbacks, it can dramatically alter the course of your personal missions.
The half-empty perspective isn’t “wrong”, but it holds you back
People have amazing ways of justifying why it’s not possible for them. When the target is announced they’ll give a list of reasons to hold you back from achieving it and why you have your “head in the clouds” if you think it’s possible. And after seeing seemingly impossible tasks achieved they will find a workaround to why it’s not possible for them and just say that this person is an “exception” or a “genius”.
I’ve talked to hundreds of sceptics in the last 7 months and I can now very easily summarise one thing that nearly all of them have in common, and that holds them back from achieving what I have. Their language is half empty.
With the Czech mission, they told me that the 7 grammatical cases, difficult to pronounce letter combinations, vast amount of vocabulary to learn and other factors are what will hold me back. In the Brazilian mission they said that an accent can never be lost, especially over a short time. And you know what? Technically they are indeed right.
The glass in the picture is half empty. This is not a falsehood. You can provide evidence and anecdotes of people that have tried hard tasks and failed, you can provide endless facts and lists of things that must be learned that seem like an insurmountable monster and you can constantly remind yourself how hard it is. You aren’t wrong.
But there’s a better way to look at it
The glass in the picture is also half full.
You can look at how easy a language is; how you already know words before starting, how a new writing system can be deciphered if you try a different approach, how noun genders aren’t that bad, how you can get rid of your accent, or practise the language without needing to travel, or achieve your language goals even if you are busy, etc.
This is what makes me different from those who don’t learn languages quickly. Everything you read on this blog reinforces how learning languages is not that bad and I focus entirely on the positive. Every barrier that appears in your path can be overcome if you try a new approach and have the right attitude.
Bad news will always come your way and you have to develop the ability to filter it only for useful facts. When I heard about Czech’s 7 cases, I found a shortcut and saw that there are lots of patterns, worked on them and decided to just accept 7 cases as a new concept that I’d incorporate into speaking. It did take some getting used to, but it wasn’t that bad, especially when I went further and tried to put a positive spin on it.
I could have spent a lot of time complaining about those “damn” cases in Czech, but that would not have helped. Instead I just said “Oh well” and got through them. This is the same thing I do for any challenge in learning a language. The reason I get through them quickly is of course influenced greatly by my learning approach, but I think an almost bigger contributor is the fact that I don’t look at this task negatively. With a bad attitude, anything can be hard to study and you’ll get through it much slower and much more reluctantly.
Here in Thailand I’ve met others who seem to have much greater intelligence and skillset than I do, who are also trying to learn Thai. And yet in talking to them I can see why it will be a struggle and why they may not succeed. They are focussing on the negative. Everything they say is technically “correct”, but I am looking at the facts from a different perspective and at the end of the day I will master the language because of this.
Impossible is impossible
Never say never, and especially never say “impossible”. It’s a word people throw around too much; for me impossible is nothing as Adidas say, or I’ll go further and say that impossible is impossible for most situations people use it in. If the laws of Physics don’t prevent you from doing it (clearing your debt, climbing Mouth Everest, learning a language) then it is NOT impossible. If anyone in the history of the world has done it, then you can certainly do it. If they haven’t then what’s stopping you from being the first?
Constantly reminding yourself and others about how hard something is and getting down because of that is an inefficient waste of time. It’s like Baz Luhrmann’s sunscreen song says; “Worry, but know that worrying is as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubblegum”. If something’s hard, work through it or skip it and come back to it after you’ve learned something else important for your task, or find a better approach to deal with that hard aspect.
Simple as that. Really.
This is why I generally skip most grammar and focus on speaking languages from the start (I’ve got a different approach for Thai, that I’ll continue to elaborate on). Once you start speaking it (albeit incorrectly), grammar is more interesting and less intimidating and helps you, rather than hinders you, in speaking a language.
When I get response comments listing how “impossibly” hard something I’m trying is, I’m going to simply link to this post in future because that person is focussing on the negative. They are “right”, but unless they are giving me a way around the problem they aren’t helpful so I will simply ignore what they’ve said or pick out the actual “fact” (level of difficulty is pure opinion) and analyse it until I see how easy it can be.
From hundreds of conversations, I’m sure that this is one of the most crucial things I’ve picked up over the last 7 years that makes me “different” from the average frustrated learner. But attitude is in your head; you don’t need to pay for an expensive course or travel to the other side of the planet to change it. You need to remind yourself how easy it is until you really believe it. When you come to something “hard”, just repeat your mantra of this is easy over and over again, or do whatever it takes for you to change your negative way of looking at it.
With a positive attitude, your project becomes more fun and easier simply because you tell yourself it is and if “empty words” don’t help, find new approaches to learning that language (or achieving any goal) until you find a better method that does indeed make things “easier” for you. Where there’s a will, there’s a way!
It’s not that bad, come on!
I got an amazing 22,000 visits in the last 2 days through stumbleupon on my post about learning any phonetic script in a few hours! It makes me really happy when my work is read by a lot of people, so please remember if you liked this (or any) post, to give it a stumble thumbs-up, or to share the link on facebook or twitter
Hopefully next week I should have the next update on my next milestone in Thai (and possibly a video update or two!)- at the moment I’m on Phi Phi island and very much enjoying it, and to make things better I’m with hanging out with other bloggers (and generally cool people) like Sarah Lipman, Sean Ogle and Dan Andrews, so I’ll stay here several days to enjoy the beautiful scenery and the company of some cool fellow travellers before moving on.
I hope people agree with me that a bad attitude will definitely slow you down in any project. So let me ask you something, is your language half full or half empty?
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If you enjoyed this post, you will love my TEDx talk! You can get much better details of how I recommend learning a language if you watch it here.
This article was written by Benny Lewis
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