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Is your language half full?

| 25 comments | Category: learning languages

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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  • Dan Andrews

    You are sooo right here. Also, after having met you, I'm confident your positivity could stave off a freakin' asteroid strike. Always inspiring!

  • wccrawford

    Actually, they're not just saying the language is half empty, they're saying they -can't- fill it up. That's not just pessimism, that's 'can't'-attitude.

    For me, 'half empty' is a motivator. When I start to lose my way learning Japanese, I have a series of books sitting on my shelf that I bought -way- before I could read them. I go over to them and pick them up and see how close I'm getting to being able to read them. (In fact, just last week I picked up one of them and found I was a lot closer than I expected. I've been pumped ever since then because of it.)

    Note that I'm still saying my glass is partially empty, but I'm using that emptiness as a vacuum to pull me towards it, instead of as a buffer that prevents me from approaching.

  • russ

    Nice analogy, and inspiring. Thanks!

  • oranje68

    You sure are an inspiration for all aspiring linguists (especially Irish ones). I totally agree that you need to concentrate on what you know and build rather than torturing yourself with the mountain of things that you do not yet know.
    I have been learning Japanese for the last year and it is so much harder to make progress than with European languages but like one of the other commenters I reassure myself that I do indeed know hundreds of Japanese words and in the written language every Kanji character you know is one less you need to learn.
    I was wondering if you have found that learning Irish from a young age has helped you with other languages (if you are from the south). Even though many Irish people do not seem to have the same experience I have found that learning a language totally different to English from the age of 4 really made other languages much easier.

  • q12

    it is addidas who says impossible is nothing. nike says : just do it which also might be a good approach ;-)

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    Whoops! I've edited it, you're right of course! I got them mixed up :P
    Just do it is also a really good attitude to have and relevant to this post :D

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    Thanks Dan! Looking forward to hanging out this weekend on Phi Phi!

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    I studied Irish from a young age and German in secondary school, but can honestly say that I retained very little from either and had to start my Irish from a pretty low level when I got back into it as an adult.
    Even if Irish had helped me (the recent Irish studies have, but I think my school studies have contributed very little to what I've achieved in terms of becoming a polyglot), that should definitely not be used as an excuse or proof that it would be “harder” for someone who didn't have that edge, as this post suggests ;)
    I never learned languages in school, I learned lists of grammar tables. That doesn't help with speaking so I think I really got a proper start when I moved to Spain :)
    I'll be talking about the Irish language over a few articles in March when I pop back home briefly.
    Thanks for the positive comment!!

  • Balint

    Great post as always! :)

    Yeah, I've noticed the same pattern – I've just started learning Chinese and there is quite a few people asking: “Why? Chinese is hard” – as if they learnt a word in Chinese. Fist, I tried to explain that it is not that hard, in fact it is really funny, but after a few attempts I gave up. I won't invest energy into changing one's mind and attitude.

    Enough for me to know that we know the right approach. :D

  • oranje68

    I guess that I was lucky with my teachers then. We were encouraged to do public speaking and debating in Irish and I went to Irish college in the summers so it was very much a language of expression on every level. I also had a great French teacher so I can count myself lucky to have had two languages other than English at a reasonable level leaving school.
    There is a lot of great things happening with Irish right now, I look forward to your on it in March ;-)

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    That's great!! Much better than the grammar-obsessed background I had! Left me frustrated and uninterested in the language like most people unfortunately. But I came back to it :) I'm sure you'll enjoy a few things I have to say in March!

  • Pak

    My perspective is that I think I am better at languages than other people . This is probably bullshit, because (as you point out) each one of us is able to learn several languages (that's more or less the norm in Africa), but I guess that this mindset helps me to be optimistic.

  • Orangesplaash

    Hii, I just came across your blog and what a discovery it is…Will keep coming back for more reading..Since I am an expat in Netherlands and have my own expat blog too, this should be some good learning..Good going!!

  • Orangesplaash

    Hii, I just came across your blog and what a discovery it is…Will keep coming back for more reading..Since I am an expat in Netherlands and have my own expat blog too, this should be some good learning..Good going!!

  • Nickel Nzenza

    you're exactly right! A different perspective, a good one preferably.

  • Christopher

    I agree with the goal-setting. Very often with languages it's difficult to realize how much you've actually learned, because the difficulty of your tasks increases with your skill. So the goals you've achieved allow you to look at your current skill with the proper perspective. For example, ten years ago I bought a paperback of “Smilla's Sense of Snow” in the original Danish, and it was my goal that I would read it someday before I died. That seemed like such a mountainous task, but one day I decided that I was ready to do it, and a number of months later I was finished. So now whenever I get frustrated at my skill in Danish, I think back on how intimidating Smilla was, and how impressed I was with my own accomplishment. :) So that gives me a big push to reach my next goal.

  • feonixrift

    This is an awesome blog, I'm really glad I found it! (via stumbleupon)

    I'm from (and in) the USA, currently working on learning Japanese. It'd been on my “someday” list for a long time, but I just couldn't decide what language to start with – one that I hear constantly (spanish) or one that I am infatuated with (japanese). My heart won over my head, so this is my “no looking back” year – I'm gonna learn it!

  • Pamela

    wooo! i love your determination. that's what i have.

    i'm heading to Czech Republic , which is a part of my nationality. I heard some of the locals do still speak Bohemian (before Communism)?

    Random q: have you been to Javornice?

  • Steve

    To Pamela
    If you mean the Czech language when you say Bohemian then you'll be pleased to know that all the locals speak it, it's their national langauge. Bohemia is about two thirds of the Czech Republic.

  • D.J.

    I am headed to Europe on May 24th, landing in Paris on the 25th and be there until August 23rd ('quarter-life crisis” journey). I would love to learn enough French by then not only to get me around, but to be able to have in depth conversations with the aged locals and my French peers as well (I will be 24 in a few days). BUT, here's the kicker…I also want to learn Italian, German and Spanish (Spain) too……any suggestions? I do have Rosetta Stone, but can't stay focused. Am I not trying hard enough, or should I just use it as a way to start?

  • D.J. Huchzermeier

    I am headed to Europe on May 24th, landing in Paris on the 25th and be there until August 23rd ('quarter-life crisis” journey). I would love to learn enough French by then not only to get me around, but to be able to have in depth conversations with the aged locals and my French peers as well (I will be 24 in a few days). BUT, here's the kicker…I also want to learn Italian, German and Spanish (Spain) too……any suggestions? I do have Rosetta Stone, but can't stay focused. Am I not trying hard enough, or should I just use it as a way to start?

  • Jerry

    Thanks for some very important insights, and for the well-thought-out comments that follow.

    Re your discussion of how to learn a language. The following comment may be viewed as going off on a tangent, but this is a site for the enthusiastic among us. In my case it's *why* to learn a language. I began teaching French in the mid-1960s and had the opportunity to attend, at an annual language-teaching conference, one particularly interesting presentation on how to keep teachers conscious of the difficulties of being a beginner. Solution: be a beginner yourself. Not just once, but once every five years, giving yourself a chance to delve more deeply into the new language and its grammar, vocabulary, idiomatic expressions, and of course culture. In my case it was first Hebrew, then German, then Russian, then Dioula – I happened at this particular moment (mid-1970s) to be a Peace Corps volunteer (the *ultimate* language experience, if you wish to make it so) in Côte d'Ivoire, a French-speaking country with a rather large number of indigenous languages. Dioula was chosen because it is a market language, and spoken to some extent by everyone in the country. Mind you, other than French, Dioula was the only language I had the opportunity to learn in-country, so vocabulary and conversational usage came very quickly. After Peace Corps came Spanish – practice anywhere here in the USA – and now Mandarin Chinese (Putonghua). Besides getting practice at any Chinese restaurant, I happen to work at a large tourist attraction, and am very conscious of visitors' accents. When a familiar accent is noted, I instinctively switch my speech to that language, and once the jaw drops, I get a little more conversation practice – and hopefully a bit of correction here and there, pushing my acquisition in the right direction.

    Looking at the experience from the point of view of the foreign visitor, imagine yourself alone in Outer Slobbovia, not understanding a word of what people are saying. How would you react if someone came up to you, noted you were a foreigner, and in very broken English, asked how you were doing, how you were enjoying your visit, etc.? Quite a respite, to say the least, and you would appreciate *that* person's having taken the time to learn *your* language. Speaking another language, as a poet once put it, gives you a second soul, and even Napoléon indicated that knowing a second language made you worth two people to him. Don't give up.

    For some of us, learning a language is a very enjoyable challenge, but without a foil against which to push, the “half empty” metaphor is the most apt. It's like attempting to become an excellent tennis player – you MUST play against someone who is better than you. To learn a language in a vacuum is enjoyable just up to a point, then you must fill your glass by pushing the envelope. This writer listens to the Pimsleur lessons on CD, imitates and repeats the tone cues, practices writing the characters (watching for graphic anchors), practices the tones, then goes to use the language in situation.

  • zaneclaes

    I'm always in awe by people with this infinitely positive mentality. I'd say I'm an optimist, but I'm affected by the people around me – so I simply surround myself with optimistic and happy people. I'm not saying I just axe/ignore people who aren't like this, but its important to know who is an “energy black hole” so you can resist their pessimism.

    With regards to languages (and learning in general) an outlook is so incredibly important, yet so many people overlook it. Personal experience alone has shown me that 30 minutes of excited study is more valuable than hours of boredom doing the same task. I think there are a number of other things that can help your approach as well, such as understanding a little of the science behind learning. I've written a bit about it here, and I'll be adding to the science on my blog soon:

  • Benny the language hacker


  • Megan

    Wow, completely right what you’re explaining is just like any other thing. I often found in cross country that if I kept telling myself to keep going, or that I was almost there I could do it. Though when I saw others being so pessimistic they just stopped running, or didn’t continue and kept saying they couldn’t do it. Optimism surely is the way to learn a language and I’m going to use it all the way through. Love your post.