When disliking learning languages can be a really good thing

When disliking learning languages can be a really good thing

Benny

It may seem like the last thing you’d expect to read on a blog that discusses language learning so much, but I don’t actually like learning languages.

It’s quite an oddity in language learning circles, because if you talk to linguists and read many other language learning blogs and forums, you can feel their passion about this learning process flow out of them. I’ve had some very interesting dialogues with and learned a lot from some of the more open minded among them.

Sadly, some others see what I’m doing (attempting to speak a language as quickly as humanly possible) as an insult. If you are passionate about languages themselves, or if you’ve personally taken your time to get where you were, you’d say that language learning should be savoured and enjoyed. Of course when you enjoy the learning process itself, someone who dislikes spending time on that is going to have a lot to say that you’ll disagree with.

But we really are talking about very different things.

It’s one reason that I generally don’t tend to socialise with people who talk mostly about language learning. It just doesn’t interest me – the same way I have no interest in talking about stamp collecting or fashion trends in high heels. I prefer to use my languages to talk about other things.

This is why you’ll see my Youtube channel filled up with videos about dancing, local culture, online tools, life as an aupair, France/Quebec cultural differences, lots and lots of singing, huge festivals and even hiking a volcano. I used a foreign language to help me in almost every one of these videos, and most of them are actually viewable entirely in a foreign language.

When I make most videos in a foreign language, especially those I’m fluent in, it’s actually for natives to watch rather than for language learners or to prove my level to people who may think that I’m faking all this. I take this aspect very seriously and because of this my (Italian) Burning Man video was shown on National Geographic Italy, my (Spanish) Hike to the peak of Mount Teide video has been used by the Canary Islands tourism board to promote the island’s culture, and my Spanish “What is RSS” video got on page one of Menéame (something along the lines of a Reddit page in Spanish). None of these had any kind of language-learning spin on them.

One thing you don’t see me talk about in any of these videos, is language learning. This is a pet peeve of mine – using a language almost exclusively to talk about the process of learning languages. I’ll do that on this blog, or in a course specifically about that topic in English, but when I shut off my computer and walk outside my house I prefer to discuss the many other things in this big world that have nothing to do with conjugations and vocabulary.

As I start to socialise in Mandarin, I’ve been able to force myself to expand on that – for example, this evening I was using my Mandarin to explain to a native about the annoying (and ultimately expensive) procedure for a foreigner to arrange a visa for mainland China from a country that has no Chinese embassy (or consulate), since it isn’t recognised as a country by China. This is just an example of something that I happened to want to talk about.

I’ll make an exception to this next week, and upload a spontaneous chat with my Mandarin teacher about how I’ve been learning the language so far, since she’d have a very valid point of view to share on that and since so many people are curious to see my progress and current level. Although my priority will be to make almost every video I upload in Mandarin about something that I’d consider more interesting, as I’ve tried to do already.

If the video doesn’t seem relevant from a language learning context… well, that’s kind of the point!!

A language is a means to an end

The interest and passion for the learning process I see that so many people have is great and all, but there is one simple reason why I don’t care much for spending endless years learning languages:

I see languages as a means to an end – nothing more.

A language is your tool to communicate with one or more other human beings better. If you are passionate about how that tool works, the history of it, how it relates to other tools, what’s going on in people’s brains when they use the tool etc. – that’s great! Science and the quest for knowledge is a wonderful thing. But knowing all of this can not necessarily help you use the tool better. Some of it definitely does, but I see this as a very roundabout way of getting to the point, and one reason people learn slower than they should.

I’m not passionate about learning languages but I am passionate about using them. Communicating with as many people as possible on this tiny little speck has been filling my life with joy for most of the last decade. My whole language learning approach stems from this. Use it or lose it. Studying alone will never help.

So when I’m learning something from a book or podcast etc., I only want to know one thing: can this help me speak better right now. The reason I absolutely insist that people should be “more in a rush” is something I’ll discuss in the next post, (since justifying my obvious focus on learning as fast as possible is a question that comes up a lot) but for the moment just know that all my energy is going into an incredibly practical way of looking at the language. I discard anything that I see as irrelevant, or something that would be better suited to learning later when I’m in final-tweak mode.

But the problem when you absolutely love a language is that you don’t want to “treat it badly”. “Butchering” it with your mistakes and daring to speak when you won’t be using the right word. This perfectionist paralysis can do you no good.

On the other hand, I have no respect for languages and will bend it and shape it to my will. The only people who tend to get offended by this are perfectionists, not the natives that I socialise with.

As I said, it’s a tool – it’s like telling someone to stop banging that hammer and to appreciate its craftsmanship and to go to hammer school to learn how to use it precisely the right way, when the person using it is more interested in building something right now. “OK, tell me how to hold it better if that will help, but then get out of my way!” It seems ludicrous to suggest the idea of a “hammer school”, but this is how I view most academic approaches to language learning. If the school isn’t immersion based, it’s generally overanalysing the language and doing anything but actually using it.

Communicative-focused learners are more pragmatic. Not passing some test created by academics for academics and not saying something perfectly when they’ve only just started learning the language are quite acceptable when the goal is to simply use the language as quickly as possible and then to improve to a higher level from there as quickly as possible.

I’m not suggesting that you stop loving your language, no more than I would suggest that you stop appreciating a work of art. But just remember that the best artists in history are the best because they did something with their art, not because they knew the history/science/components about art.

What do you think? Could seeing a language as a tool more than something to be appreciated, savoured and respected work for you? It certainly has been for me…

It may seem like the last thing you’d expect to read on a blog that discusses language learning so much, but I don’t actually like learning languages. It’s quite an oddity in language learning circles, because if you talk to linguists and read many other language learning blogs and forums, you can feel their passion […]

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  • WC

    To me, language learning is enjoyable, but not nearly so much as actually using the language.  

    I think that’s why I can’t really get into Esperanto.  Everywhere I see it being used, it’s only used for talking about 2 things: Politics and Esperanto.  Neither of those actually interest me.  

    As for your videos, I hadn’t thought about it, but now that you point it out, I’m glad you don’t talk about language in them.  They’re much more interesting when you talk about the culture or region.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      If that were the case with everyone at Esperanto meetings I would have given up on the language long ago. Luckily when I go there I just hang out and have fun with people – flirt with some cute girls, swap travel stories etc. This is why it counts as a useful language for me. If people truly only discussed Esperanto itself in the language, I would indeed find it a waste of time.

      I’ve never discussed politics in Esperanto myself – you have a particular crowd online who use the language, which doesn’t really represent the actual speakers you’d meet in person so well. If you ever get a chance to go to a meeting you’ll see what I mean.

      Glad you like the more cultural focus of my videos!

      • http://twitter.com/latinAbroad Maria Alexandra

        I agree with WC (except I actually enjoy Politics, haha). 

        While I respect your opinion, I find language learning somewhat enjoyable. Loved your post for being so honest though, Benny! ;)

  • http://www.yearlyglot.com/ Randy the Yearlyglot

    Brilliant.

  • Craig Sellars

    Thanks Benny! Well written once again.

  • http://www.chrislrobinson.com Chris L. Robinson

    Wow, Benny. It’s a manifesto! And I think that in these few sentences below you manage to simultaneously encapsulate what is so intriguing about your approach for some and so maddening for others:

    “But the problem when you absolutely love a language is that you don’t
    want to “treat it badly”. “Butchering” it with your mistakes and daring
    to speak when you won’t be using the right word. This perfectionist paralysis can do you no good.

    On the other hand, I have no respect for languages
    and will bend it and shape it to my will. ”

    Beautiful.

    Many people seem t see languages as a Ferrari that someday they hope someday to be able to afford.  Then, while they’ve got their noses pressed against the dealership glass, guys like you speed by  in a Fiat!

    I’ll take the Fiat today, please!

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      Well said! I ultimately plan to “drive a Ferrari” some day in each of my languages, but working my way up with a tricycle, then BMX, then motorbike, then Fiat etc. means that at least I’m actually getting from A to B, while the Ferrari dreamers are still “saving up for that day” – all the while I’m selling my previous vehicle to help me buy the next one and becoming a better driver all the time because of it ;)

      • Kieran Maynard

        Love it!

  • Peter Sipes

    Great post. 

  • http://twitter.com/irekjank Irek

    To all who read this post. If you are disappointed read it again. Thanks for calling a spade a spade. 

  • Jo Savill

    Great post Benny! I think your mindset is so important – it’s something that I’ve been struggling with for a while – I really don’t enjoy learning languages, but I don’t need to love the process, I just need to love the result – being able to communicate! Now to get back to learning some Hebrew verbs… Thanks for the inspiration!

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      Keep up the good work – use those verbs with a human being this week and it will make the studying feel a lot more worthwhile ;)

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001287829966 Rachel Wenning

    One of my biggest obstacles learning Japanese was being a perfectionist about it, but this post made me think that it was made worse by college instruction. The focus is on rules, not on communication. When you get corrected every time you make a mistake, you start avoiding trying to say what you mean because you don’t want to risk messing it up. 

    Ultimately I think it took the joy out of Japanese for me, it became such a chore and I couldn’t even use what I knew because I thought I wasn’t good enough. I also thought I could never learn without school, so I just gave up. College has the advantage of pushing you to work hard but if it kills your interest what’s the point? If you’re actually getting out there speaking that will be your push and your reward is connecting to native speakers rather than just a grade.

    I’m glad you posted this, it’s a good reminder of why I’m getting back into the language and how it can be a very different experience this time.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      Yes that’s another problem – the academics who love learning languages so much THINK that because of that, their approach of constantly getting corrected must work for everyone. They’re wrong. A perfectionist approach only works for perfectionists – as you say it kills the love for the language in the rest of us.

    • http://www.japaneseruleof7.com/ Ken Seeroi

       Hi Rachel, I think that’s especially a problem with Japanese.  There’s a tendency to make Japanese (and Japanese culture) more serious than it really is.   Japanese classes teach that you need to use the appropriate politeness levels, speak humbly, and show respect to those above you.  In reality, living in Japan, I just speak as best I can, right or wrong, and it really never matters.  (See my site for more about real life in Japan if you’re interested.)  I mean, I don’t really have any other option than to do the best I can.  Like the other day, my water heater stopped working.  When I called the landlord, I guess I should have said, “my water heater has become broken” instead of “my water heater is broken.”  But whatever, I just gotta get the thing fixed so I can take a shower, you know what I mean?  It’s not practice any more,  I have to survive with Japanese even if the form is wrong.  I think if you act generally politely and have good manners, people more than understand that you’re trying.  The same as anywhere.

      If anything, I think foreigners who come to Japan speak too formally and stiffly.  Everybody’s happier if you just relax and have fun.  That’s way more important that whether or not you put -masu on the end of your verbs.  Benny’s approach is right on.  It’s not just the best way; it’s really the only way.

  • http://kaetslanguages.wordpress.com/ Kate

    I actually did a blogpost
    (on my new language blog – but then I did study linguistics!) about
    this very topic this morning. Basically I think you can only get fluent
    in a language you *use* (specifically not saying practise, here). I
    actually do enjoy some of the process of language learning, but I want
    to see it getting me somewhere. That’s why, much as in theory I’d really like to speak Irish, I’ve never put any real effort into going back to it. Spending time in the Gaeltacht isn’t something I have time or opportunity to do, whereas I could speak a whole lot of Russian in this country, so that’s what I’m learning right now, while keeping up the other languages I can use here.

  • Claudio Santori

    I am learning Lithuanian and my first month of studying and exercise is almost over. I have been speaking and listening a lot plus attending a course. I have been studying before it English at school and french. 5 years of english at school and when I visited  the US I could not say anything..I just didn’t undertand people.
    Then I moved to Finland and I learnt finnish, grammar + speaking. So in the last years I have been busy with languages and I understand very well what works and what doesn’t work.
    Luckily I got to know this blog. I have to say that I am a bit nerdy when it comes to languages and I really love the grammar, the rules and the new world it opens in my brain. But mostly I like the speaking part and I am not afraid to speak with natives.
    So from this weekend for a month I will speak only in Lithuanian…and I will let you know how it goes.Thank you Benny for the inspiration, I am a big fan (and your italian is AMAZING MAN!)

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      Glad to hear it and thanks for the very kind words!

    • Arcius

      Hey if you need any help with your Lithuanian write me: arturas.puicius@gmail.com . I may help to find you some materials or sources where you can learn it easier. I am allways happy to see people learning Lithuanian. ;]

  • http://profiles.google.com/laurl921 Lauren Weaver

    I usually really enjoy and identify with your blog posts, but this one threw me a bit. Maybe it’s because I really do enjoy the process of learning a language. I find it so rewarding after studying French for 9 years to hear someone tell me I really sound French when I speak, not because I’m a perfectionist for the accent/grammatical structure, etc., but because it means I’ve finally been able to get inside the head of a French person and understand what it is to think like the French. There’s so much that goes into a language culturally. Expressions, sounds, exclamations, jokes. To me learning a language is learning another world and another way of life. Maybe I’m crazy, but that’s something I do like to savor. In a way, I think I’d be disappointed if I could be linguistically and culturally fluent in a new language in just three months. 

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      “I think I’d be disappointed if I could be linguistically and culturally fluent in a new language in just three months”. Then yes, you definitely can’t identify with my point of view :P

      But if you enjoy the learning process, that’s great! Nothing wrong with that – I’m just saying that from a goal-oriented point of view it’s not as efficient.

      Great job on getting inside the head of the French though! It shows that your hard work has paid off ;)

    • http://www.chrislrobinson.com Chris L. Robinson

       I take back what I said about Benny encapsulating the issue in the OP. You, Lauren, have captured it! You don’t WANT it to be easy! You want the challenge and the struggle because it is satisfying to be rewarded for your hard work and focus and time devoted to the language itself.

      I completely get that.

      And I’m exactly the opposite. I see learning the language as a means to an end, as a way to enable me to connect with other people and cultures. And I’d rather do that sooner than later and poorly (to start) than not at all.

      The learning is like a boring bus trip to Rome. Or, in my case–I’m learning Spanish–Mexico City.  That’s *how* I get to where I can eat and dance and talk and have fun with other Spanish-speakers.

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

    The context is different – I defend a language as not-as-bad-as-you-think when people frame it as being too hard to learn. The reason I do this is because looking at the language with a positive mentality and appreciating how simple and logical it can be is beneficial to helping me master it quicker.

    I’ll betray that same language and use it as an example of why another language is easier if that fits my current objective ;)

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

     Since I live in the real world, I don’t concern myself with such questions ;)

  • Anonymous

    I definitely agree that seeing someone’s face light up when you use an appropriate phrase spoken in a comprehensible fashion along with thrill of understanding the answer that makes the learning all worthwhile. The learning, like you say, is only the means to that end…

  • Anonymous

    Fiquei meio triste de ver que todos os comentários aqui eram em inglês, mesmo com você avisando para comentar em qualquer uma das línguas a direita e resolvi comentar também. Comecei agora a acompanhar seu blog e seus “métodos” por indicação de um amiga. Tenho muita preguiça em aprender línguas, isto é, no processo, mas adoraria saber todas as línguas do mundo. Vamos ver no que dá. =)

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      Gostei do comentário! Obrigado e boa sorte!!

  • http://vocabat.com/ Katie

    Another great post. I suppose we all do what we love in the end. If you find the learning process itself really groovy, you will be a lifelong learner! (And there’s nothing wrong in that) If you get way more kicks from using languages, use them you will. 

    I always really appreciate how much respect you show for other people’s perspectives and priorities and how you don’t tout your way of seeing things as the only way. (Even though your way is also my way!) As long as people are happy with the results they are or aren’t getting, great. Since most people CLAIM, however, that what they really want is to be able to speak the language, it’s useful that you point out how disingenuous it is to claim that this is their desire but then pursue all these counterproductive attitudes and approaches that make it excruciatingly difficult, if not downright impossible, to achieve that goal in any kind of reasonable timetable. 

    Also, since you don’t really like the learning process, I’m sure you zip through that stage as fast as possible! The people whose hearts go a-flutter at conjugation charts will probably have A LOT of time to ooh and aah over the language’s idiosyncrasies, time that you’re out there meeting people and accumulating extremely cool experiences! Oh, and getting much better at the language in the meantime!

  • Anonymous

    I can definitely agree with what you are saying here. Actually learning a language is tons of not-so-fun work.  The enjoyable part is the communication with people, in their own tongue: debating issues, flirting, learning about new cultures, etc.

    I recently read the book Babel No More and it came across to me extremely odd that some hyperpolyglots spend hours and hours a day learning languages.  They don’t ever use them to interact with people.  Why even bother then?

    It would be like practicing 10 hours a day to shoot soccer/football goals and then never play in a game.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      Agreed. They enjoy the learning process, which is fine, but I personally don’t see it as practical. It’s been pointed out to me that they enjoy literature, which I don’t appreciate much myself.

      I wouldn’t say “why even bother then” if it’s something they enjoy – since that argument could be applied to any hobby. I’m just doubting the real world applications.

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

    On this blog I write my advice presuming people want to speak a language. Readers who are passionate about languages in other means need to realise that they are part of the minority, although it’s a very voicy minority because that group tends to be the ones writing all the language courses and doing all the writing on forums and most language websites.

    Most people would prefer to speak. Everyone is entitled to his priorities though, but don’t be surprised that people talk “in absolutes” on a blog about speaking languages.

  • Anonymous

    Of all of the articles you have written Benny, this one is the best. Could not agree more! Exceptional.

  • http://twitter.com/Tweetalang Tweetalang

    “Communicating with as many people as possible on this tiny little speck has been filling my life with joy for most of the last decade.”

    Great stuff. This is also the message I’m trying to spread. I think the fact that most people believe they can’t learn a new language unless they have that “passion” for language learning, is actually what prevents most people from ever trying. 
    If we can show more people that language is simply a tool for communicating what’s important for you and for learning from the different perspectives from all over the world, I really think more people would at least attempt the learning process.

    Excellent post.

  • http://www.milfordplaza.com/ milford plaza hotels

    Benny,
    Great post! This information and facts will help me explain my pursuit a little more clearly to the naysayers in my lifestyle. Really like the “hammer school” example.

    Thank you once again for your realistic approach–which matches me just excellent.

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

    As I said in the post, I enjoy USING the languages as a means to discovering amazing foreign cultures. But it’s a means to an end. I prefer to see a side of human nature I never would have imagined than an interesting grammar rule.

    If you enjoy the process, that’s great! I enjoy the result way more.

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

    Perhaps, but to me human nature is reflected in humans way better ;)

    • MAC

      Yeah, but ONLY accessible through a mutual language that you are both speaking…I just don’t think you can divide language from culture so easily.  But perhaps its an agree to disagree moment.  I like learning things about the language in the language I’m learning, as well as things I learn about people I come across learning the language, whereas you only like the latter, and that’s fine!  Tomehto, tomahto :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/philip.jones.12327 Philip Jones

    It is nice to hear about another polyglot that has a similar view on studying languages. I speak about a dozen languages and I still think language study is incredibly boring and tedious and should be done as efficiently as possible so you can get down to the interesting part – speaking, reading, and watching movies in the language.

  • Amy

    I’ve read just about all your articles now and you are a brilliant man full of common sense and I greatly appreciate that, haha.

  • Kiki Yushima

    I have to say that I’m getting on the boat here. I’m studying Spanish in college as my major. I’m in second semester of the first year and I’ve become frustrated. While some of the finer parts of language syntax can be genuinely fascinating, I’m banging my head against the desk mentally because I can’t speak at all. I can barely form a sentence despite the fact my comprehension (for this level) is decent. I’m screaming mentally “STOP FORCING GRAMMAR DOWN MY THROAT AND JUST /LET ME SPEAK/.” My frustration is at an all-time high so I really can’t wait for your book to get here.

    I absolutely love language as a whole, but it’s probably because I’ve been a writer for well over ten years (despite the fact I’m only 22). As a whole, it fascinates me because language reflects culture. But this semester has taught me that learning language in a classroom is being taught in a vacuum. I want to travel the world and explore different cultures which is one reason I honestly would love to become a polyglot. While I would also like to build my own fantasy languages one day, my prime concern is just learning to speak at least Spanish so I can communicate with others. There are no words to describe my frustration with how little I’ve learned in the classroom. All the grammar in the world won’t help you speak if you can’t apply it.

  • http://wild-eyed-muse.blogspot.com/ Tamera Janneff

    First off, a fistbump for keeping it real. Three years later, and this is still incredibly relevant.

    Second off, thanks for being inspiring! I’m learning French right now and am a month in, and a few days ago I decided “screw it!” and began studying outside of the class. So while we’re on chapter three of the book and just beginning to learn the vocab . . . I’ve memorized it all and am about to start on memorizing/using some of the 300 most common words.

    Merci pour ècrire les idèes et dire comm’est!