Equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius on the Capitoline Hill of Rome, Italy

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How to Apply Stoic Philosophy to Language Learning


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What upsets people is not things themselves, but their judgments about these things. – Epictetus, Stoic philosopher

An ancient way of philosophy has been on the rise recently.

Stoicism is all about adjusting your thoughts to make yourself happier.

When I first learned about Stoic philosophy, I realized that I had been practising it already. I’d never thought about having a philosophy on life, but once I read about it, it made so much sense.

I wanted to apply Stoic philosophy to everything in life. Entrepreneurship, exercising, dating, and more. Eventually, I started thinking: “How would a Stoic philosopher apply Stoic principles to language learning?”

Stoicism is not an all or nothing deal. It’s up to you how far you want to take it and apply it into your life. There are a lot of ways that it can help you become a better language learner and also make language learning more fun.

Here are some really useful Stoic tools.

1. Ask Yourself: What’s the Worst That Could Happen?

For this practice, ask yourself, “What’s the worst that can happen?”. This is positive practice because it prepares you for the worst if it actually does happen. Once you are done thinking about this and you go back to reality, you are more appreciative for what you still have.

An example of this is consciously thinking about your dog dying. How will you feel? You’ll be sad. You’ll have a little doggy funeral in your backyard, share some stories, and then the house will be quieter. Maybe you’ll buy a new dog, maybe not. When you snap back to reality and realise your dog’s not dead, you’ll be more appreciative. Plus, when the day comes and your dog dies, it’s not as shocking since you’ve already thought about this scenario and dealt with it in your mind.

How to apply this to language learning: In language learning you can do the same thing by asking yourself “What’s the worst that can happen?”

When you talk to someone, expect no one to understand you. If signing up for ten lessons scares you, think about the worst possible scenario. Maybe you don’t like your teacher and you end up learning nothing.

Or, picture this scenario: You forget all of your French and freeze up when you meet someone from Montreal. After a few awkward silences, you switch the English. That’s not so bad, is it?

You can prepare for the worst while hoping for the best. That way, if you try to practise your target language and people don’t understand you, you are not surprised because you’ve already thought about that happening as a possibility. And if they do understand you, you will be surprised and even happier.

2. Choose to Be Uncomfortable

Many of the early Stoics took the idea of negative visualisation even further and put themselves in difficult real life situations. So, instead of picturing a scene in which they lost all their money, they’d actually spend a few days living in poverty to keep themselves humble and remind themselves to live a simple life.

They did this to make sure that they were still able to have fun and be happy even if they didn’t have the most comfortable lifestyle. The best way to apply this to language learning is to go through language immersion.

How to apply this to language learning: Cut out your native language completely. This can be as intense as you would like. You can start with putting your phone in your target language, or maybe your computer. You could also spend one evening without speaking your native language and only speak in your target language. Set yourself up for failure by trying to talk to someone in a language you don’t know. You’ll feel stupid and may get a little embarrassed, but you’ll see that it won’t be so bad.

Put yourself in uncomfortable situations where you are forced to use your target language. Maybe a restaurant, a Skype call, or using an online teaching platform.

3. Laugh at Yourself, Don’t Take Yourself So Seriously

Self-Deprecation is the act of reprimanding oneself by belittling, undervaluing, or disparaging oneself. Basically it’s being excessively modest.

Stoics use this as a way to avoid arguments from stupid people. They used it as a way to turn tension into humour. You can do the same.

How to apply this to language learning: When you are practising your target language, if people start to make fun of your accent or your lack of vocabulary, don’t let it get to you. Instead, make fun of yourself. Say “Haha, don’t I sound like a fat 5 year old with this accent?”

4. Live Below Your Means

Another reason Stoics used to live like paupers was to remind themselves of their values and to stay humble. They call it “practicing poverty.”

How to apply this to language learning: Instead of constantly spoiling yourself with new language learning materials, try to make the best of what you have every once in awhile. Use the same small book for a week. Or actually dig into that online course your bought a few months ago.

Take one set of flashcards, and spend six hours memorising them. After you know them, get creative! Turn them in sentences. Turn them into little poems, or lyrics. Try to connect them. Having too many resources can be overwhelming anyway. So it’s good to practice language learning without much.

5. Live in the Moment

Practicing Stoics do their best to “live in the moment”. This phrase has become a cliché, but it will never lose its power.

How to apply this to language learning: In language learning, your past lessons don’t really matter. How long have you been studying? That’s not relevant. How many tutors you have had? No one cares. Your grade that you’ve got in school?

ENOUGH ALREADY!

All that matters is your language ability right now and the progress you are making. And that’s all you should be focused on.

6. Set Goals That Are In Your Control

Stoics discuss how  people set unrealistic goals with no clear cut tactic of how they are going to get there. These goals often have so many external influences or are hard to track.

Stoics prefer setting goals that it's within their control to achieve.

How to apply this to language learning: “I want to be the best Spanish speaker in my friendship group” has a lot to do with other people and their ability to speak Spanish. Instead, try to be practical and focus on the more intricate details of how you’re going to achieve good Spanish skills. A better goal would be “I want to spent more time learning Spanish than everyone I know.”

Setting a goal that is in your control helps you feel even more accomplished and gives you more motivation. For example, you can set a goal that’s to study 30 minutes a day, or maybe you set a goal to have a conversation with a native speaker once a week. Thinking that you can get a Mexican girl to fall in love with you because you learned Spanish? NO. That's not Stoicism.

7. Don’t Respond To Insults

Stoics use this strategy as a way to communicate with ignorant people who are trying to bother them. By ignoring insults, they can stay focused on the substance of the argument. Staying calm also helps them gain the upper hand.

How to apply this to language learning: In language learning you can use this strategy by not reacting to miscommunication. If you have to say something five times before your conversation partner finally understands it, that’s okay. Each time you repeat yourself, you should be just as positive and enthusiastic as the next.

8. Feeling Unhappy? Take A Look At Your Values

Stoics believe that when they’re unhappy, it’s not the world around them that’s the problem. It’s their thoughts that are the problem. In other words, what matters is not a change in circumstances, but a change in attitude.

How to apply this to language learning: If you are not happy with how it’s going, what you are learning or the progress you are making, perhaps, you need to make some changes.

That could mean switching to a language you really want to learn. It could mean finding a new teacher. Or, perhaps it means learning the vocabulary words you want, not what your tutor or textbook suggests. It could mean skipping grammar to focus on learning songs.

You’re in control here, you are the language learner, you get to decide how it goes.

How to Apply Stoic Philosophy to Language Learning

I don’t expect you to become a philosopher and start philosophising in a foreign language! But philosophy can be a big help in language learning.

Hopefully you’ve picked up a few tips from this article that’ll enable you to make language learning more fun, available, and effective.

The next time you hit a roadblock on your language learning adventure don’t acquiesce to defeat. Rather, accept your shortcomings, change how you view your perceived problems and see where you can improve.

And if you get discouraged, remember this fun fact: Socrates never even wrote anything down. So, you’re further ahead than you think.

author headshot

Jeremy Ginsburg

Culture Chameleon

Jeremy is a world traveller who's passionate about learning foreign languages and studying cultures. A self-proclaimed "Enterperformer", he plays three instruments and makes YouTube videos for fun.

Speaks: English, Twi, French, Hebrew, Vietnamese

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