This episode of Project Thinking Out Loud: The Power in Being Human. I talk about what Othello, darjeeling teas, and books have taught me about the power in the thing that makes us human.
The power went out just now as I was publishing a new blog post. Perfect timing, right? I flopped down on the couch to decide what to do with my electricity-less, internet-less time. And I began thinking about the book I’m in the process of writing now. It’s about how to learn anything. Specifically though, I thought back to when I was in high school and my friend Angie and I plotted our ultimate learning project: our rise to Renaissance Man stardom. We wanted to be like Leonardo da Vinci and the other historical “masters of all trades”.
We loosely acted on our plans. We made a list of all things that a true Renaissance Man should know: classic music, biology, art history, world history, math, politics, among others. A true Renaissance Man should be one of the most capable people in the world in all these subjects, we agreed. He (or she) had to be the best. So naturally, we made being the best our goal.
We never became Renaissance Men. In fact, we failed quite miserably.
Thinking back now, that goal was exactly why we failed. It wasn’t that math was too hard to learn on our own or that we didn’t have the time to memorize every lyric the Beatles ever wrote or that art history was just too boring. We failed because we set out to be the best.
When you focus on being the best, you’re serving your ego. You’re feeding the greedy little boogie man inside you who’s never given a word of encouragement to your endeavors. Idolizing being the best is giving in to your insecurities, your desire to compare yourself to others, and then judging yourself harshly when you don’t stand up at all. The mindset is all wrong, and it causes you to lose sight of what you truly have control over. Striving to be the best will always fail.
Instead, we have to strive to be better. When you try to be better, you’re comparing your present self with your past self – which is much more fair than comparing yourself (with your unique set of challenges and gifts) to another (with his or her own unique set of challenges and gifts). And instead of focusing on beating other people and showing off, you’re focusing solely on yourself. The learning process becomes a journey instead of a race. You’re more thoughtful and you’re able to clearly see your sphere of control.
High school’s long over, and yet to be honest, this desire to be a Renaissance Man has come up in me several times since then. But I’m deciding that instead of setting out to be a modern day Renaissance Man, or even just “the best” at some specific skill, I’m going to consistently strive to be better.
Because after much introspecting, it’s clear: It’s best to strive to be better.
The most important thing you have to do when you’re setting out to learn a new language is decide why you’re learning.
You can’t be general or vague or non-committal about it either. “It’d be cool to read books in French,” “My family speaks Spanish, so like, it’s probably good to learn,” or “It just sounds cool,” usually aren’t good enough reasons. I say “usually” because I don’t know the true passion or enthusiasm you might feel when you give these reasons. But I can guarantee that you’re not going to learn anything unless you have a real reason that resonates with you.
Once you figure out your reason, you have to turn it into a hard, concrete goal. “I want to learn Spanish so I can talk to my extended family when they visit over the holidays.” That’s a hard, concrete goal. “I want to learn Japanese because I fucking love Naruto and want to watch it without subtitles,” is also a hard, concrete goal. Your goal doesn’t have to be noble or impressive. It just has to resonate with you. You have to actually want it.
So now you have a reason and you’ve turned it into a goal. The next step is to do whatever it takes to achieve your goal. It’s not as hard as people would have you think. And it doesn’t necessarily take years to learn a new language.
“You can’t learn a new language once you’ve passed the ‘critical period’ of childhood language development.”
Lots of people have learned lots of languages during their adult years. Here’s one. And here’s another. And another. And here’s an article I wrote about my favorite polyglots (people who speaks lots of languages) with even more of these guys.
As we already said, the first step in learning a new language is figuring out why you really want to learn, and the second step is setting a hard, concrete goal. Now we’re at the third step, which is setting up a strategy for achieving your goal.
Setting a Good Learning Strategy
Setting a good strategy is important if you want to be like all those people from earlier. All those polyglots. The people who don’t set a good strategy (or have a reason or concrete goal for learning) are usually the same people who spread this ridiculous notion that you can’t learn a language as an adult.
What are the principles of “good strategy making”, you ask? Simple. Just go out and DO whatever your end goal is. Want to chat with your extended family? Go give it a shot. Want to watch Naruto without subtitles? Try it. Want to read St. Augustine in the original Latin? Let’s see what you’ve got!
You gotta see where you’re at before you figure out how to get where you want to be. You know Point B, the end game. But where are you starting? Where’s Point A?
Great. So you’ve just put yourself in this miserable, embarrassing, or frustrating situation. Now you’ve gotta think what would have made that situation just 5% better. Maybe if you knew certain basic words (which words? Write them down to translate and memorize!) or sentence structures (what sentence patterns? Again, write them down and find a way to translate and learn them).
That’s where you start with setting a good strategy. You build your learning experience around the goal that you set. You only learn what you need to get what you want. You have to visualize or imagine yourself using the things you learn, otherwise it will all get really boring really fast.
Tweak As Needed
The fourth step is sticking to and tweaking your strategy as needed. I can’t really help you much here. Just experiment and see what works for you. Periodically check with yourself and see if you’re any closer to that hard, concrete goal you set at the beginning. Check and see if the goal continually resonates with you. And see if there’s any tweaking you can do, either in your learning strategy or with your original goal, that can get you to wherever it is you want to be.
Commons Myths of Language Learning
“You have to live in the country where your target language is spoken if you want to have any hope of ever learning it.”
The world is more connected than ever. You can find media to absorb from where you’re sitting right now. Music, movies, television, all in whatever language you want to learn. Obviously if you pick a lesser spoken language like Kazakh or Basque, you’re gonna have a lot harder of a time to find people to practice with than someone who’s learning French or German. But if you really want to learn, and if you’ve set a concrete goal and good learning strategy, you can do it.
Being in a country where your target language is spoken is nothing more than a convenience. It means you’re surrounded by the language. You can’t escape. You can’t choose not to be engaged. This method works best for people who have no real interest in learning what they say they want to learn. But if you actually want to learn, you can. And you don’t have to spend a lot of money or uproot your life to do it.
I’ll update this last section as I think of more myths that bother me. So that’s all for now! Happy language learning! And if anyone sets out to learn Esperanto, please get in touch. I’m always looking for new people to practice speaking with.
It’s only been 6 days, and I think I’ve cracked the code to Project Thinking Out Loud. I’ve discovered the key to creating – which I may or may not have ripped off of Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art. I read it a long time ago, so who knows. But even though I’m sure this idea isn’t original, I’ve finally realized how powerful and true it is.