“Language Learning is like Life.” What sounds like an overstretched, emotional catch-phrase actually contains some simple truths that can help you maneuver through the joys and difficulties of learning a foreign language. Most issues that I have encountered as a German teacher as well as a language learner myself don’t necessarily revolve around finding specific information on German articles, having trouble memorizing the case endings of adjectives or coming up with a plan to propel one’s learning goals.
Most issues actually seem to arise out of misunderstandings or frustrations regarding both the learning process and our perception of the learning process. This touches on something fundamental that, in my opinion, we don’t talk about enough: motivation.
This article is highly subjective and, for sure, not complete. But, it is the result of years of language learning and teaching as well as observing the joys and struggles of people engaged in making foreign tongues their own – especially adult German learners of all origins, backgrounds, and levels. I’ll try to share some summarized personal observations to not only boost your motivation for language learning, but also to encourage myself and others towards a higher sense of the connectedness between all the things we do: learning, loving, letting go and living. Because, in the end, we are not only language learners; we are complex human beings. That means we are wonderful and challenging, frustrating, painful and hilarious all at the same time. This has a tangible effect on how we learn languages.
A Fresh Start
Learning a new language is so fascinating for so many people because it comes with the gentle promise of something new. For me, diving into a new language (or simply brushing up on what I already know of a foreign language) is like undertaking a journey to a place I haven’t been before, a journey that is often combined with all feelings of curiosity, joy, expectation, thrill, enlightenment, fear, challenge, discipline, planning, success, failure, broadening of one’s horizons. You name it.
In this way, it is like a new apartment, a new relationship, a new piece of clothing, a new book, or simply a blank journal for thoughts that are waiting to be written down. The cocktail of feelings that we have for new things is unique and should be cherished and enjoyed as deeply as possible.
Retaining the curiosity for what may still be coming is one of the biggest motivational points in life as well as in language learning. To be consciously aware of the fact that so many enriching encounters, relationships, projects, tasks, insights, and moments are still waiting to be experienced is a wonderful attitude for living. It is necessary, also, for learning a language. The next time, you are cringing at the amount of new vocabulary or complex grammar elements that you have to learn, try to see them as new friends that will help you become a richer person.
“Never Enough.” On Priorities.
I sometimes joke around and say “If only there was somebody in this world who would pay me for learning new languages!” It’s actually no joke. I mean it.
Most of us are not paid to learn a new language (wouldn’t that be heaven, though?). Most of us learn French, Mandarin, Swahili or German alongside the busy lives we already lead. We usually have to put in a lot of time and effort to study our target language and to immerse ourselves in authentic real life situations, regardless of how much we enjoy the learning itself.
I have had many students who had to cram vocab and grammar in order to pass an important proficiency test on which their job hinged on who ended up neglecting sleep, a proper diet and a balanced life. While there are and always will be times of stress and high-demand, this should not become the rule when learning a language, especially when learning that language is merely a hobby.
There is always more to learn in your target language. But remember we are all human and have needs that we shouldn’t neglect. While I tend to encourage myself and others to aim high and to give their best in learning, memorizing and reading, it is also important to make peace with not knowing all of grammar elements at once, or all the meanings of a certain word.
I am well aware of the fact that this may come easier for some personality types than others. I personally struggle quite a bit with setting priorities. But I have to make peace with the reality of my limitations and learn patience without losing my fascination and drive. Throughout this balancing act, I try to treat my brain as well as possible. Sleeping enough, eating healthy meals, incorporating regular exercise into my everyday life and loving and forgiving the people around me are all important and enjoyable aspects. Being human, in other words. This, in the end, is more better for my language learning than cramming 100 new words a day into my exhausted head.
This balance is not easy. It never has been and never will be. But attempting it is so worth it. Aim high, but also remember: bleib auf dem Teppich! (Stay on the carpet, meaning: Stay realistic!).
You know that you can’t memorize all of the meanings of a certain word, at least not all at once. You will always have to choose just a few; don’t shy away from the choice. Just as you can’t order all of the attractive dishes on a menu, most of the time you will have to make a choice in regards to what to learn next or how deeply and intensely to learn something. This is especially true if you’re teaching yourself. The sooner you make these choices the better. Don’t keep lingering and wasting time on something you can decide on quickly. Decide and then move on.
You may come back to that point sometime down the road anyway. Then, you can decide again and incorporate something that you decided against earlier.
Depending on how emotional or sensitive you are, language learning can come with a certain pain that is unique to the process of expanding one’s knowledge and diving into the unknown.
Let’s be real: no one really has a clue about what is coming down the road when one starts learning a new language. How many hours of studying grammar and vocabulary lie down the road? That’s not to mention immersion in everyday life situations in your target language, diving into texts, foreign TV shows, deciphering subtitles, song lyrics, news articles and much, much more.
Nobody really knows how complicated, easy or frustrating it will be to make a tongue one’s own; there’s a lot of suspense involved, as there is in life. We basically make some of the most important decisions in life at a young age when we have the least experience.
But, that’s how it is. We grow and learn and fail and stand up again. You will always experience shortages of time, energy, motivation, money or opportunities. Language learning is just like that. But, with a healthy curiosity, some planning and plenty of fun and work, some amazing things are possible.
Make use of the good opportunities that come your way. Try to keep your eyes open and watch out for occasions that propel you further towards your goal of mastering a language. Go for it!
Die Wiederholung ist die Mutter - nicht bloß des Studierens, sondern auch der Bildung. (Repetition is the mother - not only of studying, but also of education.) – Jean Paul, "Levana". No further comment is necessary.
We are social beings, and most things are experienced better in a community. Strive to establish a community of people that encourages you in your target language journey, whether it’s an online community or teachers, tutors, acquaintances and friends. Even better, try finding native speakers or learners like you! Personal contact is a key factor in successful, enriching language learning, as well as in living.
Become Richer, Step by Step.
More and more people nowadays come from multicultural backgrounds. This alone ensures an amazing richness of experience and knowledge in life. We widen that by learning new languages and diving into totally new worlds. In doing so we see different aspects of life and living, by learning specific words that have a different semantic range from the words we are familiar with in our own language.
This extending of our horizon is a perfect parallel to our relationships and encounters in life: every one of them broadens our horizons a little bit more. Generally, one feels alive when that happens; but there is also big room for misunderstandings and frustrations. When you try your first sentences in German or spend an hour crafting a short email in your target language just to get a reply in English, for example, this might indicate to you that your conversation partner would rather stick to English than to try to help you in your learning process. You might feel similar if you say something and find yourself looking into puzzled faces, because either the pronunciation or the grammar was off. These moments can be funny, but often you’ll feel a little frustrated too. Feel and think through it and move on. Setbacks make us humble, realistic, gracious and hopefully forgiving. That’s what we should ultimately aim at. Whether we speak one language or several.
From your personal experience as a language learner, tutor or teacher, what other instances could you add in which language learning seems to be a lot like life? How would you deal with them? Let me know in the comment section. We learn together; let’s get inspired together.
Hero image by Joshua Earle (CC0)