Breaking down the wall

Can you come up with quick examples of things you would NEVER (want to) learn?

I’d never even start to learn a language like Hindi, for example. Whenever I think of Hindi and myself, I see no connection, no common ground. There’s me, and some space away there’s Hindi.

I had the same feeling when I had to speak German at the beginning. The words sounded alien in my mouth, and the sentences, although structurally correct, seemed ‘made up’, or artificial. I still have the same feeling about Italian, which is why I’ve never learned it so far.

I think central to the people’s capacity of learning something is their ability to ‘see’ themselves ‘inside’ the area that they are trying to learn, and not outside, as separate entities. How does that feel? It usually seems like the language (or whatever it is you’re learning) is becoming alive, and by that I mean

  • you start liking / disliking certain things about it, or you can say about it that it sounds nice, melodious, funny, weird etc – in other words, you start having feelings about it; when you’re outside, the language is to you only a succession of sounds and you need the subtitles to make sense of it.
  • certain words or rules become familiar and sort of ‘natural’, you don’t think about them before using them; if you’re still outside the language, every rule is one more thing you need to keep in mind.
  • you start using a word or two in your regular life, in contexts that bring that word up in your mind; if you’re outside the language, you’ll never give it a single thought as soon as you’ve packed your course book away.

Being ‘inside’ the language doesn’t mean you’ve learned it, but it means you’re starting to do so. You’re on the right track. It means that at least you have some idea, just like in a new town, where to go if you need to change money, and where you are absolutely NOT allowed to park your car.

In the case of languages, the typical method of ‘diving in’ is taking a longer trip, or even a course, in the country where that language is spoken. But there are alternative methods of getting on the inside of a language.

One is to constantly think of the language as something directly useful to you in your work, career, private life, or future plans in general. If you regularly focus on the usefulness of the language to yourself, there are better chances that the language will ‘come to life’ for you.

Another, clearly, is to try to surround yourself with info coming in that language, or even info about the people in the country where it’s spoken. Say, you are learning Japanese, and that’s why you start reading (even in your own language, at the beginning), about the Japanese royal family, about their way of celebrating the new year and so on.

Try to like something about the culture. Focus on one historical event, or on a quality usually related to the people of that culture, or look for something you and that culture have in common: the value of hospitality, of doing things to perfection, of being polite, of having a sense of humour etc.

Whatever you do, do it regularly. Don’t let the hot irons cool off, we say in Romanian. Keep going and maintain your connection with the language, no matter if it’s reading, listening, reading about, or just reflecting on it. After a short while you will notice that you already have a ‘favourite’ word or expression, which comes back to you when you’re out for dinner, when you’re chatting with your friends, or when you’re watching the news on your couch.

Break down the wall and explore it from the inside if you want to conquer the city. As long as you hang out outside its walls, you can only hope to memorize a dry map.

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