Polyglot’s Nemesis: The Anatomy of an Excuse

Wiktor K. March 3, 2013 0

O OUTRO LADO DO MEDO É A LIBERDADE (The Other Side of the Fear is the Freedom)

“Stop making excuses and get to work.”
“That’s just a bad excuse and you know it.”
Well, do you? How much do you really know about your excuses? Do they really matter to your language study? And if they really tend to upset the work of all language learners – wouldn’t it help to learn more about them?
Let’s do that tonight. No excuses here. Come on, this one won’t hurt :)

Stage One: Sometimes a Great Notion

You wake up one day and realize, listening to a breakfast show, how awesome Spanish really is.
Your wife comes back home from work and announces that the Japanese tutor she was told about – you know the one – is now doing 50% discounts.
Your boss signs you up for a business English course.
These things are big and life-changing – in a literal sense. They rearrange your day or workweek, they change things, they bring along new stuff. Deciding to learn a language – or being faced with a language to adopt, study, re-learn – can be new, scary and unexpected.
Your brain is not going to like this.

Stage Two: Enter the Lizard

“I’ve got no time for this.”
“Wait, but what if I make a fool of myself?”
“Yeah, we should totally do that, let me just first…”
“No. No talent for languages at all. Look, I’ve gotta run.”

This is not something you need to think about. It doesn’t take hours of deliberation to come up with the sentences above. In fact, you may find yourself uttering those almost without thinking – as if by instinct. Which it may well be.
Seth Godin calls it “the lizard brain.” Science points to the amygdala: a region of your brain responsible for memory and emotional reactions. This is where fear connects: deep down inside your brain. It’s primitive, shared with animals, and helped us survive by telling us to fight, escape, look for food and procreate.
And today, when you’re faced with a tough decision, when you’re put on the spot or when people expect you to perform – it turns itself on again and tells you to run for cover.

Stage Three: Excuse Becomes Myth

The reason I suck at playing the guitar is simple: I have convinced myself that this is so. My first teacher scared the crap out of me and refused to give a damn. I know this because I convinced myself of this.
Now, if you looked at this whole story from your perspective, you would probably see it differently. You might see that I didn’t really spend much time practicing. Or that I didn’t care enough about the kinds of things I really wanted to play. You might comment on how crappy my guitar was to begin with.
But all I tell myself is this: my first teacher discouraged me completely. I’ve believed that for over 20 years – and although I have absolutely no proof, it’s in my head, as good as fact.
That’s what happens to all your excuses. According to this book, your memory is mostly fiction. And your excuses – built around a particularly suitable fact or event – grow into myths. Which means it’s really hard to think outside of them (see Eliade to discover how much myths mean for people).

Solution: Move Your Lazy Facts, Polyglots

Which would you rather do: get rid of a few small defects or a single messy system failure?
How would you rather work: fix a few things every day or wait until you have to deal with something big, painful and counter-productive?
Thought as much.
Learning a foreign language is going to scare you. Often. It will make you feel inadequate, awkward and plain dumb. And each time that happens, your lizard brain will tell you loud and clear: “This isn’t right. You’re not cut out for this. You’ll fail this one and look like a fool.”
There are two ways you can go about it, each and every time.
You can agree with the lizard brain and wait until the excuse grows, and develops into a story which later becomes a myth.
Or you can listen to the fearful voice in your head, acknowledge this and move on. Get out of the shock, do something that scares you, let language learning hurt if it has to. If you do this a little at a time, you will get new facts to shut up your lizard brain: “Yes, that exercise was hard, but this one is better. Yes, I sound like John Cleese on acid, but at least my grammar isn’t all over the place tonight.”
Excuses can only be effectively quashed by new facts. And the only way to get them is to get new learning in – day by day – and kill your excuses while they’re young.

How does this sound, everyone? What excuses can you think of now? Or maybe – what are your favourite excuses? Let us dissect them in the comment section!

Photo credit: Creative Commons License Jônatas Cunha via Compfight

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