The Gap and the Work: Disappointment and Taste in Learning Foreign Languages

Wiktor K. April 18, 2013 0
The Gap and the Work: Disappointment and Taste in Learning Foreign Languages

 

I’ve admired and enjoyed the work of Ira Glass for a long time. When I recently heard his thoughts on creativity, my respect for what he does became even bigger – and I got inspired to think about language learning in several new ways. Read (and watch) on for more – and join the discussion!

1. Why I tend to listen when Ira Glass speaks

“This American Life” is one of very few podcasts that never, ever leave my playlist. I know it’s a personal preference – I grew up listening to the radio (and worked in one for a brief period of time) and TAL is the kind of radio I believe in. The shows are unique, demanding and rewarding. (Go listen & donate!)
It’s always nice to hear what clever people have to say, so I was really glad to find fragments of Ira’s interview online. This is the one that I remembered most vividly – it’s also the most widely quoted fragment:

Ira Glass on Storytelling from David Shiyang Liu on Vimeo.

It makes sense to artists, creative people – and, I would argue, to language learners as well. Let me explain; please add your comments below if you think I missed something.

2. Your second language has a lot to live up to

With the exception of people who were raised in bilingual contexts, we tend to learn a foreign language after we’ve done lots of work with our native one. Have you ever thought how much pressure that entails?
You’re used to getting things done effectively in your mothertongue. But your new language seems unwieldy, dysfunctional and graceless at first. You can’t do the most basic things properly. You resort to gestures, or worse – repeating your mothertongue loudly and slowly, as if that was to solve anything.
That’s the kind of anguish Ira Glass mentions: there’s a huge gap between the grace with which you want to communicate – and the current state of your language study. Your linguistic taste – shaped by mothertongue proficiency, or by high expectations from other languages you learned – makes you notice how awkward you come accross at first.

3. “No one tells beginners” – the myth of effortless language study

The method guarantees success. Our teachers will motivate and encourage you. The intensive course will break your language barrier. You will benefit from total immersion in the language.
This is what we tell people who consider paying for a language course.
This is what we don’t tell them:
You are conditioned to avoid embarrassment. Foreign languages mess up your brain in wonderful ways. There is no perfect method. You will see where it hurts, how it sucks, why it fails to work. You may not enjoy this.
I think we need to be told this. We need to be reminded of the good stuff, sure. We deserve celebrations, and good vibes, and all the awesome ways language learning changes us. But it isn’t fair to tell us it’s all going to be rosy.
So that’s another thing we should thank Ira for.

4. Work + taste = getting through the gap

If you’re like me, you will avoid starting a game of chess for fear of failure, even if it’s against a computer. You will give up guitar lessons after realizing how much better David Gilmour really is. And you will find it hard, so mind-numbingly hard, to knuckle down to a language lesson – especially when it’s a language you’re not yet good at.
That’s more taste than work. That’s when the image of “how good I want to be” – dictated by taste – overshadows the work that needs to be done to get there.
And then, there’s my brother.
Starting on several paths at once. Trying out things and rushing in. Spending countless nights practicing go – countless more enjoying salsa and capoeira. Doing things always, thinking later.
That’s a lot of work – but that work then gets substituted by working on a different thing. Taste could help here – by pointing out where to go next and how far we are from where we want to be.
So you seem to need both work and taste, also in foreign language study. Go through a volume of work – establish deadlines and make sure they’re demanding – and keep going, as this is the only way to close “the gap” that Ira mentions. But at the same time, trust your taste – don’t let abstract lesson plans take over your needs, keep (re)imagining your success, and remember how good you want to be.

5. Marrying up work and taste – some practical suggestions

- Record, revise, review. Own your note-taking system completely. This means building up language-learning material quickly – and getting a kick from doing it right!
- Devote good time to research and response. There is a good time for you to interact, speak, chat, get lost in unpredictable chinwag – and a good time to point your nose at a grammar book. Figure out these times and utilize them.
- “What happened there?” is a proper question to reflect on. Your taste will have a lot to say about successes, traumas and difficulties alike, if you only ask the right questions.
- Team up. You’ve only got yourself to blame if you’re not doing the work alone – but it’s just disgraceful to let a team down. Make sure everyone in the team has an important role, to make skiving even harder. Read on for more buddy-building tips.
- Get going. Mess it up. I’m advising myself here, really – taste sometimes needs to take a back seat when there’s work to be done! So write a crappy German-adjacent email or go torment your French housemates with all the sixteen words you know. There’ll be time to polish it off later.

Any more thoughts on the Ira Glass quote, folks? Let us know in the comment section.

(Image credit: Gonzalo Iza via Compfight)

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