On Language Learning: Part 1 (Mountain Metaphor)

Step by Step

To preface, I’m a native English speaker with an entire primary and secondary education in French immersion. I was once fluent, living and working a fully-immersive-French life, though due to lack of use, I believe it my French communication abilities may be a little rusty. After a decade in Japan, I am somewhat fluent in Japanese depending on who you ask and the time of day. As a self-taught learner using a mostly communicative-approach, I’m quite proud of my abilities today.

Over the years I’ve collected a virtual filing cabinet of essays, research papers, sticky notes and everything in between relating to language learning and relevant to my experience. Although the topic of early language development is absolutely fascinating, I’m principally concentrating on learning another language as an adult.

First, I’d like to present a metaphor that really helps to imagine what language learning looks like.

Imagine you are walking up a steep incline. Of course, your destination — the summit— is fluency. The ground beneath your feet, however, is not particularly solid. Smooth-as-marbles and of similar size, with each step forward you find yourself sliding back ever so slightly. Somehow, for every ten essential concepts you study, only six or seven stick.

You stop and pick up a particularly unique stone, observing its beauty, perhaps questioning its origin; you barely notice the clattering and clicking of the small stones beneath your feet as you sink down. Your progress has stopped. A rare, yet fascinating, new grammar point grabs your attention, and you jump down the rabbit hole searching bookshelves and blogs that discuss this gem.

Envisioning yourself at the summit, with great fervor you take a deep breath, realign your posture and take great strides, quickly making progress. An almost thunderous clatter of stones and pebbles echo behind you, kicked up from your trusty boots. Before you know it, your hands are on your knees, and you are bent over gasping for breath in that oh-too-well-known pose of the dad who just ran his first home-run since junior high. A shiny new textbook book, an implausibly intense study plan, a thousand-card deck of flashcards, a “get up and study” alarm clock set for 5:30am every day; a week later, your day off to take a break from language learning turns into a more than just a day. Your flashcard app reminds you of this every day, and your plan of completing one textbook unit a week is now un-catch-up-able.

Pleased with the progress of your journey up this pebbly mountain, a short “breather” seems well deserved. You find comfort in sitting down, proudly observing the path you have made behind you. Laying down to close your eyes and think, a quick nap turns into a much-too-long repose. You wake up with a start! Groggy, disappointment sets in as you realize that not only have you wasted the light of day, but you have actually slid downhill! An almost overwhelming sense of accomplishment washes over you as you reflect upon your current communication skills. Maybe you just aced a test or successfully navigated a complex telephone conversation. You’ve been on a role, getting closer to mastering this language. A break is more than justifiable. Just a few days. Weeks later, you stumble to read or perhaps follow a conversation that was previously within your abilities. What happened?

As you can imagine, this analogy can be stretched in all kinds of interesting and fun ways! The point is that language learning is an ongoing process. The image of trekking upwards on slippery little pebbles can actually be somewhat demotivating for some people. For others, it’s a perfect realization that there are no shortcuts. The good news is that absolutely any forward motion gets you closer to the top.

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