How Learning a Language is Like Climbing a Mountain


Mt. Rainier, Washington, USA

“In every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks.”

John Muir

My wife and I love to be in the mountains. Recently on a hike on Mt. Rainier I thought to myself “Self: You know, learning a language is really a lot like climbing a mountain.” In what ways?

  • No Two Mountains Are Exactly Alike
  • You Never Really “Conquer” a Mountain
  • The Top Isn’t the Only Place Beauty Can Be Found
  • One Way Learning a Language is NOT Like Climbing a Mountain

No Two Mountains Are Exactly Alike

Each mountain has a beauty that is uniquely its own. At Mt. Rainier, we enjoyed seeing marmots and wildflowers everywhere, and had a picnic on a ridge across from a glacier that cracked with a sound like thunder every so often. At Mt. St. Helens, we enjoyed seeing how nature renews itself and is slowly growing back after the volcanic eruption in 1980. At Crater Lake, we watched chipmunks play to a backdrop of a lake that was the deepest blue we had ever seen.

Each language has a beauty unique to itself. No two are exactly alike, even when are closely related. For example, in Czechia you will see signs that say “Pozor Děti” which means “Watch out for kids”. In Russian you can also say «Дети позор» (dyeti pozor), but it means “Children are a disgrace.” Same sounds. VERY different ideas.

Helpful or offensive, depending on what language you speak.

Or if you look at Spanish and Portuguese written side by side, you could be forgiven for thinking these are basically the same language. (Please don’t hate me for writing that, Spanish and Portuguese speakers. 🙏🏻) But if you hear them spoken by native speakers, they sound worlds apart. Each has its own rhythm, cadence, pace, pitch, power. Each has been shaped by the force of its own culture, history, art, movies, and music.

Every language is unique. Every language is capable of conveying complex, nuanced concepts. Every language is set to the backdrop of a unique culture, or more often several cultures. And like mountains, every language has something that makes it worth exploring.

Mt. St. Helens, Washington, USA

You Never Really “Conquer” a Mountain

A person may speak of “conquering” a mountain. Most likely, what the person means is that they climbed all the way to the top. But can you ever really conquer a mountain? Does it no longer hold any secrets for you? No more surprises? Have you explored every nook and cranny of every glacier? Do you know each creek, lake and waterfall? Have you become acquainted with each tree and the animals that live in them? Have you inspected each cave and seen how deep they go? Have you taken in every stunning view, from every breath-taking angle, in every kind of light, during every time of the day, so that you can finally say, “I’ve seen everything this mountain has to offer”?

A person could spend a lifetime exploring one language and never learn everything there is to know about it. Even native speakers are always learning new ways to express ideas. The fact that we have dictionaries to help native speakers better understand their own language, shows how we are never truly done exploring a language. There is always discovery. There is always change. There is always excitement, and glory, and beauty.

Crater Lake, Oregon, USA

The Top Isn’t the Only Place Beauty Can Be Found

Some people like to climb to the top of a mountain. Others like to climb to the snowline. Still others like to enjoy the beauty of a mountain from the bottom of it. But all have traveled to the mountain for the same reason—to appreciate the beauty of it.

Some people are not satisfied learning just the basics of a language. They want to be mistaken for a native. They want to be able to read classics in the target language. They want to be able to discuss any subject on anything with ease. These overachievers—I mean, uh… learners could be compared to the climbers who like to go all the way to the top. Some might write them off as being gifted, but in reality they know what they want and they are determined to keep putting one foot in front of the other until they reach their goal.

Other language-learners don’t feel a need to be mistaken for a native. Maybe they just want to be conversationally fluent, able to handle most situations that could come up in the average day-to-day life in a country where the language is spoken. Or maybe they just want to be able to handle one specific type of conversation for the situation that comes up the most often for them in the target language. These could be like the climbers who hike up to the snowline, or up to where the wildflowers grow. Just because they haven’t gone all the way to the top, doesn’t mean they haven’t put their own painstaking, hard work into getting where they are.

Neither of these language-learners is wrong in their approach to the language. Neither is better or worse than the other. They both appreciate the language they’re learning. They are both enjoying the beauty of the mountain, just at different altitudes. Beauty is not just found at the top of the mountain. It can be found every step of the way.

One Way Learning a Language is NOT Like Climbing a Mountain

But I guess there is at least one way in which learning a language and climbing a mountain are not the same. If I’m climbing a mountain and I sit down to take a rest, I stay at the same altitude. But if I’m learning a language and decide to take a rest for a day, week, month, etc., I immediately start slipping down the slope. It’s true of course that you can get back to where you were very quickly. The human brain is breath-taking in its ability to bring back old skills when needed. But in language learning, you’re either progressing, or regressing.

So I guess in that sense, language learning is like climbing a mountain that has slow, downward moving escalators for paths? Or its like climbing a mountain, but every time you rest for too long, the park ranger comes, picks you up and sets you down somewhere lower? I don’t know. It’s not a perfect analogy. But one thing I know for sure; whether we’re taking about mountains or languages, John Muir’s words ring true for me:

“The mountains are calling, and I must go!”

John Muir

What ways can you think of in which language-learning is like or is not like climbing a mountain? Is there another analogy you like to use for language-learning? I would love to hear your ideas in the comments below.

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