Life Lessons Languages Have Taught Me—Part 1: Take Your Time

As I’ve explained in my first blog post, I stumbled onto language learning almost by accident. The first language I learned as an “adult” was Russian. I was eighteen years old and knew almost nothing about anything.

I bought Teach Yourself Russian (without the audio CD’s because I was broke and didn’t realize it was a bad idea not to buy them) and set about the business of putting this language into my brain. I would practice the sample conversations out loud in my bedroom.

  • Micah in a deep voice: Hello! Your passport please.
  • Micah in his regular voice: Hello! Here is my passport.
  • Deep voice: Are you a tourist?
  • Regular voice: Yes, I am a tourist.
  • Deep voice: You are British, yes?
  • Regular voice: Yes, I am British. (I still didn’t know the word for “American” yet.)

After a couple of chapters, I was encouraged by the results. Around the time I could ask for a stranger’s passport without looking at the page, I began to think to myself, “Yeah! I can do this. Sure, it’ll take a while to finish this book, but once I do, I’ll speak fluent Russian! This is so cool!” Sorry regular voice Micah. Things are not that simple.

I thought a language was a pond. In fact, a language is an ocean.

Micah, Meet Russian

Shortly after that, I joined a Russian study group and realized I understood next to nothing. When the group discussed things in Russian, it sounded like “grgrgrgr what grgrgrgrgrg good grgrgrgrgr bad grgrgrg right?” Unfortunately for me, the group wasn’t discussing passports and border crossings that day.

Also, since I hadn’t been listening to authentic Russian recordings (pre-YouTube era, kids) I began to realize that the way I had been pronouncing words was light-years away from the way the native speakers were pronouncing them.

I also met some fantastic people in that group who had been learning Russian for a long time. I was intrigued to see that even though they had been studying Russian for many years, they were still asking the native speakers how to say certain things. That’s when it began to dawn on me that learning a language is a slow process.

Now, seventeen years later, I’m glad those initial surprises didn’t cause me to walk away from Russian. My new friends in the study group taught me to think long-term; in terms of years and not months.

If Something Is Worthwhile, It Probably Takes Time to Achieve

Learning a language takes time and consistent hard work. It’s a process that has taught me that some goals are worth the time they take to achieve.

We live in an age of short attention spans and quick fixes. We are constantly being told that good things should come easily and quickly. “Learn Chinese in 10 minutes a day!” “Start earning six figures a month today!” “Lose weight and get in shape without changing a thing about your diet!” The internet has given salespeople and con artists a platform to pitch the idea that if something requires time and hard work, it’s not worthwhile.

Learning languages has taught me that quite the opposite is true. There is real satisfaction that comes from setting a goal and refusing to be distracted from it until you’ve reached it.

If something everyone wanted were easy, everyone would do it. If the salespeople on the internet were correct, everyone on the planet would be in-shape millionaire polyglots. But the reality is that if a thing will really change your life for the better, chances are it takes time and consistent hard work to achieve.

So learning languages has helped me understand the value of patience and persistence. It’s taught me to look at the hours a day I put into a language (or any goal for that matter) as an investment that I expect to pay off in the future. The tallest mountains in the world only grow a few millimeters a year, but just look at the results! Patience and persistence pay off in the long run.

Are you working towards learning a language or some other long-term goal? Don’t focus on the difficulty of today. Focus on the joy of that day in the future when you will have achieved your goal.

Come up with a plan to reach that goal step-by-step and get to work. Just keep putting one foot in front of the other. The results will come with time.

And as you climb the mountain towards your goal, don’t look up at how much you have left to climb and get discouraged. Look back on how far you’ve already climbed and say to yourself, “After all that effort, why stop now?”

Cover photo by Luca Ambrosi.

Mountain photo by Henri Picot.

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