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Flow vs Focus: What Language Learners Can Learn From Parkour

(Wiktor’s note: throughout the text, the terms “parkour” and “free running” are used interchangeably. Yes, I know there’s a difference. No, I don’t care that much. Carry on reading if you’re not gravely offended by now.)


Nerds have wet dreams, too. One of them – for many people I know, and for myself, more than once – was to be like a traceur, or “free runner.” If you saw parkour on “Yamakasi” or in the opening scenes of “Casino Royale,” you probably know what I mean.

Parkour as an art of movement has seemingly nothing to do with learning foreign languages. But upon closer inspection, some principles become evident. This post is a very quick introduction to the similarities between parkour and speaking foreign languages.

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“They Make It Look So Easy” – On Sprezzatura

This is probably the most appealing thing about parkour: when properly executed, it seems effortless, flowing, almost as if jumping over high walls and down from buildings was an everyday task.

The principles of efficiency and freedom form the foundations of parkour. The key is to move around freely and with ease – no flourishes, special effects, just efficient, free running.

There’s a fantastic Italian word for that kind of attitude: sprezzatura. It refers to performing any difficult task in a manner which makes it look easy and requiring no effort.

This flowing, efficient motion is what makes parkour a pleasure to watch.

But let’s dig deeper.

Blood, Sweat and Tears – How Traceurs Are Made

Sure, you can just close the YouTube tab on your computer, pick up your running shoes and go jumping off walls and staircases. You’ll likely find out (the hard way) that behind parkour’s attractive, polished appearance lies something else: work.

Lots and lots of work.

Just about every muscle you can think of – and some which you probably don’t know you had! – is crucial in parkour. Add to this the endurance, reflexes and sequences of moves, endlessly practiced – and what you get is a much less pleasant picture.

Suddenly this effortless, beautiful philosophy of movement becomes hard work – boring work sometimes (how many muscle-ups can one endure?!). Suddenly it turns out that in order to become a free, powerful runner, you need repetitions and failures, stops and injuries.

Sprezzatura In Language Learning

“How long does it take to learn to speak X so well?”

“I don’t want grammar practice any more. I came here to become fluent in speaking!”

“Of course I didn’t do my homework. Are we having fun yet?”

The mechanism at work behind language learning and parkour is identical. Incidentally, it also works for pretty much any skill or craft. Neither of these is about learning tricks and shortcuts. Nor is it about finding the fastest, easiest path to ticking all the boxes.

The key to doing these things insanely, unbelievably well is simple:

Put in enough effort to enable you to do extraordinary stuff. Then enjoy doing the stuff and hide the effort.

For ambitious language learners, this is good news. It means that awesome things are possible for everybody: that the small stuff, the endless hours in study halls, the convoluted listening texts, the grammar and pronunciation drills are stepping stones to fluency and – ultimately – sprezzatura.

For lazy language learners, this is a wake-up call. Your miracle methods, your accelerated learning solutions and your too-good-to-be-true shortcuts to fluency are possibly frail and empty inside. The confidence you place in a poorly designed, ill-supported course may seem like sprezzatura – it’s got enough nonchalance to get you going and to make what you do look pretty amazing.

But then the breakdown comes: a difficult conversation, an unknown structure, a stressful moment. And the ineffective methods stop working. Which doesn’t look good at all.

So – which one are you going to be?

Both Sides Now: The Language Balancing Act

If you feel like I’ve just sentenced you to a lifetime of grammar practice and toil, read on:

Most of my lessons – no matter what my students learn – finish in a similar way.

The students put away their books and think of real-life applications of what they’ve learnt. If they’re beginners, it can be a set of simple questions. If they’re advanced, it will be a blog entry or an email to somebody. I give them time to prepare it.

Then they deliver the goods. Beginners walk down and interview the reception staff, or people in the street. The advanced learners pull out their laptops and send an email to the person involved.

No matter what you work on, and how long you’ve been at it – you can test your skills in the real life and enjoy it immensely.

But the only way you’ll enjoy it is if you put in the effort first. Hide it all you like: it needs to be there!


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