When you’re setting out to do something ambitious, the first instinct is usually to get rid of distractions, and focus only on the daunting task at hand. This is how works of art are conceived, heart transplants performed, and (in my household at least) breakfasts cooked.
But sometimes, the right thing to do seems to be the opposite. Learning languages may be one of these things. As a language learner and a former business owner, I’m going to try to sell you a weird idea today.
Languages and the Myth of Focus
My maths homework was the sacred time back at home; my English class – the crazy time. Maths meant silence and open books – English meant arguments with my tutor and listening to the Lion King soundtrack (which I still know by heart). If people spoke to me when I was doing the sums – I risked getting everything wrong. If my tutor changed the subject during our conversation – it usually meant learning something new, and exploring stuff I’d never thought of.
Obviously, there are moments in language learning when focus is appropriate and desirable – just as there are times among mathematicians when improvisation, surprise and chaotic ideas lead to amazing things. But for most people, most of the time, the notion of “focus” needs to be redefined for languages.
Focus – on what?
If you mess up a maths equation, or confuse the steps of a physics exercise, you fail – regardless of the elegance and flair of your performance in the process. Learning, here, means focusing on a final result – a learner who arrives at a correct answer in an ugly / unconvincing way is better than a learner who, through innovative thinking and elegant improvisation, arrives at a near-correct answer.
Now, when you learn a language, the performance and the result are inseparable and equally important. As a teacher, I need to see you try. And the curious thing is that there are countless correct answers, just as there are infinite ways to express things. The most encouraging thing I heard as a language learner was: “that is also possible.”
So the focus must shift when you’re learning languages. My maths focus would be: “Am I getting this right? Is this the right formula?” But for languages, there is rarely a single “right,” and a reacher who insists on there being only one “right” is rarely a good one. The focus should probably be on things like: “How am I doing? Am I coming across? Is there a more effective, elegant way of doing this?” – therefore, on performance.
Business and Language Learning
Running and managing a business is scarily similar to learning languages. The most important similarity is that both activities value performance (i.e. how something is done) along with the results (i.e. what gets done). If it takes you a decade to earn $100.000, you may want to think of better ways of doing things. And if it takes you forever to ask for the nearest toilet…well, you get the idea.
The similarities don’t end here:
- Both activities value and require developing a whole set of skills – specialists in very narrow fields are rarely successful entrepreneurs, and overemphasising one language skill often leads to neglecting others;
- To outsiders, language learning and business seem to mainly rely on sets of rules. It takes an insider’s perspective to realise that what gives meaning to business – and language – is primarily the living, changing and chaotic reality, the people who speak, influence and flex both practices;
- Business – just as language learning – seems to favour the outgoing go-getters. The truth becomes evident quite soon: there are many successful businessmen (and language learners) who are okay with being shy, reserved and contemplative.
[/checklist]I’m sure you could think of more . But let’s get to today’s main idea:
Start a Business to Learn a Language
It doesn’t have to be a money-making machine. It doesn’t even have to be about money at all. My point is: you can – and probably should – learn a foreign language by starting an ambitious project today, and getting people on board.
Of course, it’s impossible for me to tell you what to work on. Maybe there was this Facebook community you’ve always wanted to set up. Maybe you’ve got a product to sell abroad, a paper to deliver at a conference – maybe your company is sending people on a contract somewhere.
I will tell you this: get involved. Get in over your head. Once you’ve done that – once the project is in full swing, people have been told and the clock is ticking – you will find that all your excuses for not learning a language are no longer valid. And that by being busy – by meeting people, discussing stuff that matters, preparing information to share, celebrating successes and analysing failures – you are making some amazing progress in speaking the language you chose.
Yes, this is big. Yes, it’s difficult and risky. No, not for everybody.
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