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Self-Reliance in Language Learning: 5 Lessons from Ralph Waldo Emerson


In the middle of a snowy, dark winter, many years ago, Yours Truly spent many days and evenings in a cafe near a university – drinking gallons of latte, smoking his lungs out and reading everything he could borrow, buy or photocopy. Such were the joys of university life.

Fast forward several years, and many of the literary gems read during that period are already fading from memory. I loved English and American literature, but there was just too much of it for one boy to devour at once. There is one essay, however, which I can still quote at length; one brief account whose clarity and boldness still inspires me.

Today, I want to try to connect my admiration for Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” with language learning. It is clear to me that Emerson’s thoughts are useful guidelines for most people – and that language learners could do worse than to look to philosophy for inspiration. I hope that by the end of this brief post, it will become clear to you as well. I have selected my five favourite quotes – and will try to explain how they link to language learning.


1. “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.” The most famous quote from the essay – and definitely the most resonant. For me, it has long been a source of comfort and confidence: it has also helped me to connect the dots when learning languages. For someone whose mind is about to be transformed by a foreign language, it’s easy to lose hope and confidence. But after all, you’re not losing touch with the world – you’re becoming more connected. You’re not removing yourself from reality – you’re getting a new means of accessing it! Language learners: you are doing well. You’re on the right track. I tell you this, and Emerson has told you this, so there.


2. “Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist.” This is a fairly strong statement – the essay itself is audacious and bold, but this is one of its more powerful moments. How does it work for language learning? Let me count the ways…you are persuaded to spend lots of money on course books, software and learning aids. You are coaxed to try out a new learning method every time you try a new school. You are bombarded with news about learning styles, developments in language teaching, fashionable schools and trendy apps. But what works for you? What’s true, effective and lasting for this peculiar language learner? Find this out. And keep finding this out. What you choose to pay attention to – and the way you choose to learn – must be more important than the way people want to teach you.


3. “With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do…To be great is to be misunderstood.” Sounds pretty dramatic, doesn’t it? But it makes a lot of sense when read in context of Emerson’s argument. Consistency may be a virtue, but what he calls “foolish consistency” is actually a symptom of “little minds.” Now, the opposite of consistency would be flexibility and awareness of the present moment. Sure, this means being misunderstood – which is where analogies to learning foreign languages become evident. It’s easy to master several dozen usual expressions, to stick to the handful of words or phrases you know, and to feel content in their consistent (if tiny) midst. Being misunderstood – trying out a new expression, a new sentence structure, a new tense – is a dangerous thing, but it’s also a symptom of great things waiting to happen.


4. “No man can come near me but through my act.” The funny thing is that Emerson wrote this to comment on the power of some people to annoy him! In our context, though, this is a powerful reminder. I have often heard this from my students: “I want to learn how to speak, but the people in this town don’t want to speak to me.” The people in this town – in every town – don’t care for your existence too much. If you’re learning languages to speak to others, it’s useless to wait until you’re spoken to – much better to take control and speak yourself. Benny knows this, Emerson knows this – and so should you.


5. “Insist on yourself; never imitate.” Finally – something I can completely disagree with! And it’s not just that I believe imitation is necessary in learning languages (I do, and it is): I also believe that imitation is, in itself, a useful practice. You learn how to play drums by imitating other drummers. You learn how to swim better by copying other swimmers’ moves. In languages, feel free to disregard this piece of advice. Imitate, borrow, remix, copy. Your individual style will shine through sooner or later (see point 1).


Well, here we are. You can read Emerson’s  “Self-Reliance” on Wikisource and download the audio recording for free from Learn Out Loud. And in the meantime, let me know how you enjoyed his advice for language learning!

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One Responseso far.

  1. marta says:

    my brief unicollegeversity life was more like planning the great escape so no wonder i never read this essay. but now i will. feel responsible for it 🙂