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The Final Word: Language Learning and Death


Nothing’s wrong, so take a deep breath and read on: this is important.

0. Why write about this at all?

No idea. I came up with the post title over a happy, chatty lunch break, and it made sense. And as I’m writing these words, it still makes sense to think about language learners as mortal creatures. Does it make sense when you read it? You tell me.
A few words of warning: I don’t care about your religion today. I assume we can agree that once you die, you stop functioning on Earth, and that’s all I need to write about death vs. language learning.

1. Language learners, you are going to die…

There, that’s done.

2. …so how “long-term” are your language learning plans?

Of course you can learn a language in three months. Or four times faster than with other methods. Of course you want to pass your language exam as soon as possible, and you’re motivated by progressing quickly.
But what if “long-term” really meant lifelong learning? What if a language course was not the end of your learning adventure? That Chinese calligraphy class – what if you knew you had 20 more years to perfect it? Your French chats over coffee every Tuesday – what if I told you you had at least 500 more Tuesdays at your disposal?
We’re used to working with deadlines, scarce resources and real-time demands.
But for language learners and teachers, the real time might be longer than any curriculum.
How does that make you feel?

3. …so how embarrassing are your failures?

Tim Ferriss confused the hell out of his Japanese host family.
My student didn’t get the English hospitality she was hoping for.
I nearly failed British phonology at uni.
I can assure you, all three of us were in a bit of a shock – and all three of us got through this. Of course the sting and burn of embarrassment is still real and hard to deal with. What begins to matter after a while, though, is the satisfaction that you persevered (or kicking yourself that one embarrassment was enough to quit an awesome thing).
You’re in it for the long run. The language you learn is not on loan. It won’t get taken away from you when you stop learning. It won’t become worse with one failure. It won’t change just because one day/week/month felt bad.
It stays with you for life – everything you learned. Either as a living, working thing, or as a half-arsed attempt-turned-remorse.
You decide.

4. …so is your language dying with you?

This is the big one.
Every foreign language learner has her mothertongue to begin with. And after she’s become proficient enough, she’s got two languages to use, speak and share.
Sharing a language matters always – that’s how you get to enjoy, improve and discover it. But, at the risk of becoming political for a while – there are some languages that are OK for exposure at the moment, and some others that could use a bit more love.
I’m not even talking about the languages that are obviously, literally dying. This also matters for languages that are doing quite well. My first language is now officially the second most common language in the UK – and still it’s magic/gibberish to most Britons. Wouldn’t it be wise to share some of it – with coworkers, flatmates etc? And wouldn’t it be selfish to keep it to myself, guard it and lock it up in some sort of a linguistic ghetto?
Sharing your language is now easier than ever. And the moment you become a teacher of any language, even the most trite and obvious phrases become discoverable, new again. Try it, and chances are, you’ll find it hard to stop.

5. Now what?

Here endeth my rant. I know this is a bit of a departure from the usual bravelearning fare – we’ll return to regular programming soon 🙂 In the meantime, feel free to criticize / dispute / engage below.

(photo credit: Creative Commons License fady habib via Compfight)

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