Failure guy

Learning Languages: Failure Is An Option

When it comes to language learning, it is very easy to get upset. “Why can’t I understand TV yet?”, “Why can he speak better than I can?”, “Why have I been studying for so long and still can’t hold a conversation?” All sorts of questions may run through your head about your lack of success. You may even find yourself thinking that you are “failing” at learning your language.

I think it’s important to remember, however, that you are failing somewhere somehow at all times. What do I mean by this? Well, take a look at your own native tongue. There are probably words that you do not understand in it and if you were to come across these words, you would fail to comprehend them. Is that not also failure?

In foreign languages, when you are at a beginner’s level, you fail to understand the words of the more advanced levels. This is a type of “failure” even if you are not proactively seeking to understand advanced levels. It merely means you are not trying but if you were to try, you would fail immediately.

So, what should we do when we are shown failure either blatantly when we get upset or inadvertently by not being at the level we could be at?

Find Excitement in Mediocrity

I think it’s important to return to the level of highest excitement when you learn a language. That is, whatever is most fun to you, keep doing it. If you are having fun in the language, you will not remember your failures.

Think about it. If you are playing a sports game and are really enjoying it, you get wrapped up and engaged in it. You are not thinking about how there are professionals out there who far surpass your skills. You are totally in the moment and in the game.

In the same way, you should find that same level of excitement in language learning. It could be that you like to watch movies and you could watch a movie in your foreign language and get sucked into it. Or, maybe you enjoy talking to people and could enjoy a conversation in the foreign language. Whatever it is, seek it out and do it. The longer you spend time in the foreign language, the more you will improve.

For example, when I was learning Japanese, I always maintained the goal that I wanted to read a novel written by a native Japanese speaker for native Japanese speakers. I didn’t merely want to be conversational or be able to read the practice texts in my textbook. I wanted to be at the level where I could understand real content that was directed at a native audience.

Baby Steps

Needless to say, this is a tall order, especially in a language so different than my own native tongue. Reading a novel in Japanese is much more difficult than just reading a novel in Spanish for a native English speaker. But I still maintained my goal that I wanted to be able to read a novel without the help of a dictionary in Japanese.

Throughout my studies, I would try to pick up books and read them and fail miserably. I could not even understand the general gist of what was going on. It was very disheartening. Even when I picked up manga (Japanese comic books), I still couldn’t understand what was being said despite the language being “easier” than a novel’s.

You could say I failed dozens if not hundreds of times throughout my Japanese studies by being unable to complete my goal of reading a Japanese novel and understand it.

Yet, I have a passion for reading. It is easy for me to get lost in a book and I thoroughly enjoy reading them. I also enjoy the sense of accomplishment after reading a book. This is what pushed me to keep attempting to read that Japanese novel.

I began to work away at it in small chunks. I used a highlighter, highlighted the words I didn’t know and looked them up later to add to my flashcard program. I must have highlighted 90% of the page when I first started. Eventually though, as my studies progressed and I got better at Japanese and I found my flashcard system installing new vocabulary into my head, I found I could read more and more.

Suddenly, I could get the gist of what I was reading. Then, I could go paragraphs with only a few words highlighted. It was quite exciting and even though I was failing by still using a dictionary, the excitement kept me going.

Finally Reaching a Personal Goal

Finally, I finished reading my first novel in Japanese with the aid of a dictionary and felt accomplished despite not yet reaching my goal of reading one without a dictionary. I felt good. I had finished a native text for native speakers and learned a lot of new words along the way. I was excited and eager to read more. I was in Japan at the time and went to the bookstore to pick up some more books.

I was still “failing” but my level of excitement kept me invigorated and involved. Since that time, I have read dozens of books in Japanese and it got easier each time. I finally did reach my goal of reading a novel in Japanese without the help of a dictionary but I was not nearly as satisfied as I was when I finished reading that first novel with the aid of a dictionary.

The point is that sometimes even when you reach your long term goals, you do not feel the success you think you would feel having achieved it. What really brings out the true “success” is being in that high state of excitement while also involving your target language so you can gain as much time as possible in the new language and thus not possibly fail to progress. Keep that level of excitement and one day, you will wake up and realize you have achieved your goals.

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