This is the number one piece of advice I want to give to language learners, especially if they’re anything like me:
I think that, much like the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, every single language textbook should have this helpful piece of advice emblazoned on its cover.
I really, really love learning languages, but even I have my moments where I see my own reaction reflected in the bewildered, flushed faces of my classmates. Everything is going along swimmingly and then you learn one piece of information and suddenly you get that feeling like the room is getting dimmer and you’re not breathing properly. Russian has how many noun cases? French has how many irregular verbs? I have to what??
I’m a bit of a grammar junkie, which can be good – up to a point. It means I’m familiar with some of the things that languages that aren’t English do, and I’m not easily intimidated. But it also means that I want to see the Big Picture, and there is a very, very good reason why beginning language teachers and textbooks don’t give you the Big Picture on day one. Last night my Arabic teacher introduced us to verb conjugation – hurray! So, good little nerd that I am, the first thing I did when I went home was to investigate just how many verb forms, tenses, and moods Arabic has. Here is what I said to myself upon seeing this wikipedia summary:
I was not deluded that this language was going to be a piece of cake. (None of them are!) But there’s a reason language teachers just try to get you to put one foot in front of the other instead of letting you see the whole map. If you knew all of the mountains, ravines, and miles and miles and miles of slogging you had between you and that magic fluency finish line, you’d probably give up before you started. So being the kind of language learner who just needs to have the map can be detrimental to one’s mental well-being.
In the bitter struggle that was my brief encounter with Sanskrit, I learned one very important skill: the skill of letting a language wash over you. I learned to stop fighting it, to stop asking why??, to stop tearing my hair out wishing it were simpler. When we were introduced to something new in Sanskrit grammar, I would half-close my eyes and imagine myself as a strong young tree in the middle of a flowing river. The river comes and comes and I just let it keep flowing, catching as much of it as I could, not struggling to dam the stream. Yes, Sanskrit taught me linguistic meditation.
So instead of losing my nerve over Arabic verbs, I took a deep breath and said “Okay.” Out loud. Then I closed my computer and turned to my bookshelf, lazily pulling down a book of verb paradigms in Classical Greek just to thumb through. And then I remembered…oh yeah! I’ve done this before! No language, no matter how many verb forms (and, goodness, Greek has a lot) has killed me yet, and I’m not planning to let any new one do me in. I just have to remember my own advice.