Language Learning and the Joy of Being Incomplete
Ah, language learning. What comes to mind when one envisions this process? Vocabulary building? Conjugations? Boring assigned texts? While all these are certainly aspects of language learning, they all miss the most important point: The joy of being incomplete.
What do I mean by this? As someone who is “on the train” of learning French (and as someone who has learned another language before), there is one truth that stands out: You will never reach perfection. The reason for this is because the complete knowledge of a language is too vast to fully grasp, and there is always more to learn. Even the mere desire to become fluent can seem daunting as the road ahead seems long and unending.
So, why is this a problem? In native English speaking societies (where the learning of other languages is often not deemed “necessary”), we use “perfection” or the lack thereof, as a justification not to continue learning our target languages. Sadly, in many cases, this leads to people never starting in the first place.
Such thinking, while not directly stated, often manifests itself through comments about our perceived shortcomings regarding the language that we are learning. I mean, why learn French when you will never pronounce it as well as the native Francophones? Why learn Mandarin Chinese when you will never write eloquent handwritten essays in characters (of which are too hard or too numerous to learn)? Why learn Russian when you will never be able to read Tolstoy’s War and Peace aloud while sounding like a stoic KGB agent?
As you can see, such thinking (and it doesn’t matter what the language is) is all too common in the realm of language learning. It is a sickness that makes one hesitate to speak with others in real conversations, a sickness that renders one’s goals futile, a sickness of cruel determinism—as if nothing will change or get better.
But it does not have to be this way.
When one liberates themselves of this “all or nothing” mentality, they will finally be free to improve and fumble at their own leisure. From this paradigm shift comes real growth that the learner can cultivate in their language learning. So, what does it mean to lose this “all or nothing” mentality? Better yet, what does it mean to be “incomplete”? To be incomplete is to:
Join a random group of French speakers at the cafeteria, and chat with them as if you know what you are doing
Write daily text messages in your language to your friends (assuming you have any)
Treat the nuance of dialogue like a broken phone call: It gets clearer and more fluid overtime, but for the time being, you can figure out the gist of what someone is saying (with other words being like static)
Read a chapter or 10 pages a day while realizing that while you have to look up certain words, it’s doable (reading also gets clearer each time)
Reach for a French newspaper (instead of the English one), while skimming the articles
Be lazy and watch a video on YouTube in your target language for background noise as your listening comprehension slowly gets better.
While conversing with someone, when you can’t find the right word, reword it differently to explain what you mean in the same language without switching to English. For example, say you forget the word for “keyboard” in French (it’s clavier), you can say “C’est quelque chose pour taper à l’ordinateur” (“it is something for typing for the computer”). The person will know what you mean!
Simply put, the aforementioned examples illustrate the reality of language learning: The act of communicating with others in daily contexts despite the fumbles.
Now, don’t get me wrong: Higher-end language learning goals (that come with mastery) such as reading literature or achieving a C2 on your exam with minimal errors can be quite useful as long-term goals, which (when applied correctly) will leave you wanting more from your language. However, just don’t let them stop you from enjoying the daily pleasures of language learning. As you will soon find that, in spite of the frustrations, they make the journey worth it. Bonne Chance!