Learning a new language is, in a word

Humbling. Completely.

I’ve started enough things from the very beginning to know that being terrible, graceless and awkward is part of the beginning process of learning anything. I’ve struggled through the beginning wretched awkwardness of learning to scuba dive, do Kung Fu, draw, do Bikram yoga, lift weights, draft patterns, do medical transcription and speak Spanish. Every learning process starts the same way with a long slog that feels like it will never end and will always be full of mistakes and inefficiencies but eventually I find good mentors who give me multiple corrections, I pick up tricks and then I just do it and do it and do it until the fundamentals are as natural as breathing.

I know this process of mastering something new. It’s always the same. It’s always hard. It always feels like the beginning phase won’t end and I’ll never get better and then the beginning phase ends and I get better.

learning German

But somehow learning a new language is SO much harder for me than mastering something physical. Even though I know that being a beginner means mistakes. Even though I know, intellectually, that it’s hard on the ego to be awful but almost everyone almost everywhere has a lot of grace for beginners. Especially when they’re struggling to get past the beginning stage. Especially with languages.

But still I’m so frustrated by getting reduced to a childlike state, unable to form words or remember vocabulary and always speaking in improper verb tenses. The frustration should drive me to practice more and get better but instead it makes me not want to practice because I want it to be perfect or I don’t want to say it.

For the record, this isn’t how it works.

Perhaps language learning is harder and digs in closer to my bones because I write a lot and take pride in being verbal and succinct in English? I do know that it’s much more frustrating to be inept in another language than it is to be inept in some other new skill.

Anne Lamott is so extremely quotable and the internet is so rife with her writing that I’ll never find her exact quote on this subject but she wrote a great little paragraph about learning to play the piano and how you have to struggle with the beginning scales, press on to “twinkle twinkle little star” and look forward to that seemingly far off day when you can murder “Farmer in the Dell.” The process of learning is accepting the fact that you will suck at cool things.

Sucking at something cool is not a reason not to do it. In fact it’s the only reason to do it. The cool things will only come to those who push through the beginning parts and learn to put their ego aside and just embrace the suckage.

So that’s where I am with German, I’m embracing the suckage.

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