Learning from the Past, Looking Toward the Future: Failure and Language Learning
Written by guest contributor Ted Meyer
“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work"
If you don’t believe me, take it from Thomas Edison; failure is just another stepping stone to success. In the short term, failure is difficult and demoralizing. But approached with the right attitude, failure can teach you more than any classroom, and this is as true with Thomas Edison’s landmark inventions as it is with learning a brand new language.
Getting off to a bad start
I’ve had two successful language learning experiences (Spanish and German), but they sandwich the time that I failed – embarrassingly, spectacularly, even hilariously – to learn Gujarati, the language spoken in the state of Gujarat in northwestern India. The experience was jarring, but what I learned about learning a language that differs from my own in all aspects was invaluable.
Two months after I graduated from high school, I embarked on a yearlong journey to Gujarat through a popular youth exchange program. Because I was going to be there for the whole year, I planned on picking up Gujarati. I was coming off a long and positive experience learning Spanish through middle school and high school, and with this at my back, I fully expected myself to tackle another new language without a problem.
It turned out my faith in myself was misplaced. In both the practical learning of the language and my motivation, I approached Gujarati in entirely the wrong way.
Past performance does not guarantee future results
My first mistake was to think of Gujarati as “just another language.” My self-confidence in my language learning abilities was rooted entirely in my successful experience with Spanish. This was misguided for a number of reasons. As a native English speaker, learning Spanish, German, and French came easier to me than to others, as Western European languages have a lot in common. Their grammatical structures and tenses have many direct equivalents to each other, they use approximately the same alphabet, and they contain many helpful cognates.
As it turned out, the ease with which I easily switched between European languages with fundamentally similar grammatical structures left me completely unprepared for the mental shift required to learn Gujarati. I would ask my Gujarati teachers questions that were irrelevant: “what is the ‘us’ way to conjugate this?” or “how might I contract these prepositions?”
Without getting into the details of Gujarati, I can tell you that these questions are completely meaningless. I was attempting to bring in concepts that didn’t apply to what I was learning. Eventually, one of my frustrated teachers told me, “you are basically asking me how to say these things in English, but you already know how to say them in English, so what are you trying to learn?”
Treat each language as unique
It hurt, but she was absolutely right. She was also getting at a key concept about learning languages: each language is a unique beast. It wasn’t only that I was accustomed to learning only other European languages, with similar vocabulary and grammar, but that I had accustomed myself to the idea that other languages were just a few new vocabulary words away. The reality? It’s bad for your acquisition (and culturally insensitive) to position languages in relation to your own.
Look inward for motivation
As a result of my failure, I was forced to ask myself: why was I trying to learn? All language learners need to ask themselves this question. There is no right answer, but asking the question is essential, especially when you’re trying to learn a language with a structure and vocabulary radically different from your own. Before trying to tackle Gujarati, I ought to have seriously interrogated my own motivations.
Some languages will always come easier to you than others. A Spanish speaker might breeze through Portuguese, and a German could easily pick up Dutch, but when you’re tackling a language inherently different from your own in all respects, you have to do some serious self-examination. Learning this unrelated language is going to require a lot more work – work that you won’t be prepared to put in if you’re not completely committed to learning the language.
This isn’t to say that you need a profound reason to learn a difficult language! Trying to do business in another country, fulfilling an intellectual passion, or just impressing the cute foreign exchange student in your biology lecture can all be good reasons, as long as they motivate you – not your teacher, not your friend, but you. But make no mistake, learning a language that works on a completely unfamiliar structure is going to require wholehearted commitment.
Find motivation for future success
Learning a radically different language is one of the healthiest intellectual exercises a person can undertake. It makes your brain more adaptable, it introduces you to an entirely new way of interpreting the world and with remote education options, it’s easier than ever! Understanding what you’re getting into, as well as your own motivations, will put you in an even better position to tackle the rewarding challenge of learning a new language.
About the author:
Ted Meyer is a writer and editor based in Brooklyn, New York. He hails from Minnesota, went to college in Ohio and has lived in India and Berlin. Ted's latest language is Dothraki.