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  • Writer's picturePaul D. Wilke

Humble Pie: The Philosophy of Language Learning

I love pie. Everyone loves pie. Humble pie, on the other hand, is more of an acquired taste. If you've ever had the opportunity to learn a foreign language, or been required to because of circumstance, then you know humble pie is on the menu every day. You get a couple of slices whether you want them or not. Humble pie may not burn any real calories, but it will undoubtedly keep your ego from inflating.

On that note, picking up another language is one of the heaviest lifts for the adult brain. And let me tell you from painful experience, it doesn't get any easier the older you get. The mind, like the body, becomes less flexible and more flabby as the years pass. You forget more often, your short-term memory gets spotty, and it gets harder to learn new things. Sure, you can slow the slide with good, healthy habits, but that's all you're doing.

For all of you out there who dedicate so much time to staying in top physical shape, good for you. I do too. But what are you doing to exercise your brain? Even for those of us who no longer have the neuroplasticity of children, there is no better exercise for your mind than stretching it out with a new language, with its strange sounds and bizarre grammar rules. Not only that, but you'll have to memorize a whole new vocabulary and often a new alphabet along with verb conjugations, noun declensions, tones, and genders.

Sounds like fun, doesn't it? Think of language learning like Crossfit for the brain, a way to stretch your mind to its limits. Research points to the many advantages of language learning at any age. There's even promising evidence that knowing more than your mother tongue can slow down cognitive decline, including dementia and Alzheimer's. Put simply, it's healthy for you.

But all that's fairly well-known. While I've studied several languages throughout my military career, I didn't pick up a second one until my mid-twenties, well past that childhood sweet spot when language acquisition is so much easier and enduring. When I finally learned Arabic, it was one of the most challenging things I ever did, and only the fear of failing out of the course motivated me to press on. I had only joined the Army after graduating from college in order to learn a language at the prestigious Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California. I had no intention of flunking out and putting myself at the mercy of the "needs of the Army" for the rest of my enlistment.

After 63 intense and error-filled weeks studying Arabic, I achieved a basic level of proficiency, about on par with my fellow graduates. However, any lingering delusions of youthful genius were burned away in that course. I passed, I met the standard, but my accomplishment was tempered by the fact that, for all the work I had just put in, I really wasn't all that good in the language. The exact same thing happened a few years later when I spent another 63 weeks in Monterey learning Mandarin Chinese. All that work, and in the end just a basic level of fluency. I went on to repeat this cycle in several other languages, including German, Ukrainian, Russian, and Portuguese.

Impressed? Well, don't be. Don't confuse my uniquely abundant career opportunities to study languages as any reflection of actual ability. A recurring cycle of gain-loss-gain-loss has become a humbling reminder of the rather unremarkable caliber of my intellect. Here is my humble pie. Don't get me wrong, I'm smart enough, just not that smart. In each language, I stayed proficient only as long as I regularly used it. Even though I've studied several over the years, I'm honestly pretty terrible in most of them now. I'm no polyglot. I know now that once I move on to the next assignment and am no longer immersed in the language and culture, a slow erosion will begin. For someone like me of average ability, a second language is a use-it-or-lose-it proposition.

For example, my Arabic today, over twenty years after graduation, is sadly all but gone. My Chinese is even more derelict. My Ukrainian and German are good enough to pass the military's reading and listening comprehension tests, but just barely, and don't ask me to speak either at any length. My Portuguese is solid, but only because I recently left Brazil. Learning a language as an adult is not like riding a bike or typing. Once those skills are learned, a person tends to keep them. When it comes to languages, the human brain doesn't work that way. As soon as you stop speaking a second (or third...or fourth...or fifth) language, it starts receding back into the background of your mind. So much work for such temporary gain!

On the surface, this gives language learning a somewhat Sisyphean feel. Time after time, I've pushed that rock up the hill, learning a new language from scratch, only to watch it roll down again and then have to start all over. Recently, as I plodded my way through the first few days of a Russian refresher course, I was reminded of this Sisyphean truth. The difference, though, is that this time I was excavating one of my old languages rather than starting from scratch. And let me tell you, ten years of neglect in a language does one no favors! Even then, in the back of my mind was the knowledge that, no matter how much of that old skill in Russian I got back, it would only be for a little while.

And yet, I love every minute of it. Even here, one can find a bit of wisdom in this apparent exercise in futility that makes it all worthwhile. Call it, if you will, an existential approach to language learning. You see, as with anything in life, an activity is not futile when you're pleasurably immersed in the process and not overly anxiety-ridden about the outcome.

That's good because acquiring another language honestly has no final destination. At no point will I ever be able to stop, declare complete and permanent mastery, and then move on to the next Herculean quest. "Russian? Done! Mastered! Now next up, French! And after that, quantum physics! And then, finally, yodeling!" No, that's not how it works. Progress, not perfection, as the old saying goes.

Put another way, it's better to just enjoy the process and not the fleeting sense of accomplishment felt during those brief and rare moments when you actually reach a goal. Like new car smell, that feeling doesn't last. Once that passes, it's off to the next goal. If you are not enjoying the journey, if you're only focused on reaching the next target, you won't appreciate all the moments in-between. And the 'in-between' is where life happens, where our existence gets whatever meaning it's going to have. Such a simple truth gets lost these days with our culture's obsession with achieving goals and checking boxes.

In my case, the process of learning languages brings me great pleasure, and when I do finally get good at one of them, even if it is only temporarily, I feel a wonderful sense of accomplishment, like I've just climbed a mountain, but a metaphorical one made of language. The beauty of learning another language is that even the intangible goal, that of maybe getting good at the language, itself eventually transitions to a new process, that of actually being good (though not perfect) at it, which in turn motivates one to even greater heights. That makes this an open-ended progression of 'in-betweens' for me, a process without clearly defined end states. As long as it lasts and is rewarding, well, that's enough for me. That's my sweet spot.

Finally, back to the humble pie. My illness a couple of years ago made me realize the fragility of our physical health and how profoundly our quality of life can suffer when that goes. And it eventually will go for each and every one of us. That was my takeaway then. With this second chance, I no longer take my health for granted and am grateful for every race I run, no matter how slow, every weight I lift, no matter how light, and every foreign language I can speak, no matter how poorly. It's all wonderful. Likewise, years of language learning have made me appreciate just how much I can accomplish, average ability or not, with a little hard work and practice.

That said, I've also come to the more sober conclusion that human intelligence, as powerful as it can be, is just as fragile, flawed, and transient as our bodies. What we learn, fellow snowflakes, is only ours for a little while. We don't own what we know, we merely rent it. Time's hitman, Mr. Death, always wins in the end, but the 'in-between' is still ours in the meantime.

Our task is to roll up our sleeves, smile, and get to work rolling that rock up the hill in spite of this absurd truth. The effort, the journey, the experience, and any wisdom gained along the way - those are what matter if anything matters at all. Your job is to make sure the path you are on is rewarding enough to be worth all the effort.

And if it is not, choose again.


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