You can’t learn a language

Yesterday we had a practice session for the language learning forum, and the topic of goal setting came up. David Zen, a polyglot who has reached amazingly close-to-native fluency in four languages (in addition to his two native languages), said he has never set language goals. His path to fluency was an unselfconscious series of steps, each one involving some sort of immediate fascination: fascination with accents, with expressions, and with different ways of speaking and thinking, etc.

This took a while to sink in, but it finally got me thinking about how my own language goals might be holding me back. And oh! I do have language goals, whether or not I like to admit it.

People don’t learn languages. Learning a language isn’t actually an action you can take. There is no moment when you go from not knowing a language to knowing it, so it’s meaningless to think about it as actually trying to learn a language. All this will accomplish is to constantly make you dissatisfied with your current ability (or lack thereof).

So is language learning just a hopeless endeavor? Obviously not. If I understand the lesson in David’s example, it’s summed up in this paradoxical statement: To learn a language, stop trying to learn a language.

Ok, I’ve stopped. Now what do I do? Here’s my best attempt:

Step 1: Find something that fascinates you about the language.

Step 2: When it stops being fascinating, go back to step 1.

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