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How to Stop Worrying and Accept that Learning a Language is Unfair — Going Beyond Day Trader Style Language Learning

This entry is part 11 of 14 in the series Intermediate Angst
This entry is part 2 of 2 in the series Language As An Investment
  • Language As An Investment
  • How to Stop Worrying and Accept that Learning a Language is Unfair — Going Beyond Day Trader Style Language Learning

Language skill is a lot like antiques, fine wine and company stock in that rewards (=y-axis = gains) accrue disproportionately on the right-hand side, long into the game (= time = x-axis). “New antiques” tend not to sell so well, oxymoronic as they are.

But people treat languages like they’re freaking milk or something — as if they were going to spoil! As if Japanese were going to evaporate into thin air just because it’s not the late 1980s/early 1990s any more (that delightful period of the 20th century when many Americans sincerely believed that the movie Rising Sun was, in fact, a documentary). As if Mandarin were going to spontaneously combust just because the Huffington Post wrote a scathing article on the work environment at the (a?) FoxConn factory (I don’t know whether they actually did or not; this is just a random example).

The language isn’t going anywhere! It’s not running away. Think about it: an Oxford professor can write books in deliberately arcane English plus fake Scandinavian languages (come on now, we’re all adults here, OK? Elvish sounds just like Finnish and you and I both know it :P); he can then proceed to die a good 10 years before Khatzumoto is born and still have his books widely read — with no formal instruction for the readers — and have the intellectual property they represent earn his estate tens of millions of dollars posthumously.

For all the talk of how dynamic and mercurial language is, and it is at some level — the slang level — language is suprisingly stable and long-lived. And even some slang just never seems to go away. “Cool” is still a cool word. So, there’s no need to go do what I’ve seen some kids do, which is send me breathless, all-caps emails to the effect of:


Or what? Or the world will end? Don’t you think that’s just a teeny bit dramatic? Did Japanese really just go from “interesting thing I’m kinda into” to “I’ll die unless I’m native level at it in the next 15 minutes”?

The other thing to realize is that this is not a linear process. It is a non-linear process. It is logarithmic at worst and probably (if experience is telling the truth) exponential. In fact, scratch that, it is exponential: it looks like the graph of y = x^3, with a little dip in the middle (more on that later; y=x^3 actually only goes flatline, but, whatever) vindicated further down the x-axis by a meteoric rise.

What this all means is that learning a language is profoundly, fundamentally unfair. At no time, at no point in the process, are you ever getting as good as you give. Of course, overall you will; overall, the quality and range and volume of your output shall be determined by the frequency of your input. But at any given moment, you are always either getting back much more than you give or much less than you give.

Tolkien, everybody’s favorite Oxford don, is dead — literally doing nothing but rotting in the ground. But his language skill, embodied in a persistent artifact that acts as his surrogate, continues to work for him and thus continues to get him more than he can ever again give. Life is unfair and that’s a wonderful, wonderful thing, because, like the man (Joseph Ford, quoted by Richard Koch and James Gleick) said: “God plays dice with the universe. But they’re loaded dice. And the main objective of physics…is to find out by what rules were they loaded and how we can use them for our own ends.”

Unfair is good. If life weren’t unfair, there couldn’t be cars or planes or levers, because there would be no way for you to get out more than you put in. Life is ultimately unfair in your favor, if, that is, you use your brain a little. Or, better yet, use someone else’s brain. Someone, somewhere, has probably already figured out a way to exploit some of the unfairness for you — you probably didn’t have to invent most — any? — of the technology you use.

SRS is one way to exploit the unfairness and get more than you give, because what SRS really does isn’t show you what to review (although it does do that), but not show you what you don’t need to review. Another way to take advantage of the unfair advantages that exist for you…is to stick around until they mature. Which they will. Of their own accord. An acorn doesn’t struggle to grow into an oak tree, it just stays alive long enough to let Nature take its course. That’s pretty much all you need to do.

If you want to reap large socio-economic rewards from a language, you need to stick around until reaping time: harvest time. You can’t reap jack if you leave before the harvest. You’ve just wasted time and energy and gotten nothing in return. 1 Yet most people leave in spring. Almost everybody leaves in spring.

And not for bad reasons. People leave for a good reasons. People aren’t evil or lazy or stupid. Myopic, yes. Misinformed, yes. But not stupid, not lazy, not evil. There is a dip in the language acquisition process, the same dip that Seth Godin talks about in his book, “The Dip”. It’s a period where the apparent, extrinsic benefits of the process of getting used to language do not exceed the apparent, extrinsic detriments. It’s the intermediate period, a period that can seem to last forever. A period where you can’t feel any progress any more (even though it is still happening).

And that’s a huge motivational killer, because people love the feeling of making progress; they love the feeling of a linear reward for a linear effort. But that’s not how the game works. Putting in 10% effort doesn’t always get you 10% results. Again, early in the game, you get more than you give. Mid-game, you give more than you get. And late game, possessed of powerful language skill, you get infinitely more than you give. But that mid-game can seem grim; it’s like the dark part of a trilogy; it’s like “The Empire Strikes Back”. Everything seems to pot and lose meaning and — WTF? — the main villain is your father?!?!

Ironically, people who learn languages for economic reasons almost all adopt “day trader” strategies that ultimately maximize loss and minimize gain. They’re in; they’re out. They’re at this language; they’re at that language; they’re worried sick, when are they gonna get good, oh this is terrible.

And this is why, ironically, people who learn languages for economic reasons tend to get the least economic benefit from them. It’s a vicious irony, but it doesn’t have to be the case, because getting used to a language is far more a matter of persistence — of lethargy — than intelligence. To repeat: all you need to do is stay. Stick around. Literally. Show up. At your “farm”.

Learning languages for economic reasons is like American football: you go long and deep, because the scoring happens in the end zone. So you can’t be upset that you’re on the fifty yard line and no scoring is happening because that’s simply not where it happens.

People will happily spend double-digit numbers of years learning a sport that could be taken away from them by one misstep, one unintentional injury. Or an intellectual skill that could become obsolete by the time they peak at it. At least it seems so. And we think this perfectly normal. Programming languages like COBOL and Pascal have largely come and gone in terms of use and importance, yet natural languages like Swahili and English and Japanese soldier on.

Natural languages last a long time; it takes a lot more than a mere change in “the times” to uproot them. It takes a heck of a lot more than a busted knee or the emergence of a new, hitherto non-existent language, to make a natural language disappear, either from the world or from your life. Even a weird disease like ALS was not enough to take Stephen Hawking’s language skill away from him. Even that guy with no arms and no legs or that super midget guy — both of whom give personal development talks — cash in (and, in all seriousness, I mean that respectfully) on language = speaking skills. We would be unable to benefit from the wisdom of their experience if they were unable to communicate it to us.

You know how you make a cup of tea, right? A cuppa. Because, that’s just how you roll, right? And you put a bunch of sugar in it, because that, too, is the manner in which you roll. Guess where all the sugar is? 2

At the bottom of the cup. There. I have officially told you nothing new.

Why, though, do you disbelieve this when it comes to getting used to languages? Why are you so anxious to get that sugar hit RIGHT THIS MINUTE that you start to doubt the very existence of sugar? The sugar’s there, yo. In the endzone.

The trick is to get lost in the process, to have so much fun that you don’t even want to look at the clock, that you forget all about the clock. And so the trick to being economically smart about the game is, in fact, to appear to be economically stupid about it. To quote Barbara Sher: “…greatness? It will come…you won’t notice it because you’ll be so busy having a good time”.

You’re going to be great. Your eggs are going to hatch like gangbusters. Just stay long enough for it to happen.

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  1. Maybe even less than nothing. Or not, I dunno, I mean, at some level, you gain from every experience, but, you get what I mean.
  2. OK, not “all”, but…

  18 comments for “How to Stop Worrying and Accept that Learning a Language is Unfair — Going Beyond Day Trader Style Language Learning

  1. 魔法少女☆かなたん
    July 25, 2013 at 20:55

    Well, technically, y=x^3 isn’t an exponential function, but rather a power function. But yeah, I can see it’s kind of like that in the sense that progress seems faster at first; it’s that “1 to 8 — Yay, I know eight times more” thing that doesn’t feel so satisfying when it’s only 14%.

  2. Agent J
    July 26, 2013 at 05:48

    I wonder if I’m the only one who felt things were slower in the beginning and faster in the middle because of going from not understanding anything to being able to read easy stuff.

    • Erik
      July 26, 2013 at 09:15

      For me things were harder in the beginning but it’s harder to feel any progress in the middle. I’ll listen to something spoken and I’ll know that in most sentences I’ll at least understand a word here and there if not a whole sentence but I sometimes get upset with what I don’t know rather than realizing how far I’ve come. When I just started though I was just thrilled to understand a single word, there were a lot of “wow I understood that word!” moments.

      • フレヂィ
        July 26, 2013 at 10:07

        Some days, I read an article on a (Japanese) news website/blog etc. And I’ll breeze right through it understanding the whole bit… down to the という’s. And some days, I’ll grasp 50% of what I read.

        I used to kick myself in the a$$ thinking “man, I suck…” but now I just think “man, I’m doing quite alright :^)” and all that just because I’m sticking with it.

      • Livonor
        August 11, 2013 at 07:32

        I never understand all the lack-of-progressっぽい felling that all those dudes talk about, since we are always learning new words, listening and reading stuff, we are always facing those words again in real speech, and so the progress shows up, every time I saw those words I became so happy, if the word is one of those I-never-will-see-that-word-again vocabulary, I even start stupid dances or strange sounds with my mouth. And I also never forget how I was when I started, I remember like it was yesterday, understand manga and anime seemed like something so magical and fantastic, and here I am doing all that stuff, living the dream

  3. Shironamushin
    July 31, 2013 at 00:29

    this is the best article this site has ever had!!! DUde you should like publish your stuff… I think youd make a GREAT teacher for High School kids and young adults….

  4. August 1, 2013 at 06:50

    I like this article,
    It’s inspiring. What do you think about this Katz:
    isn’t language learning like STARTING A WEBSITE (considering that you set the niche and stuff and your good to go), and basically any business venture, right?
    Most people dig for the treasure, but they stop inches before the chest when all you have to do is , just keep digging.
    ANd I love the acorn metaphor here as well.
    And with day trading, you mean short term traders right? I am on Stocks as well but long term, I earned 30% in a yeqar and a half. imagine if that were in a bank, I owuld have earned 2% by now?

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