What Is The End Game of Learning A Language?

Let me hit you with some knowledge, sister.

There is no end. To learning. A language.

And I know that sounds super lame. It’s not what you want to hear; it’s not what I wanted to hear. Especially when you’re young. You want results. You want achievements. You want to be doing awesome things. You want…things that end and are bounded and that do so on time scales you can fathom and stomach 1. You want doability. Neverending isn’t doable. It just sounds like punishment.

But wait. There’s hope.

There is no end.

To learning a language.

But there is an end to sucking.

On that you can rely. Of that you can rest assured. There is an end to sucking.

At that end to sucking can be brought about at blinding — or relatively blinding — speed. Sucking can and will end.

But there’s a catch (oh no)!

Oh yes.

A big, fat, screw-you, silly-fairy-tale-TV-trope-narrative-device-like catch.

Maintenance.

Suck is like dust but worse. Like beach sand. But worse. You’re always on suck removal detail. Permanently. And the moment you’re not, it starts to take over. 2 And unlike housework and real dust, you can’t outsource it. You can get help (e.g. an SRS) — use labor-saving devices — but you’re still there, removing suck.

It’s all very well learning a language. Everybody can. Everybody does. Don’t come up to me with weird exceptions. Some people are born without limbs, it doesn’t stop us describing human beings as having legs, and it doesn’t make the people who don’t share that quality any less human….why — is this high school? Why am I even getting worked up about this? You know what? It’s my fault for even…

ANYWAY!

It’s all very well learning a language. But the catch that there’s nothing to catch.

It’s a process, not an event.

It’s not a book purchase.
It’s a magazine subscription.

It’s not a skill.
It’s a habit.

It’s not a bullet point on resume.
It’s a way of life.

It’s not a trophy animal.
It’s a pet. 3

You don’t possess it. You don’t hold it.
You live it. You are it.

Live it or lose it. Now. Here. Today. And every day. This is the bitter truth. Your polyglot heroes? They’re good; they’re demn good; but even they lose the ones they don’t live. And that’s fine (I guess…yeah…it’s fine 😀 ), especially if they had fun in the process, but most people don’t have fun in the process. In fact, they find fun suspect! They have a no-pain, no-gain, delayed gratification approach to the whole thing. They have a grim, masochistic, “mountaineering” approach to learning.

And that effen sucks because there is no gratification to delay. There is no pot of gold on the other side of the fluency rainbow, there is just you. The only gold you will find there will be the gold you brought along — the gold of having had so much fun in the process.

A language is not a mountain (I’ve used mountain metaphors before and I’m sorry; I was wrong). You don’t scale it. You don’t climb it and you’re done. It’s not a conquest. It’s not a thing. It’s not static, it’s dynamic. It’s not stock, it’s flow. It’s a river. I mean, it’s not really a river, but it’s much more like a river, or rowing up one, than it is like a mountain. It is moving. And so are you. Either upstream or downstream.

It’s like bathing or brushing your teeth. Once is never enough. It has to happen and it has to keep happening. There is no “end-game” to brushing your teeth. Bathing isn’t a phase you’re going through. Brushing your teeth isn’t a goal, it’s a habit, a system, a way of life, an integral part of life.

Quick! What’s your end game with brushing your teeth? Where are you hoping to go with that? What are you hoping to do with it? What kind of jobs (ugh) can you get with yer clean-a$$ teeth? What’s the plan? Are you going to be a TV anchor? Huh? Are you planning on travelling to a country where they speak tooth?

Animal reproduction you. Seriously? The corporate human resources/high school guidance counselor route?

Can you see how stupid and short-sighted these utilitarian questions are? Yet we ask these things about languages the whole time. Language value, the value of language proficiency, assuming constant improvement, ages like fine wine, not milk. The deeper and longer you go, the better it gets and the better you get. Languages don’t go out of style. I mean, they go out of “style”, but they don’t stop being awesome and useful and relevant — even “dead” languages. Languages are tenacious like that; they hold onto their value. And the socio-economic rewards, if we might return to utility, are, ironically, disproportionately weighted on the right-hand-side, the aristocratic, “long-term”, lifestyle side, not on the wham-bam-thank-you-Ma’am side. A language is the one thing you could learn now that would still be valuable and relevant to you in its original form 50 years from now; there are not many things like that.

Does short-term language acquisition have value? Of course it does 4. When I went to Korea back in 2008, not knowing a single word of Korean, or a single hangul character…I wanted to know a little bit of Korean; any amount would have helped. I couldn’t get street directions; I literally didn’t even know how to say “thank you”. So no one’s saying short-term, quick-and-dirty language acquisition doesn’t have value — in fact, techniquewise, deep acquisition looks and works virtually the exact same as shallow…all you do is extend it, like adding segments to a Lincoln to make a stretch limo.

And it’s fine to have a goal or two in there, games to play with yourself, if you like that sort of thing, but it’s crucial to have a lifestyle — a system. Like the man said: “goals are good for planning your progress…systems are good for actually making progress.”

The delicious irony is that if you take a long-term, intensely laid-back 5 view, you get all the utilitarian gains you want. If you just chill and stop trying to choke that goose, it’ll lay you all the golden eggs you want. And more. You will not get what you deserve; you will not get as much as you put in; you will get more — you will get more than you deserve. So if you’re seeking the real value, the deep value, the value is in staying and having fun, not in following trends, not in competition and intellectual jockery with other jerks you don’t even like. You don’t need to collect languages like notches on a bedpost. You don’t need to know them all. You don’t need to know them now. You’re generally better off knowing one language well than two languages badly 6 — including your L1; adding depth to your L1 will, believe it or not, change your life.

But…but…Khatz…are you basically saying…don’t learn languages?

Yeah. No. Kinda. Definitely insofar as you define learning as a painful process separate from life, opposed to life and not itself a part of life. I’m saying…GLOAF. Because if you take off that pressure for instant results and in fact for results at all, you will think and breathe and live clearly, and, ironically, you may also get some fast results, but that won’t be the point. But this isn’t something you can game — at least I don’t think it is — you can’t pretend to be laid-back but secretly be panicking, you actually have to stop effing panicking and that’s…there’s some emotional honesty there that I can’t help you with. I’m just…tired of these people who need — NEED — to know three languages at an academic AND fully conversational level yesterday because girlfriend is Japanese and engineering degree in China OR ELSE the world WILL end.

That’s not how knowledge works and that’s not the knowledge you need. You don’t need to turn yourself into a little force-fed, hormoned-up battery farm chicken. There are much more elegant ways of living and getting what you want and they don’t involve pain, suffering or impressing easily-impressed strangers.

So I’m saying: stop the panic. Stop the fear. Stop the sense of obligation. These aren’t serving you; they’re oppressing you and they are literally, neurologically, making you stupid, because that’s what fear (or panic or stress or whatever you find fashionable to call it) does.

This is what’s hard to believe; it’s hard for me to even say it because it sounds like an irresponsible lie: when you stop having utilitarian concerns about your language(s), the utility takes care of itself. So you don’t need to do miserly things like only learning high-frequency words because they’re the only “useful” ones…which is not to say that word frequency can’t have a place as a strategic game, it’s just…this game isn’t shallow like that. 7 You don’t need to do any of that driving-across-town-to-save-25-cents-on-milk silliness to get more “bang for your buck”.

Anyway, so, here’s what’s really deep and interesting about learning — getting used to — languages: the process and lifestyle of “getting there” is fundamentally the same as the process and lifestyle once you’re “there” — assuming, that is, that you want to stay there, in Idontsuckistan.

Like brushing your teeth, it doesn’t fundamentally change, only superficially. A bit of tech here and there. You switch brushes. But you’re still brushing.

“Learning” a language — in a fun, successful way, at least — looks and works and basically is virtually the exact same as maintaining it. And it never ends. If you think about it, native speakers have all made this peace. They’re not going anywhere. They’re not in this for show. They’re not here to get a trophy and then “move on” to “other challenges”. They’re not passing through. They’re in this one forever. And they play every day. They wake up playin’; they play all day and then they go to sleep and play some more in their dreams. And they’re cool with that because they’re having fun; they’re not showing off; they’ve got no point to prove; they’re just living.

Do likewise.

Even polyglots and hyperglots have that one language (or languages) that they never leave. And this is the language they are truly “learning”. The language you’re living is the language you’re learning, not the language(s) you’re “learning”: those are just painful motions you’re going through — motions that you’ll soon forget. The language that you thoughtlessly, effortlessly, relentlessly have around you is the language you’re “learning”; it’s the language of your pillow, your car, your toilet, your web browser history, your smartphone…not of your study desk or your precious “projects list”.

There is no end game 8. It’s all mid-game 9. And if you’re not enjoying yourself now, there’s nothing on the other side for you. I’m not kidding. There’s no…like, understanding more things and getting more jokes isn’t going to make you happy; it’s just going to make you…better-informed. Think about it: what do human beings even talk about anyway? The exact same effen crap 10; in every language. 11 They’re not hiding the secret to life in your L2.

Okay, maybe they are. But don’t count on it 😉 .

Notes:

  1. Incidentally, this is what timeboxing basically does for you “artificially”. It makes things doable because we go out there and set an upper bound.
  2. It’s a war of attrition with suck and you win by frequent exposure. I say “win”, really, you stay ahead. There is no final victory, only the continual victory of exposure, the maintenance of the upper hand.
  3. Which reminds me…

    You see a lot of people choose pets on looks.

    Dumb move.

    It’s got to be about the personality. The temperament. About how you and he get along. He’s got to be a Good Guy Greg, not just a pretty face.

  4. For one thing, it can be good, clean fun — if you let it be. But most people don’t, won’t, can’t do that — they don’t even know how any more!
  5. A sort of Talebian barbell strategy.
  6. I can think of some extreme exceptions involving countries that don’t yet have fully-fledged rule of law (looking at you, Malaysia), where some well-chosen Tamil or Nepali phrases could save you a lot of hassle. But, again, that’s not so much a case of “adding value” as it is one of “preventing sh***yness”
  7. Another paradox: high frequency words are most immediately useful, but a well-placed low frequency word — or knowledge of it — moves hearts and minds most readily, which, if you deal with humans, is a useful thing…moving hearts and minds, that is. Anyway, you can’t just reduce the value of words to their frequency; that kind of reductionism is incredibly naïve, bureaucratic and almost Orwellian.
  8. There’s death and that’s about it.
  9. I guess there’s some opening game if you’re doing the serial starting thing 🙂
  10. Gossip, complaints, fear, loathing, love, directions, and — if you pick well — deep ideas
  11. You could guess and you would probably be right or not too far off.

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  6 comments for “What Is The End Game of Learning A Language?

  1. Prince
    January 31, 2014 at 00:40

    Tears to my eyes.

    Thank you very much.

  2. January 31, 2014 at 13:32

    Katz, that was a great post but I really have to remind you of something going on back in America. Today is a great holiday, have you forgotten!!??

    新年快樂!! 恭喜發財 !!!

    Well, maybe not in Japan, but I’m sure you inspired more than a few Chinese learners. Thank you again for helping people improve themselves, regardless of what language they want to learn.

  3. Erik
    January 31, 2014 at 13:38

    “They’re not hiding the secret to life in your L2. Okay, maybe they are. But don’t count on it ”

    Dammit I need to know!

  4. Sleepy
    February 14, 2014 at 09:04

    wwww There is an “end game” for getting used to Japanese.

    I believe that when I get fluency, those close to me will be very FURIOUS at me, for not doing what THEY wanted me to do.

    Example, I order Japanese food at Amazon, just because I had extra money and wanted to try different things. To my surprise, the food was REALLY good and not as expensive as previously thought(most of it at least). I want to do it again a few weeks later, except on a different site.

    I did this, and brother is starting to call me a weeaboo for preferring something else over the food here in America. When I get fluency I know at least 3 people who will immediately want to use me like a wet sponge, 1 of which I HAVE to live with for a very long time, another who is my father and the other a family friend who is old, stubborn and likes to try to manipulate me with varying success each time.

    I’m VERY annoyed at this, but I’m a terrible speaker in my L1, so it really cannot be helped.

    In spite of this, I will continue even if something bad happens because I truly find Japanese very fun and because I probably have the intelligence of a 7 year old(at least that’s what those around me think). Besides, writing/typing/speaking my problems out really relives stress for me, even if nothing happens/nobody will ever listen.

    P.S. I have no plans on moving to Japan. I simply enjoy the food and the language so much nowadays. It’s the main thing keeping me quite happy in spite of all the bad things that happened.

    It’s ironic really, my brother wants me to try different things, but gets mad because he’s pretty much a meathead weightlifter who wants me to be a meathead like him when I have no interest in such.

    He wants me to eat lots of protein when I usually eat whatever I feel like at the time, usually lacking in protein because I either don’t care or actually forget to eat such things.

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