What can a dancer teach you about learning languages?
As it turns out, just about everything.
Twyla Tharp. It’s not a household name. In fact, whenever I hear it, I picture Tilda Swinton — another woman lots of T’s in her name and very little fat on her body.
Anyway, it turns out they look nothing like each other, but that’s not the point. The point is, years ago, way back in about 2003 — for perspective, that’s before President Obama was even a Senator — Twyla Tharp wrote a book called “The Creative Habit”.
- Here’s the Japanese version of the book: [クリエイティブな習慣―右脳を鍛える32のエクササイズ | トワイラ サープ, Twyla Tharp, 杉田 晶子 | 本 | Amazon.co.jp]
- and here’s the (original) English version: [The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life: Twyla Tharp, Mark Reiter: 9780743235273: Amazon.com: Books]
So, years ago, she wrote this book.
And years ago, I bought it.
And years ago, I read it.
But only now am I sharing its profound insights and boundless wisdom with you, because, well, I like to let things ruminate like that.
This book has been…I don’t know if there’s a word for it in English…at the risk of sounding corny, a constant and quiet source of grounding and inspiration for me, and I think it could be that for you, too. And not the “rah! rah! go git ’em Tiger” sort of loud and violent inspiration, but the understated, slow-cooking, simmering kind. The kind that’s not like the movies, because it lasts a heckuva lot longer than a ten-minute montage. The kind that moves you to do the one and only thing that can make you great: to continue.
Speaking of continuing, there’s actually an entire (almost) 200-page Japanese book about just that. It’s a friggin’ classic. We won’t talk about it today, but we will get into it some other time — in English, just to make it easier for you. For now, though, here’s a link so we can put a little pin in that thought: [The Power of Continuing: The Royal Road to Success in Work and Study by Makoto ITOU / 続ける力―仕事・勉強で成功する王道 (幻冬舎新書) | 伊藤 真 | 本 | Amazon.co.jp]
And now, back to our regularly scheduled programming!
In my not-so-humble opinion, Tharp has produced one of the greatest books ever written not just on dance and creativity, but on learning itself. Like many such books (and many such people) she’s done that thing where you get so deeply and narrowly into one field that your mind opens up, and you see the entire Universe in a grain of sand, so to speak.
Twyla Tharp — yes, that’s her real, gubmit name that her parents gave her — has been dancing and choreographing professionally for some fifty years, and she hasn’t been sleeping on the job or resting on her laurels. The lady just keeps on going. She is to dance as Leni Riefenstahl is to film: relentlessly badass, a lifelong innovator, and nearly immortal. Unlike Leni, however, she’s not a Nazi sympathizer. This is a good thing.
What the f
So, she writes this book, blah blah blah…And it can help you learn languages! Enough talk, let’s dig right in! Unless otherwise stated, everything in quotes will be words of wisdom from Twyla. And everything not in quotes will be analysis and commentary from the Khatzumoto.
- Let go of magical beliefs. There is only one “gift” in this world, and that is the fact of being alive and thus being able to work. Where and when you were born do not matter — it’s just plain silly to focus on the country you were born in and forget about the planet and universe you were born into. This is a universe where you, of your own free will, can produce causes that produce effects. What you do is what will make you who you are. Greatness is made, not born: “…a philosophical tug of war will periodically rear its head. It is the perennial debate, born in the Romantic era, between the beliefs that all creative acts are born of (a) some transcendent, inexplicable Dionysian act of inspiration, a kiss from God on your brow that allows you to give the world The Magic Flute, or (b) hard work. If it isn’t obvious already, I come down on the side of hard work.”
- You don’t learn a language, you get used to it: “…[language skill is created] by routine and habit. Get used to it. [Language skill] is a habit, and the best [language skill] is a result of good…habits. That’s it in a nutshell.”
- It’s all about preparation. If you want to eat the sweet fruit of language ability, you must prepare beforehand. It’s not good signing up for some shiz and then panicking at the last moment. Language skill is brutally and scrupulously just. If you want to reap, you must sow: “In order to be creative you have to…prepare to be creative.”
- Starting is more important than finishing. If you just start — show up — every day; finishing will take care of itself. In exercise terms, the trick is not to go to the gym, the trick is to get outside with your shoes on: “I begin each day of my life with a ritual; I wake up at 5:30 A.M., put on my workout clothes, my leg warmers, my sweatshirts, and my hat. I walk outside my Manhattan home, hail a taxi, and tell the driver to take me to the Pumping Iron gym at 91st street and First Avenue, where I work out for two hours. The ritual is not the stretching and weight training I put my body through each morning at the gym; the ritual is the cab. The moment I tell the driver where to go I have completed the ritual.” 1
- You don’t learn the language, you get used to it. A language is not a “skill” (even though we often call it one, for convenience), but a habit, a way of life. If you want to change your language ability, change your way of life: “It’s vital to establish…rituals — automatic but decisive patterns of behavior…[in order to prevent] turning back, chickening out, giving up, or going the wrong way.”
- In case you didn’t get the message yet: “There are no “natural” geniuses.”
- You are never too old, too young, too early, too late, too bad or too good to use an SRS. Surusu, Anki, Mnemosyne, SuperMemo, Memrise. Which one you use doesn’t matter. Just use one erry day: “The great ones never take fundamentals for granted.”
- You are never too good for practice. You will never be too good for practice. Before enlightenment: chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment: chop wood, carry water. A lot of people act like — and sincerely believe — that you can “learn” a language and then somehow be done with it. That’s so untrue it’s not even funny. You will never be done. You will get better; you will stop sucking, but you will never be “done”. The moment you’re “done” (or think you are) is the moment you start sucking. This game is forever. It’s for fun. It’s for keeps. And it’s forever, because: “you have to work as hard to protect your skills as you did to develop them. This means vigilant practice and excellent practice habits”.
- Copy first, create later. The cool thing about learning (=getting used to) a language is that you don’t have to invent or create a damn thing. In fact, inventing and creating is exactly what you mustn’t do. Speaking and writing a language is 99.999999% copying exactly what native speakers say and write, and 0.000001% creating new combinations on your own. It’s also about 90~95% input to 5%~10% output. In fact, when you first get started, it’s 100% input. So: “…get busy copying. That’s not a popular notion today, not when we are all instructed to find our own way, admonished to be original and find our own voice at all costs! But it’s sound advice. Traveling the paths of greatness, even in someone else’s footprints, is a vital means to acquiring skill.”
- If you want to be creative, stop creating. Not forever, just for a really, really long time. If you want to be good at Japanese, stop making stuff up. Don’t be original. Copy. Your copying style will be your originality. Your originality and creativity will bubble up naturally.
- Learn to enjoy and exploit being alone. Even social insects like bees and ants work alone a lot of the time. We live in a world and a time where people over-emphasize the importance of other people. Social media. Meetups. Groups. Forums. All that crap is nice and all, but it won’t actually help you grow the way you think it will. Ultimately, you have to go away and be alone and do some actual metaphorical lifting and literal development — and then and only then will you become a person of value to any group, a contributor rather than a moocher: “Solitude is an unavoidable part of [learning]. Self-reliance is a happy by-product.”
- Other (live) people are neither necessary nor sufficient for you to grow and succeed in learning a language. It’s definitely nice to have them, but you don’t need them. If you don’t have access to people, don’t let that be a mental block for you. You’ll be fine. In getting used to a language, the presence of human beings is an asset, but their absence is not a liability. Surrogate humans are more than enough.
- You rack disciprine, Grasshopper. You wanna be a hotshot? Show up. Wax on. Wax off.: “Discipline. Everyone needs it. No explanation required.”
- But discipline doesn’t have to be hard or painful. In fact, it’s fun — if you let it be. As David Campbell, founder of Saks Fifth Avenue so perfectly put it: “Discipline is remembering what you want”
- Things always look sucky in the middle of the journey away from Sucksville, not because they actually are (they’re probably better than ever) but because humans, both physically and mentally, can sense acceleration (change in speed) but not absolute speed. So when you’re cruising, it seems like you’re going nowhere, even though you’re breaking new ground and making more and better ground than you’ve ever made.
- And finally, never lose hope: “When you’re in a rut, you have to question everything but your ability to get out of it.”
The path of excellence is infinite but the path to excellence is finite. Comically so. It won’t take you forever to get good at, get used to, stop sucking at Japanese — you’ll just have to spend forever staying good. And that’s okay, because you love the language, and there’s so much to do! What, you thought you could just build a house and never touch that bad boy again? Build a road and never repair, repave or extend it? Come on now…Be real.
You will get used to Japanese. You will become fluent. You will become native-like. You will become awesome. If you want to. If you choose to. You have it in you.