It’s a clichè, of course.
But an apt one in this case.
Over the years, teaching languages and learning them, I’ve noticed that there’s a tendency for beginners to be more optimistic.
While intermediate/advanced-level learners are often pessimistic, or even depressed!
When you’re starting out, each hour you spend learning can add significantly to what you know.
Assuming your course, app or self-study program is reasonably well-planned, you are likely to experience a growing sensation of confidence, and perhaps feel pride in the progress you are making.
Compare what you know after a month of learning a language with what you knew before you began (zero), and you risk an irritating smugness!
As you continue to learn, practice, and gain experience with the language, each additional hour of study or lesson, while perhaps actually more effective than the baby steps you took when you were just a beginner, seems RELATIVELY much less significant, compared to what you have already learnt.
In particular, the more you know of a language, the more you realise how much there is still to know.
Unless you’re particularly unaware, there’s a chance you’ll get gloomy when you realise how much you will probably never know.
Compare your knowledge of the language you’re learning with the abilities you have in your first language, that is to say your mother tongue (actually, don’t!)
I’m fifty-two years of age. So what I can do in English is the result of over half a century of (indirect) learning and practice, including boring years at school, decades of work experience, reading thousands of books and newspapers, too much TV, and so on.
In contrast I’ve only been speaking Italian for two decades, which sounds like a long time, but in that time I’ve also been using English for much of each day. And note which language I’m confidently typing in right now. And ask yourself why.
With Swedish, I’ve been at it less than three years, and very part-time at that. I’ve visited the country just once in that time.
So it would be easy to think, looking at your second language, why bother?
I’ll never get to the same level as I’ve achieved in English.
May as well give up now!
This is all a matter of ‘framing’, or to put it another way, how you think of the issue, what you compare things to.
Here’s an example:
I left Turkey in 1994 after living there for three years.
At the time I was married to a Turkish woman (it was her idea to leave), but we divorced a couple of years later.
Then, once I met my Italian now-wife, I neither spoke Turkish or visited the country again.
Until this last academic year, when (so as to have something to write about here, and because it seemed a shame not to) I started learning again.
Not studying, note, but doing conversation online, listening to the radio etc.
Studying bores me. Learning doesn’t.
But I digress.
My former flatmate back in Turkey, let’s call him Pete, stayed. And he stayed married to his Turkish wife (God help him).
Consequently he’s had an additional twenty-five years of language practice.
Naturally then, I ask myself – if I had stayed in Ankara, think how good I’d be!
Which is, of course, utterly unhelpful.
I’ve been busy doing other things, in other places and have achieved a lot, I reassure myself.
It’s not reasonable to compare the two situations.
I doubt Pete speaks a word of Italian, for example. And certainly not any Swedish…
Much more helpful would it be for me to look back at when I started my Turkish conversation lessons on Skype, approximately a year ago.
Then, there was still knowledge of the language locked away in my head, dusty after all those decades, the hinges rusted up.
But it was dormant – I could barely remember a word.
When I started lessons I’d get very mixed up with simple things – I was convinced the number 30 meant 9, for example, and couldn’t believe my teacher had got it right.
“Are you sure?” I kept asking her, “Doesn’t 30 mean 9 really? I’m convinced it used to…”
After a year of practice, though, I’m a lot more able to access the knowledge in my head, and a lot more confident with it.
To the point where I’m hoping I’ll be able to get by on holiday in Istanbul. Better, I hope to be able to chat to people, make friends, re-establish a connection with the country after a quarter of a century.
And for that, I need to be able to speak and understand, at least at a basic level.
Which, fingers crossed, is what I’ve achieved with my online-lesson-a-week since whenever it was.
So anyway, while people who know me would probably tell you I’m not a positive person, with languages I try hard to see things as ‘glass half-full’ not ‘glass half-empty’.
I know that if I focus on all the things I can’t do, I risk getting demotivated.
And that losing enthusiasm will mean that I’ll start finding other things to do, rather than learning a language.
Which, ultimately, means failing.
If you have an Italian exam coming up, a degree of pessimism is helpful. It means you’ll prepare effectively.
But otherwise, smile!
Celebrate all you’ve achieved!
When measuring progress, I’d suggest always looking back at how far you have come.
Not forward at how far there still is to go.