An Italian polyglot walks into a bar and sits down next to a Danish businessman, an older Romanian lady and a Japanese university student.
Each one of them greet the Italian in their native languages. He looks back at them, smiling and nodding, but dying from crippling anxiety on the inside.
I have no idea how to respond to them. Even worse, if the conversation continues, I won’t know what to say to them!
Have you ever felt like this random Italian polyglot?
If you’ve been learning a language, you’ve probably hit that point where it’s almost embarrassing how much you’ve put into learning a language and how little you have to show for it.
That is precisely how I feel about:
Why these three languages specifically?
That is because I’ve attempted to learn each of them, but failed to achieve a proficiency level according to my goals and standards. Although I have retained bits and pieces of each of those languages, they’re a far cry from even my least used languages.
However, the real question is, why did I fail at learning those foreign languages?
What could I have done differently?
Will I ever come back to them?
Read on and you shall have the answers to each of those questions within mere moments.
👁️ NO MORE INDECISION, TIME FOR A VISION! 👁️
Back in the day, when I was just a monolingual munchkin, I would visit my grandmother frequently. She was my gateway to learning as her library contained shelves upon shelves of books about latin, mathematics, geography etc.
One afternoon, my grandma invited me to study with her. As I was perusing through her collection of books, she leaned over to me and said, “Everything you put in your head, no matter how seemingly insignificant, will come to use in the long run.”
I didn’t understand the weight of her words then, but they did open up my heart, as well as my mind, to the freedom of learning anything that I desired. Her words liberated me from the shackles of any self-conscious beliefs and therefore, I had the freedom to explore every subject sitting on her bookshelves.
I could envision myself becoming a master learner.
So why couldn’t I use this same mindset when it came to Danish, Japanese or Romanian? Well, that is because I simply lacked a vision. A vision is something I go over in-depth in 10 Essential Rules for SMART Language Learning, but in a nutshell, it’s your emotional connection to the language you're learning. You see, the distance between failure and fluency is determined not only by your intellectual capability, but your emotional connectivity to your target language.
It’s the glue that keeps everything from falling apart when you’re burned out and ready to throw in the towel. No disrespect to any of my failed languages, but my approach was not from the heart, it was simply an intellectual pursuit and that’s why my attempt to learn those languages was doomed from the start.
I had a similar experience when it came to following my father’s footsteps. He wanted me to become a mathematician just like him. I went as far as getting a degree in electronic engineering, but that’s where our roads diverged. My hobby of learning languages had become a labor of love, whereas engineering felt like a relationship that could work, but would ultimately end in a bitter divorce.
My father couldn’t envision my life as a polyglot, but I could. And that’s what mattered the most.
With each language I’ve managed to learn, I’ve been able to picture myself using it to better my life in every way imaginable. My German vision included singing ridiculous German pop songs on the beach, my Greek vision featured many festivities on islands and finger licking food, and my French vision almost took me to the point of working professionally as an interpreter.
Not only could I see myself using the language, but I could feel myself becoming a newer, better version of myself from learning it. Unfortunately, I never felt any of that with Danish, Japanese nor Romanian.
After seizing control of Swedish, I thought that Danish would be my next language destination. However, that was as far as my motivation went, the lack of any emotional urgency left my Danish dreams dead in the water.
Japanese was a different story. I had watched popular anime in the 80s such as Fist of the North Star, but I wasn’t obsessed with manga or anime. It was enjoyable, but I actually preferred watching the Italian dub, never developing a curiosity to hear it in its original language.
Also, the structure of the Japanese language gave me fits and I felt so distant from the culture and people that when the going got tough, I packed up my books and went in the opposite direction.
Romanian was a lot easier to pick up than either of the aforementioned languages, but due to my lack of connections with the country, the culture and the people, I couldn’t make the commitment to learn it long term. It was a neat idea when I first started it, but to be honest, it wasn’t much more than that.
⚡THE POWER OF REVISION ⚡
If I could go back and do it all over again, I would focus on finding a deeper connection with each of those languages. Before attempting to learn any of them, I would take my time to envision how I would actually use them in the real world. If through that process, I could feel myself coming to life at the thought of using Danish, Japanese or Romanian, I would craft a plan on how to learn those languages on a daily basis.
That being said, do I actually plan on going back and giving any of them a second chance?
For the time being, the answer is no. I’ve added a language with a similar syntax to Japanese for the next two years (Turkish 🇹🇷) but I’m not going to force myself to go back to any of those languages unless I truly develop an emotional bond with them. For now, you could say that my vision in those languages is still rather blurry.
I will never completely give up on them and I would like to give one of them an earnest second attempt down the road, but I’ll keep that between me and myself until I’m ready to make a genuine commitment.
In fact, that genuine commitment by way of a vision is what kept me from abandoning Greek after a rough period. My progress had stalled for nearly a full year and I was feeling as blue as rooftops in Santorini.. A younger and less experienced Luca would have probably called it quits right then and there, but I took a few conscious breaths to center myself and decided to revisit my vision.
My connection, my bond, my everlasting link to Greek was still there. The chains holding us together were getting a bit rusty, so I decided to spend a few hours rewriting my vision and I formed a brand new plan of attack. Five years later and I’ve never felt better using Greek!
All thanks to a little bit of revision.
If you are struggling on your path to fluency, I strongly suggest you take a step back and create your vision for your target language.
Make it your own and take the time to truly envision a future where you are a remarkably better person as a result of investing the time and energy into learning that language. If you cannot find an emotional connection to carry you through those rough patches, then it’s most likely time to end that relationship and begin a new one.
If, however, you’re simply stuck in a rut and you’ve never created your vision, go back and give your target language the love it needs and deserves. It will give you the boost you need during the days where you just want to karate chop your books in half out of sheer frustration.
There is no such thing as a perfect relationship between you and your target language, it simply evolves over time and either you’re ready to make the necessary changes… or you’re not.
Your vision will determine if you can get to fluency, withstanding all of the eventual frustration and failure along the way.
The next time that Italian polyglot walks into a bar and he meets a Danish businessman, an older Romanian lady and a Japanese university student, he’s going to hold his head up high, look them in the eyes and tell them:
“Sorry, my friends, not today.”