Why Learning a New Language is Like Learning How to Swim

After years in an on-again-off-again relationship with the French language, I think I’ve finally arrived at what most would consider, “working proficiency”. I’m living in a French speaking country, working with a French speaking organization, and much of my daily communication requires the rapid conjugation of French verbs. Learning a language is both a process and a journey. One that can be playfully compared to another fulfilling life goal; learning how to swim.

You approach learning how to speak a language with the joy of a child playing with water. You learn pleasantries, how to count to 10, and how to introduce yourself. Everything is new and fun and people will gladly teach you swear words so they can laugh uncontrollably at your antics.

Wading in knee deep is the invigorating next step, look at you go! You’re more exposed to the water than before, many new words and phrases are swirling around you, but you can easily leap back to the dry land of speaking English. You’re soaking up new vocabulary with Duolingo or another language learning app, but you can stop at your whim.

You’re now fully in the drink, but your head is above water and you can still touch the bottom. You’re taking a class or studying from workbooks. Plus, you can scramble back to shore if you get tired or something random touches your leg.

Next level is swimming with assistance, whether that be a pool floatie or a life jacket–the Google Translate of the language world. So long as you can translate words and phrases as you need them, it’s hard to sink!

The day when you ditch the pool floatie and carry on in conversation without assistance is one of pride! You’re technically swimming all by yourself, but you keep a friend nearby who can dive in and translate for you in a pinch.

In the beginning, it’s difficult to be graceful

But you’re doing it, you’re really swimming! You got this! Full dialogues with perfect strangers and you’re understanding most of it! You still tire easily though, and will need to retire to English speaking havens or grab for the edge of the pool regularly.

Oh yeah, and all that extra output of energy means you sleep like the dead.

So you gravitate toward others on the same journey to stay motivated. Together you seek out movies, TV shows, and news networks to help you expand your vocabulary.

Plus, you will improve faster if you date someone who’s good at it.

You still make mistakes, and usually someone gets a good laugh out of it.

From time to time you’ll hit a plateau and feel like you just aren’t improving.

But you ARE steadily improving and refining your technique. You build frequent practice into your weekly routine and you’re starting to flex your linguistic muscles.

Your hours of practice are paying off. You feel like you’re nearing Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule. Many things that were difficult at first are becoming second nature. You increasingly surprise yourself with how strong you feel!

One day you wake up, and you feel like you’ve been swimming in two languages your whole life. You’re on top of the world!


*GIFs sourced from giphy.com and tenor.com

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