The Feel-Good Nonsense Approach to Language Learning

Written by Dyami Millarson

Many language-learning blogs, sites and video channels share unlimited content of ‘inspirational insights’ that I would classify as feel-good nonsense. I do not post too much about language learning because it takes time to think of sensible things to say about language learning. I have waded through seas of content related to language learning and seldom I found any value in it. On the contrary, I have often found the information to be misleading and rather disadvantageous to my language studies. I do, however, agree with the notion that theoretically anyone can learn languages. Yet, I have come to observe over the years that practically few are willing to make the sacrifices I am willing to make. So, theoretically anyone can learn as many languages as I have learned to speak and write, but most people are not willing to sacrifice so much for this goal. Absolute devotion requires great sacrifice.

Nothing comes for free in life. I have read a number of books on how now-successful entrepreneurs became wealthy, and how they sacrificed everything for their entrepreneurial dreams. Language learning to the extent that I perform it is reasonably comparable to the highest level of professional sports. It takes serious mental strain and requires willingness to dedicate one’s entire life to the achievement of specific goals. The mental strain that comes along with intense language learning – which one may liken to the physical strain that comes along with the highest level of professional sports – can be overwhelming to the point where one might feel possessed by some kind of madness, and this is nothing to be scared of, because it is simply one’s mind trying to make sense of oceans of information that it has been exposed to.

As a consequence of my willingness to live an ascetic lifestyle, away from distractions that could derail the efficiency associated with the regularity of my life, I have been living a life that pretty much resembles the life that people have been living since the pandemic (in my personal experience, the sober life that I have been accustomed to was/is actually quite well-adapted to the pandemic measures). There is a great deal of regularity in my life. I study, I go for meditative strolls and I enjoy healthy food. There is no stress really. It is basically all meditation and routine. In this regard, I am living the life that I consider ideal for my well-being. Over the years of studying Frisian languages, the realisation has dawned upon me that although I hope to find many other like-minded souls in this world, very few people are willing to dedicate themselves to the acquisition of knowledge to the extent that I am. I live an isolated existence due to my pursuit of knowledge, and I am content with my ascetic lifestyle. I am a studying monk like those that were common in the Middle Ages. I have devoted myself to the pursuit of knowledge and the protection of languages and cultures.

I know that theoretically everyone can do what I do, but practically few are willing to follow in my footsteps. That is fine with me. I will simply continue sharing the joys of my unusual life as well as the struggles that I face to attain my goals. I have made valuable lifelong friendships along the way with kindred souls, and I am thankful that I am not the only one in this world who wishes to distance himself from this world and take the role of an observer who wishes to understand the world. People are quick to call me a polyglot, but I reject that term because I do not identify as such. I am not one of those people you will find on YouTube eager to claim ‘I speak XXX languages.’ I am not studying to impress or boast, but my primary goal is helping others. I see ‘polyglot’ as representative of a self-focused philosophy where the individual is trying to stand out by ‘impressing’ others with ‘special skills.’

It makes me think that a polyglot is a kind of clown drawing all attention to himself. I am certainly not of that type, and I distance myself from the polyglot movement because my language learning is aimed at helping endangered languages and cultures to prosper for many generations to come. Everyone has the right to follow the prevailing polyglot philosophy where one wishes to show off their skills. I do not condemn human beings for desiring to bolster their ego. That is very common nowadays. My point is simply that I do not identify as such, and that I have a completely different philosophical identity. My philosophy with regards to language learning is not ego-focused, but community-focused. I favour humility over arrogance and I believe that a humble approach is asked for in tribal communities where communal interests usually outweigh individual interests. The ego of many polyglots, I am sure, will directly clash with the communities that I work with. A diplomatic approach is needed that acknowledges the dignity of the community and that does not exalt the individual too much.

I fit into the tribal communities because I genuinely want to be a part of them. My goal isn’t to just add a number to my list of languages that I can mention in some YouTube video to impress viewers. I identify with the communities that I have been initiated into through adopting the language and culture. Nothing is holding me back to fully immerse myself in a new language and culture. Others may experience a conflict of interest, whether that be based on their ego or some financial incentive or another influence. I am simply open to integration with the communities behind the languages and cultures that I am studying. Languages and cultures are no mere objects of study in my life, but I study because I want to belong to the people that are behind those languages and cultures, I want to know them and their story. Every people or community has a story to tell, and I am trying my best on this blog to tell the story of each community well – in the most respectful way possible that will also satisfy the community. When I learn languages, they are no mere numbers for me. Polyglots often mention online how many languages they speak, but I do not feel compelled to do so, because languages are more than numbers.

If a mother says that she has 3 or 11 children, that says nothing about the character of those children. Who are they? What are their names? What stories can they share with us? Can we learn certain life lessons from them? Those questions are never answered by mentioning those numbers. To a mother who cares for her children, her children are never mere numbers, she knows their names, characters and so on; she will not even think consciously of the amount of children she has, she will simply focus on caring for them and being there for them whenever needed. A real mother doesn’t think children are numbers, and I think it would be fair to say that a mother who claims otherwise is an impostor. This mother-child analogy explains why I will never identify as a polyglot, and why I reason as I do. I do not at all count how many languages I speak, I have never really bothered counting them. I simply know their names, I know what they are like, I know the story behind them, and I can answer a wide variety of questions about them in case people might want to know something about them.

These languages are my identity as much as they are the identity of the communities that I interact with. It is not the opposite way around: those languages and cultures are no additions to my ego identity, but I am an addition to those languages and cultures while I identify with those languages and cultures. That is to say, they aren’t instruments for bolstering my ego, but I am simply dedicating myself to the community and I am willing to adopt their identity for the sake of being a true member of the community. I am not trying to be a polyglot, an outsider, who learned the language to impress others, but I am making an effort to be an insider, a member of the community, and that is why I cannot be a ‘polyglot.’ One’s definition of polyglot may vary, and I understand that, but nowadays the term ‘polyglot’ comes along with a certain kind of internet culture that fits the zeitgeist of bolstering one’s ego and so, given this cultural context, I do not take the term to simply mean ‘someone who speaks multiple languages’; people wish to stand out from the crowd and they do not want to disappear or fade into the masses, but I am someone who is not afraid of being part of something bigger, I do not really want to distance myself from the group but rather I want to blend into it, fully integrate with what the community stands for and is based on, and this is the ironic balance of my isolated existence where I have an ascetic lifestyle dedicated to language learning yet I am not at all isolated from the communities of which I study the languages and cultures. A combination of contradictions is what creates the right balance.

13 comments

    • I’m not sure it was ever meant/cut out for me (considering my past struggles with learning), but it works for me now (and the most difficult of my early struggles are already behind me). I do not ever want to give up, and I like challenging myself, this is really what drives me. I find it exciting to keep making progress.

      Not everyone is prepared to do what it takes to be a professional footballer or athlete as it requires one to keep pushing further and to keep testing one’s limits, yet there are people who like observing from the sidelines and there are people who will follow in the same footsteps.

      Rather spontaneously and naturally, I adopted my lifestyle based on my desire to find the best life balance for the pursuit of knowledge, particularly knowledge involving languages and cultures and worldviews. It was really a confluence of circumstances that led to enabling me to pursue/discover this path.

      In hindsight, it certainly made me well-adapted to the pandemic-related measures around the globe. I guess my lifestyle was never really about the pursuit of fun/pleasure, I recommend another lifestyle if that’s the goal.

      It is my pleasure to share my life online, and anyone who wants to join my adventure is welcome; my role is simply to exemplify/prove what can be done/achieved, being a source of inspiration so that others will adopt the idea of helping communities preserve their respective languages and cultures is mission accomplished for me.

      Dyami

      Liked by 3 people

  1. Beautiful post. Though I have not sunk myself into the study of languages to the extent that you have, I spent some years dipping my toe in, and what you say is true.

    People don’t realize how hard it is to learn languages. They say things like “I’m not good at learning languages” or “I could never learn languages,” because they cannot memorize the vocabulary on the first hearing. In fact, no one can do that. When I was in an immersive language learning situation, I often needed to be taught a word 10 times before it would stick.

    Relatedly, many people (especially in America) seem to think that “being able to speak” a language is binary: if you’ve “learned” it, then you can speak it like a native speaker. People used to ask me, “You’re a linguist? How many languages do you speak?” And I’d have to answer, “I’ve STUDIED [lists languages].” Of course, in most of those I’ve only retained smattering of phrases and vocabulary.

    Finally, yes, I absolutely agree that language learning is not for the purpose of showing off, but at the same time there is a strong temptation to show off, especially for the beginning language learner. It’s as if the less we know, the harder we cling to it.

    Liked by 5 people

    • Hi Jennifer, it is nice to hear from you again! I hope everything is well 🙂

      I agree with everything you said.

      To elaborate a little more on the point that people do not realise how hard it is to learn languages:

      Language-learning takes tremendous effort no matter how skilled one is. There is no way around it; nothing can ever be achieved without effort, even a genius can’t escape this reality. That said, I believe the same is true for full-time footballers and athletes; no matter how trained they are or whatever physical advantages they may have been endowed with from birth, they can’t escape straining their bodies for performing their feats. In conclusion, intense language-learning is mentally taxing essentially in the same way that any high-level sport is physically taxing. Language-learning is a kind of mental sport which requires continuous effort.

      (P.S. Greetings to your father!)

      Liked by 2 people

      • Thanks, I will pass on the greetings!

        Speaking of the difficulty of language learning, many of your posts have appeared to be in Dutch or Frisian … which is part of the reason I have not attempted to comment … besides life being busy. Best to you!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I love your attitude. Hidden in language are all kinds of subtle ideas from our past. It does seem to be in the stories that we can comprehend a culture. I hope you will share some over time, as you are uniquely gifted to translate for the rest of us.
    There is a website called ‘writing the other’ where cultural misappropriation by authors is considered, and training for how to include other cultures well is taught.
    Opening doors with honor and insight. As do you.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Your lifestyle does sound excellent for supporting your language studies. I’m wondering how you support yourself, though.

    Like

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