Let Go of the Training Wheels

Kids Bike With Training Wheels Closeup

A couple of weekends ago, driven by an urge to turn lemons into lemonade and at least enjoy all of this snow that New England is being smothered in, we headed up out of Boston and set our sights on the winter wonderland par excellence Vermont.

Upon our arrival in Burlington, we walked down the hill to where the city meets Lake Champlain and set out for a jaunt along the lakefront bikepath. There were a fair number of people out and we had the pleasure of one particularly interesting encounter.

Stopping at a certain point to sit on a bench and enjoy the view of the lake and the Adirondack Mountains on its far side, we ended up engaging in a bit of chit chat with our neighbors. It turns out the amiable couple coddling a tiny infant swaddled in layers of the finest Vermont winter outerwear were proud new grandparents taking their cheerful first grandson on a tour of his hometown. The bikepath, they said, would surely become a favorite place of his; he would probably be taking a bike up and down it “in just a couple of years.”

Looking around at the piles of white stuff and laughing, I asked them if they thought their grandson – who I estimated was hovering somewhere around the quarter-year mark – would need to put chains on his training wheels to accomplish such a feat.

Joking aside, I quickly learned that these grandparents had about as much intention to outfit their grandson’s toddler bike with training wheels as they did with chains. I was assured that by about two and a half years old any child can learn how to ride a bicycle. These two knew – they’d had six kids and plenty of opportunities to optimize the learning curve. Their first child had used training wheels and hadn’t learned to ride a bike until age 6, while the youngest children had starting plummeting down the incline in their yard before they had reached the age of 3.The trick? Never use training wheels.

Training wheels, they explained to me, give the child a false sense of balance, while all he or she really needs is to acquire an idea of how to pedal using a tricycle before being let loose on a two-wheeler. What results from this advice is a seeming paradox. Training wheels – which are supposed to help a child learn how to acquire balance and security – actually impede her from doing so.

Later on, back in the B&B, I was struck by a sudden parallel between riding a bicycle and learning to speak a language. In order to learn quickly and properly you must let go of your security devices – your metaphorical “training wheels.”

The “training wheels” for a language learner are his or her mother tongue. Especially when we are at the beginning of learning a new language, the possibility of failing to communicate and therefore falling off of the bike are rather high. At this point our mother tongue comes to the rescue, says what we were unable to say in the new language, and saves us the embarrassment of “falling.”

In certain situations – for example if you wind up in the emergency room during a trip to Guatemala and urgently need to explain to the hospital personnel what has befallen you – communication in any language whatsoever is all-important. However, when we are studying, our goal should be the acquisition of a sense of “balance” in our new language – that minimal sense of security which allows us to move forward autonomously. This balance can only be acquired if we attempt to rely exclusively on the new language.

It is easy to forget much of we have learned in a foreign language, and in fact it is common to hear, “I studied French for 4 years in high school and don’t remember a word of it!” or “It’s been years since I’ve spoken German and I’ve forgotten everything.” In reality, what we forget are usually superficial elements like vocabulary; if we learn to acquire a knowledge of the elusive inner working of a language – of its fundamental mechanism, which works differently from the way our own language does – this is a lesson we will never forget.

If one lets go of the fear of failure and tries to acquire balance and self-security, speaking a new language really does become like riding a bicycle – once you learn how you never forget.


Seize Summer Break: Learn a New Language

Seize Summer Break Learn a LanguageAs the final bell rings at schools across the country, the mythic summer break begins. For many students, summer is simply a long vacation- a moment to take it easy and relax. For others, summer is a chance to get involved in activities which rigorous school schedules make impossible during the academic year, be that a summer job, travel, or a non-traditional class. Experiences lived out during the summer months can be catalytic, causing dramatic changes between the final bell of the year and the first one of the next. For the enthusiastic, the summer is an empty glass just waiting to be filled. Perhaps one of the most life-changing, yet relatively simple, experiences which we can have is to learn a new language over the summer months.

The excess of free time and relatively reduced amount of stress which characterize a typical summer break are the ideal conditions for learning a new language. A completely wide-open schedule permits participation in intensive full-immersion language programs which are more satisfying and exotic than any tropical vacation. In full-immersion, students enter into complete contact with the language of their choosing and discover its particular personality.

Language learning can also happen in situations where available time is not all day, every day. Even just a few hours a week of language study can make a difference. Learning Chinese is a process which can last years, but a modest introduction to the language opens students ears to new sounds and plants a seed which will eventually grow if given the proper care. When studied with curiosity, languages enter into our sub-conscious where a little bit of constant nurturing and encouragement will cause them to develop into strong, autonomous thought-processes.

There is an interesting paradox that goes along with learning a language: The more you learn, the more you can learn. In practical terms this means that when I have zero knowledge of a foreign language its sounds bounce right off of my ears and its words appear to my eyes like abstract art, and so in a way I am ignorant of the language’s very existence. Once I have even a minimum knowledge of the language, certain sounds and printed words register in my brain, and I become aware of the vast number of other sounds and words that I am unable to decipher. Once I have my foot in the door the world of a language begins to open before me- even if in the meantime my mind goes about other business. This process of learning never really ends, as those who have studied a foreign language for many years will attest- every new piece of knowledge is really just a bridge to many other new unexplored territories which previously were not even known to exist.

As the Chinese proverb says- the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Take the time this summer to make that important crucial first step with Chinese, or Russian, or French, or Arabic or any of the hundreds of languages which are out there waiting to be explored. You’ll be amazed at how the rest of the journey will unfold.

The Essay: Don’t Let the Best Be the Enemy of the Good

Painting In the story of João and Ana the characters demonstrate two very different approaches to learning a foreign language.  João is driven by a quest for perfection but is hesitant to use his French in its nascent, flawed state; Ana, on the other hand, seems to care only about communicating and uses French as she knows how, as mangled as it may be. During the course of their time in Paris, Ana experiences a great deal of growth while João remains paralyzed by his insecurities. Ironically, the character who accepted her imperfections (knowingly or not) ultimately arrived at a much greater command of the language. The story illustrates a curious paradox- an obsession with perfection can be the enemy of real progress!

Anyone who has lived abroad while learning a foreign language can probably identify with either João or Ana, or both. It is nearly impossible not to make mistakes in grammar, syntax or pronunciation while learning a new language and while it is obviously important to correct our mistakes, no betterment can be achieved without speaking and practice. To master a foreign language we must strive for excellence while at the same time accepting our own imperfections and trying to speak. We may think that we are making fools of ourselves, but the real fool is the language learner who is too timid to try.

Postponing an action until the “perfect” moment arrives is something that we all have done at one moment of another. Most of us have also had the experience of finding that the longer we wait the more difficult things become. “It’s been 3 months since I’ve called Grandma, I absolutely have to call her but I’ll wait until tomorrow, it’s too late now… It’s too early in the morning, maybe she’s still sleeping, I’ll call her after work… I only have half-an-hour now, maybe I should call on the weekend, when I have more time… She likes to watch TV on Saturday evenings, I wouldn’t want to interrupt…” Before long 3 months have become 4 and the situation just gets worse and worse. Probably the perfect moment that we are waiting for will never come and if we are smart we realize that an imperfect action is better than no action at all.

A songwriter will usually have at least some small part of the melody or the lyrics which he is not completely satisfied with but which he must accept for the greater good of the song as a whole. An engineer designs a bridge as best as she can but knows that there is always some situation- as extreme as it may be- in which it will fail to function. A painter is forced at some point to step back from his work and say “it’s not perfect but I like it” or he risks spending the rest of his life covering the same canvas with ever thickening layers of paint. The song, the bridge, and the painting would never be sang, crossed, and admired by the greater public if their artists were not willing at some point to let some small imperfections go.

What actions are we putting off for eternity while we wait for the right moment? What projects are we hiding in the workshop, unsatisfied with their imperfection? Waiting for perfection, how much good work are we forsaking? The adventure of learning and growth starts with the first step, and no amount of immobile preparation can make the first step so long as to make up for all of the progress that we could have made while we were waiting.