foreign language

On learning new things

Of all the courses I took in college and graduate school, beginning language courses were my favorites. They were often scheduled first thing in the morning, and with a terrifying list of intimidating lectures and seminars stretching before me throughout the week, I loved starting each day with a heaping dose of humility. When you are struggling through your alphabet at 9am, all bets are off. The first days and weeks of a beginning language course are disorienting, frustrating, overwhelming. It is impossible not to make a mistake. In fact, you have to make mistakes in order to learn to converse. And it is impossible not to embarrass yourself. For the longest time, you sound completely ridiculous as you try to pronounce unfamiliar sounds and string them together, inching toward coherency. You write at a kindergarten level.

But the learning curve is steep, and there are moments of sheer delight as you discover new ways of seeing and describing your world. The results are measurable. You started out knowing three words, and eventually you know ten, then a hundred. Soon enough, you’re making up your own sentences with those words. And one day, perhaps months or years into your study, you realize that you’re finally saying what really you want to say, rather than only what you know how to say.

Last week, my friend Diana gave a Berkman Center talk on Coding as a Liberal Art. She’s been chronicling her experience learning how to code, and in her talk, she offers up reflections on being a beginner and ideas for how coding could be taught in a liberal arts setting.

In a world overflowing with experts and specialists and wannabe experts and specialists, what I love most about Diana’s effort is her open and honest embrace of beginner status. There are so many emotional barriers to learning new things—vulnerability, embarrassment, fear of failing, fear of making mistakes, fear of the unknown—it’s a wonder any of us ever takes on the challenge, especially in adulthood, of being a novice.

Some believe it’s futile to try to learn a new language in adulthood, since it’s nearly impossible to achieve fluency. And I’ll be the first to admit that after years of language study, my conversational ability is generally pathetic. I’ll also be the first to advocate for learning new things, including impossible things, like languages.

Achieving perfection, or expertise, or fluency may be next to impossible, but perfection need not be the goal of a beginner. In fact, if perfection is the goal of a beginner, it’ll probably just get in her way.

One of the most important things I learned from being a beginner is how much I don’t know. A few words offered up in someone else’s native language or professional language doesn’t mean you totally understand a culture or field or perspective that’s different from your own. But it does mean you’re trying. It’s a step in the right direction. It means that perhaps you know enough to realize how much you don’t know.