My stepfather, Stan Hirsch, is a professional blues guitarist. His story is so classic it’s almost cliché: when he was ten years old he mowed lawns and raked leaves to save up money to buy his first guitar, and when he got it, he decided he wanted to be brilliant at playing it. He wanted to be able to play anything on that instrument. He’s been playing ever since—every day for 56 years. One might think he’s reached his goal; he can indeed play just about anything, and some even consider him the best blues guitarist in America. Yet still he practices at least four hours a day, every single day, and not just because he loves it. He wants to get better. He wants to be the best he possibly can.
Whenever I got frustrated with something I was trying to do, feeling like I wasn’t getting any better, he would say “that’s just how it is.” Learning any kind of skill puts a weird distance between your self-awareness and your abilities. The more you work at something, the less apparent your progress becomes—to yourself, anyway.
It’s much like when someone you know gets a puppy or kitten or has a child. You’ll probably notice this creature balloon in size every time you see it. “Amazing!” you remark. “Last time I saw you, you were only thiiiiis big!” But the owner or parent just shrugs. “Really?” they’ll say. “I didn’t even notice.” The same illusion is at work here. Our close perspective prevents us from seeing what’s changed. The progress is so minute we can no longer see it.
But every day, that kitten is getting a little bit bigger, and every day, my stepfather is getting a little bit better at guitar.
So it is with you and your language learning. At the beginning, you’re improving in leaps and bounds—today you can say “hello” and “what’s your name,” tomorrow you’ll tell time and ask directions! But the more you learn, the less obvious your progress becomes, until you become all but blind to it.
When that happens, you need an outside perspective to break the spell. Sometimes it’s a break in the pattern (“hey, the ticket seller didn’t immediately switch to English that time!”), or it could be a new situation (“I’ve never had to use that word before, but it just came out of my mouth like magic!”). Sometimes it’s just the simple pleasure of ordering a beer and absolutely flabbergasting whoever you’re with (see above comic).
Whether you practiced 100 vocab words today or just five, whether you talked to 25 people today or just two, whether you gave a rousing speech at a banquet hall or just ordered a couple brews in the local watering hole; you’re always getting better.
How about you? Are you finding progress difficult to notice, or do you still get a kick out of every little improvement?