I gotta admit, lately I’ve been feeling a little out of the language-learning loop.
With a new job, my marriage coasting well through its second year, and a cat that gets bothered when I move any furniture around, I feel like I’m settling into a routine. Sadly, that routine doesn’t really involve any new languages.
I live in Berlin, capital of Germany, yet I feel like I have very few opportunities to practice German in my day-to-day. My new job is at an international school based out of England, so the office language is English. With the few German-speaking co-workers I do have, I ask them if I can speak German and they always agree, but it’s never gotten past office small talk. I excel when talking about my weekend plans, but…isn’t there more to it than that?
When watching a TV show on Netflix, I always try to see if there’s a German-dubbed version, but I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t think I’m learning anything new. Everyone on TV talks about the same stuff, more or less, and I feel like I’m understanding it at the same level I was a year ago. I went and saw the new Star Wars movie again, but dubbed into German, just because I was dying to hear something different for once (“lightsaber” is Lichtschwert. Wow!). Like the poor fellow in the comic above, I don’t feel that I’m really gathering any new information.
My wife is Italian, sure, but 90% of the time we speak English together, unless we’re in Italy. Even then, like my work environment, it’s just small talk (except instead of being about weekend plans, it’s about food, food and more food). Am I learning anything new? I’ve started trying to learn the Venetian dialect spoken by my wife’s grandfather, just to add a bit of spice and variety to my Italian day. Surely I haven’t exhausted my Italian learning opportunities?
I know what the problem is. It’s not that I’m out of the loop. It’s that I’m plateauing.
Egads! I’m now past conversational and trudging my way up Mt. Fluency. But it’s not a steep cliff, where every step is rewarded by visible progress. It’s a long, slow, boring hillside; it’s like Mt. Kilimanjaro, whose slopes are so gradual you just walk up. It’s not easy, but it’s no Everest, either. I’m in the language-learner’s doldrums, stuck in an endless routine of everyday conversations and unbearable chitchat. I’ve lost my forward momentum, dawdling here in a linguistic eddy while everyone else seemingly rushes down the river to fluency.
My step-father is a guitar instructor. He’s been playing guitar since he was ten years old – so nearly 55 years. He still spends four hours a day practicing, and he says plateauing is the hardest thing he has to deal with. How does he know, after so many years, that he’s still learning anything? He maybe be considered the greatest blues guitarist in his home state, but he still doesn’t feel he’s as good as his idols. How can he be sure he’s making any progress?
He can’t. But he still practices, because he knows he’s always learning something. And that’s the trick.
There’s only one way to get past the plateau, and that’s to keep walking forward. I may not notice that I’m learning, but I am. Sure, I’m not reading medieval poetry, but I’m holding conversations, and every conversation has new words, new phrasing, new ways of thinking about structure and grammar. I’m watching, I’m listening, I’m trying things out. I’ll never be 100% fluent, because that’s not a measurable thing. I just have to keep going, keep moving forward, and trust myself. Although the progress may not seem impressive, I’m still improving. I’ll always be improving, and so will you.
What about you? Do you feel you’re stalled in a language, not making any progress? How do you deal with it?