Transparent Language Blog

Not Improving? Wrong. Posted by on Mar 30, 2015 in Archived Posts

Itchy Feet: Benign Ignorance

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?

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About the Author: Malachi Rempen

Malachi Rempen is an American filmmaker, author, photographer, and cartoonist. Born in Switzerland, raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico, he fled Los Angeles after film school and expatted it in France, Morocco, Italy, and now Berlin, Germany, where he lives with his Italian wife and German cat. "Itchy Feet" is his weekly cartoon chronicle of travel, language learning, and life as an expat.


  1. Ken:

    Yes, I see that as well. I’m in the intermediate stage of my Japanese learning and it seems like I am making no progress. Especially since there are so few materials to use at that level. Japanese is one of those languages that, unless you are pretty fluent, then most natives will not speak it with you. Learning a language seems less difficult than pushing past these kind of difficulties. But of course isn’t that part of learning a language? 😉

    • Malachi:

      @Ken I hear you on that one. And yes, that’s exactly right – learning every language is a completely different experience because every language carries a completely different culture along with it.

  2. Matthias:

    And some people will just plateau off at a certain level and never get rid of their accent. Like me with English. I’ll rather continue learning Chinese 😉

  3. Sandra:

    I do feel a little stuck. I took quite a few courses at a university before moving here to the Dominican Republic 8 months ago. Initially my vocabulary skyrocketed with my comprehension but for some reason over the last few months I feel stagnant. Your words were super encouraging…just knowing that it is soaking in one way or another helps a lot!

    • Malachi:

      @Sandra You might even consider recording yourself speaking, and then reviewing it six months from now. You’ll be surprised how much you’ve improved. You just need an outside perspective!

  4. amina:

    The other day after completing checking in at the hotel, i asked the receptionist for a map of the city, Vienna .. and she was like ” sorry but i only have it English, would it still be ok?” .. it felt awesome 😀

    • Malachi Rempen:

      @amina That, my friend, is what we call Sweet Victory.

  5. Trisha:

    In France, they always ask at the tourist office what country you come from. They’re probably keeping statistics, and that’s part of the record.

    Today, they asked me what “department” I come from. As in French departments, or states.
    So excited – guess they thought my French was really – French!

    • Malachi Rempen:

      @Trisha Wow! Now that’s progress.

  6. Jelena:

    I started to learn Norwegian at the beginning of the year. Last week I had a look on a Norwegian website and – I understood that the Donald had ranted earlier that day on Twitter about Amazon.
    Yes, I doublechecked on Twitter, but I got it in the first place

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