Transparent Language Blog

Picking Your Language Learning Battles Posted by on Oct 10, 2016 in Archived Posts

You can’t do everything all at once, even if you’d like to. Better to choose one route and stick to it.

Itchy Feet: Petty Negotiation

This particular comic has a special place in my heart, because it inflamed the passions of people on both sides of this situation. I had commenters saying, “Yeah! This comic is so true. Tourists get so worked up when negotiating that they forget it’s just a tiny amount of money they’re haggling over. Get over it!” At the same time, I had other commenters saying, “Yeah! This comic is so true. Just because it’s a small amount of money doesn’t mean it’s okay to let local merchants ream you with the ‘gringo price.’ Stick to your principles!”

I wrote the strip very carefully so as not to take a side on the matter, as I can see the value of both arguments. On the one hand, it’s no fun to know you’re being stiffed just because a merchant takes one look at your passport pouch and cargo pants and knows you’ll probably be willing to pay several times the usual price. On the other hand, several times the usual price is often, especially in third-world countries, still a great bargain. But on the other hand, letting locals exploit tourists with inflated price tags sets a poor precedent for a healthy tourist industry down the road. But on the other other hand, being a stingy, penny-pinching tourist doesn’t exactly help do your part to boost the local economy and get them to that hypothetical healthy tourist industry.

And round and round it goes. There isn’t a right answer. It’s up to you to draw the line where you see fit. Me personally, when I was younger I would stand and argue with a shopkeep for an hour if I thought I could talk them down further. These days I’d rather just do a little light negotiating to keep up appearances and let it go, even if I know I’m paying more. I guess it just depends on where you want to spend your energy. You can’t do everything all the time; you’ve got to pick your battles.

And it’s exactly the same with language learning.

For those of us that enjoy language learning, the world is an all-you-can-eat buffet. There are apps, there are Skype tandem programs, there are simple-language radio news broadcasts – there is an infinitude of ways to learn your language. Then, on top of that, there are hundreds of languages, just waiting to be learned! It’s very easy to jump from one to the other, because there’s always another one. And while it’s important to spread yourself across many media and modes of communication (speaking, reading, comprehension, writing, etc), you can’t do everything all at once. You’ve got to pick your battles.

When you pick a route, such as a particular app or book, stick to it. See it through to the end. Try it for longer than you think, even if you don’t feel at first that it’s effective. Learning is a funny thing – it happens mostly when you aren’t paying any attention. Let it sink in. Give the knowledge time to settle in your brain. Don’t take on every challenge at once – you’ll spread yourself thin. It’s not about doing it faster, it’s about doing it well.

And when it comes to doing it well, there’s only one true path: practice.


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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. Katherine:

    To continue your thought, sometimes I feel a bit sad when people hear my accent in the language and want to raise the price because of that. Then again, it’s the live of being a privileged foreigner.

    • Malachi Rempen:

      @Katherine Totally! It’s a mixed blessing. Or mixed curse. Or cross we’re blessed to carry. Etc

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