My friend, Shennee Rutt and I are talking about learning Spanish in 2010.
As I think about learning another language, memories flood my mind. I think back to my somewhat defensive reaction when a dear friend mocked my fledgling French on a business visit to Ottawa. My feelings were hurt. “You’ll never get better until you try,” I told him, somewhat irritated to be called on my gauche American accent.
Defensive or not, I think my reaction was spot-on. If you don’t stick your neck out, go out on a limb, if you don’t try, you don’t get better.
In a related vein, I think of all the formulative years in which my siblings and I accompanied my parents to the tennis club where we “Hit the Ball.”
Decades later, I’m still pretty darn good at hitting the ball. I can hit the ball ad nauseum.
What I’m not good at–in fact, what I’m completely lousy at– is: Serving. Strategy. Playing a set. Winning a match. The real world of tennis.
In other words, somehow, I never made the transition to real life.
Similarly, I took French for much of my academic career, but at this point, I couldn’t carry on a French conversation to save my life. Too many years were spent hitting the ball en Francais, in the classroom and in the lab, instead of playing the game, being out in the real world conversing with French-speaking folk.
And now, as I think about learning Spanish, I think about playing the game versus hitting the ball. Living as I do just outside of DC, I am surrounded by diversity; ethnic establisments including Salvadoran and Tex-Mex (and many more) abound. So tonight I went out to get a margarita. I ordered pupusus sin carne, con queso y frijoles. When I got my food, I said: Muchas gracias. And hey, when I finished my margarita, I said: Una mas, por favor!
I stumbled, it felt muy awkward. I made mistakes. But I went outside my comfort zone and did it anyway. I decided that if I don’t try, if I don’t risk, I won’t learn. It’s that simple. Some of what I said was wrong, ungrammatical, incorrect. If you are a Spanish whiz and you pick up on this, I urge you to keep your critiques to yourself. The point was that I put myself out there and I tried.
The lessons go far beyond learning a new lingua. When we learn new skills (whether a new software, new job, application, industry, niche, etc.), we are essentially learning a new language. If we stay academic, in our heads, in the lab, we are at a disadvantage. At some point–and probably sooner rather than later–we need to jump in, branch out, and put our budding skills to the test in a practical way.
In the real world. Isn’t that what matters?
What new language will you learn and try and practice in 2010?
Image by Don Hankins