Practice IS Perfect

Dam Flotsam Twigs RESIZED_13 AUG 2019

It’s no easy thing learning another language, perhaps especially when that “other language” happens to be Cantonese! Patience is really important.

On my last trip to Hong Kong, I went to see a language teacher one of whose textbooks I found (and am still finding) very useful. She told me about a student of hers who picked up the rudiments of Cantonese in two weeks! We all love a success story with talent winning out against the odds, but this particular anecdote was pretty deflating for me, I confess. In my case, Cantonese is a matter of years. Actually, I’m into my second decade already . . .

I have no great gift for languages: to me, language is the great gift, one that can never be exhausted. If you’ve ever read the Moomintroll books by Tove Jansson, you’ll recall there’s a character called Hemul who is a very conscientious kind of creature. For a time, his big passion is stamp-collecting, but then one day he is thrown into utter crisis when he manages to acquire the last remaining stamp his collection needs to be complete! What will he do now? Suddenly a huge emptiness gapes open in his life.

I’m sure in my case there will never ever be a Hemul moment! No matter how much I learn, there is always more to be learnt. As Thomas Sterner points out in The Practising Mind, practice itself has to be the focal point for any dedicated language-learner:

I understood that there was no point I could reach where I would feel that I had finally done it, that I was as good as I needed to be, and that there was no need to improve because I had arrived at my goal.

However, rather than sadden ourselves with goals we never seem to reach, we need to learn to enjoy the process itself, to find optimum joy in that and, as Sterner recommends, to experiment with ways “to build the stamina necessary to continue in an infinite study”.

When I first got my puppy, he was only eight weeks old and could fit inside a shoe-box. Six months later, he is nearly full-grown and takes all my energy to lift off the ground! The strange thing is, I could never see that growth from day to day: I guess it happens too close up to be appreciated. Maybe learning a language is like that, too: invisible to the naked eye. But trust in the pleasures of regular, heart-felt practice and perhaps the result will (more or less) take care of itself, a natural progression.


Photograph: Rocks & Flotsam down by the Dam

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