The Language Learning Jedi

I met my boy Jordan the other night for a drink, and I’m glad I did, because I keep forgetting who I am.  Jordan helps me remember.

I’m a language learning Jedi.  One of them, not the language learning Jedi, but one of them.

I wasn’t sure what ‘language learning Jedi’ meant for a long time. In fact, I coined the phrase causally in Taiwan one day, to describe my new friend Skritter Jake.  I had been toying with other metaphoric titles… language learning samurai, language learning sheriff, in the end I settled on Jedi.

Of course, the explanation is dorky.  First, the Force is the human language learning instinct; it’s all around us but most of us don’t believe in it or can’t put it to work for them (so they think.).  Second, there are people who master the Force, the Jedi, who try to spread knowledge of the Force, and the Sith, who have fallen for the Dark Side and are evil.  Third, there’s the general population, like Han Solo and Grand Moff Tarkin… people who will look a Jedi in the eye and tell them they don’t believe that the Force even exists.

I don’t want to explain this metaphor much further, I know I’ve already lost most of my readers by now.  I just want to say that Rosetta Stone is the Death Star.  And a company I used to work for is Jabba the Hutt.

Anyway, here’s an infographic for you to look at (click to embiggen):

This image is making the rounds now among the languagestudyarati.  Do you notice anything about it?  Notice anything missing?

Yes, the perfect language learner is a skinny white guy with bad shoes.  That’s not what I’m getting at… although it wouldn’t have killed them to show some different shapes, genders, and colors of people, but again; beside the point.

The problem is:  no where does it say TALK TO PEOPLE.  The perfect language learner uses the Force; i.e. the human language acquisition instinct, and that instinct is fueled by human communication.  Human communication is a non-negotiable.  I’ll admit that when I first saw this image, I was inspired… I can be that skinny white guy!  But then I saw… they really had zero mention of target language practice, as if language learning was a solitary activity.  Seriously, leaving out the whole “talk to people” aspect is negligent.

One of my friends tried to rationalize; maybe talking to people is such a no-brainer, they just ASSUMED that people know that.

Well, I’m here to tell you, that they don’t.  In fact, here’s another “perfect language learner” set of criteria, again without any mention of making target language friends, studying with your classmates, or actually *practicing* the target language.

People tell me their reasons they can’t talk to people.  They want to memorize first, they haven’t memorized enough yet.  Or they’re afraid of their mistakes and it makes them feel stupid.  Or they’re really more interested in talking ABOUT the language, rather than actually talking the language itself. Or they just don’t believe it’s important, and can’t be bothered.

My students come into my office with tears in their eyes and say, I have done EVERYTHING and I just cannot learn x-language, what should I do?

I tell them.  I tell them; study with a partner, and practice speaking.  Have you tried that?

No, they say.  No, I have not tried that.  That is just not going to happen, they say, and they storm out of my office, offended. Who does he think he is, they say, some kind of Jedi?

I don’t know why talking to people and practicing the target language is such a horrible, horrible thought to them.  Must be something big, I guess.

Anyway, Jordan is the one who reminded me to be who I am, so I owe him a debt of gratitude.  The rest of the night I’m going to study some Korean for my class tomorrow.  Maybe I’ll bring my light saber.

2 thoughts on “The Language Learning Jedi

  1. I wholeheartedly agree with your point. The problem is, I think, that language learners are too afraid or ashamed to make mistakes in front on actual human beings. At the same time, is a bit paradoxical. You’re learning the language in order to use it, but you don’t actually use it. The whole idea that one has to be ready to use the target language creates way too many problems.
    If we wait until we’re ready, we won’t achieve much.


  2. A mighty jedi was your father?
    I’m as guilty as the next guy of trying to learn a language in isolation but I have always been amazed at the reclusive nature of my evening classmates. People who can barely manage a tearful whisper who try to hide at the back of the class even though there are only five students. be it British reserve or american isolationism Truth is most people spend their lives keeping themselves to themselves and talking to strangers in any language is not an option, just a dream. I suspect that motivation for learning to speak in code for many is not to experience another culture but to be able to talk to people without anyone ,even oneself, realising and the problem is that the more you learn the more the foreigners become simply common or garden strangers and thus excluded. It’s sad but, I suspect, fundamental to our tribal nature.


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