Metaphors for the Language Learning Jedi


Everybody do this. Go to Taipei, arrive in the morning. Get all your housing stuff settled in the morning, buy a 悠遊卡 transit pass, and then subway out to the Maokong Gondolas, the sky lift that takes you up over the zoo and onto the mountain side. The view is spectacular, you just use your transit pass to pay, and it’s an effortless way to stay out for the afternoon.

When you get to end of the sky lift line, walk down the road and find a tea house where the air is cool and then camp there for the rest of the afternoon. Order tea and snacks. Everybody do this.

So I don’t know anything about the tea ceremony except that it’s complicated. Taiwan Amy was happy to do the honors for us; the pouring, the timing, the explaining.

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The teapot, she explained, is unglazed. When it’s new it has a dull, matte finish. It’s the tea itself that finishes the interior, as the oils of the each tea that is brewed are drawn into the porous clay. The tea oils build up over time, and they enrich the flavor of the teas you brew inside it. The outside of pot, on the other hand, gains its polish over time, from the oil in the grooves of your finger prints and the friction of human handling. Taiwan Amy pointed out the handle of the teapot, which had a rich, shiny finish.

These teapots improve both in beauty and function over time through use. A new teapot is dull and lifeless looking; its lack of experience doesn’t have any history to impart on the tea you’re brewing. These teapots are delicate looking and pretty, but they’re not ornaments; they’re meant for brewing tea.

There are no shortcuts you can take to having a well-seasoned, well-used, deeply shiny teapot. Instead, you just have to enjoy a lot of tea… which can take time.

In my line of work I have to suffer through a lot of people’s metaphors of what language learning is. They say things like this:

  • No pain, no gain! (i.e., language learning is physical exercise).
  • Use it, or lose it! (i.e., language learning vanishes without maintenance, the way a seal’s breathing hole in the ice will freeze over without regular maintenance.
  • That’s where he honed his language skills. (i.e, language is a knife; it can be sharpened with a tool, but gets dull with daily use).
  • My Italian is rusty. (i.e., Language is a machine with a metal joint, like a bicycle which over time is gets corroded by exposure to oxygen).
  • Her French is very polished. (i.e., language is a silver spoon or crystal glass that gets dirty or smudged, tarnished over time, and must be cleaned).

I don’t like any of those metaphors. Yes, I know that there’s such a thing as language attrition; and yes know the feeling of “rustiness” quite well. Still I don’t like those metaphors. Those people are overly dramatic.

I like to think of language learning as one of these traditional teapots, that stays dull if you don’t use it, but that shines and improves over daily use, gaining character and beauty both on the inside and on the outside. It doesn’t require any special tools or elaborate maintenance. Just regular use.

Ten years ago I wrote a post about my time at the Jade factory in Guatemala. There were signs in the gift shop exhorting people to touch all the gem stone jades; Dr. Riddinger during the tour told us herself to touch everything, and then got annoyed that we hadn’t been touching enough. It turns out that gemstone jade’s deep, bright shine comes from human contact. It fades with neglect. Gift shop jade that gets handled and caressed by passersby are the most lustrous; jade works encased in museum displays are the worst, dull and forlorn.

When Taiwan Amy was explaining about the shiny handle of the teapot, I couldn’t help thinking of the deep, soulful shine of the gemstone jades in Guatemala. Language learning, like traditional Chinese teapots, or Guatemalan gemstone jade, needs regular human contact in order to become and remain beautiful.

In the past I’ve studied French and Italian, but I don’t speak them every day. I tell people that my French and Italian are “rusty,” but I don’t actually think in that metaphor. They’re not corroded, just a little dull, maybe some dust and cobwebs, but it’s all still there. I know that with regular use I can get them back. I’m not that worried about it. I know some people claim that their languages “vanish” but unless that happened when they were kids, I don’t usually believe it. To me it’s more likely that when people claim they have “lost” languages as adults, they probably had never learned to speak them in the first place. There’s a lot of language learning that happens in this world that’s not learning to speak.

So as I write this post, I’m in Taipei. I start my regular daily classes in a few days, but I gave myself an extra long weekend to adjust to the time difference. I’ve been annoyed that my Mandarin isn’t always as shiny as I’d like it to be, but by this point, I’m feeling more like Dr. Riddinger, exhorting people to touch her jades. In the same way, I’m getting other people to polish my Chinese. Regular daily use.

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