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Feature photo: striatic Photo by Neil’s Photography

Sometimes you need to think about language learning outside of the verb-subject-object box.

When you’re in that maddening spot where you can’t seem to put a comprehensible sentence together, look to these metaphors for inspiration.

1. A Desk Covered in Scraps

Language learning is like a desk covered in bits of fabric, old ceramics, shiny plastic buttons, rough pieces of recycled paper. You sit down before the desk and sigh. But then, inspiration strikes, and you start sorting through the bits and pieces and putting together a mosaic. And before you know it, all the disparate scraps come together, and you have….a conversation.

The point: let go of your obsession with logic and order, and get scrappy. Figure out how to piece together what you know and make it work.

2. A Game-Playing Date

Language learning is like dating a coy, flirtatious dude (or gal) who strings you along a bit, making you feel so smart, so sexy, so cool, and then suddenly stands you up.

You find yourself completely lost in some restaurant, unable to put together a sentence, realizing how little you know. You go through a bitter phase in which you swear off men/women.

Then, you meet some cute, sweet thing on the street one day, and your faith is instantly restored.

The point: there will always be moments, no matter how confident you feel or how much progress you’ve made, in which you feel like the rug has been pulled out from you.

It’ll always be harder and more intimidating to speak with certain people, and there will inevitably be times when all the language you’ve been practicing goes flying from your head at the crucial moment.

3. A Department Store

Language learning is like shopping in a massive department store with countless floors and boutiques.

You try on suits, miniskirts, overalls, knee socks, baggy sweaters, heels, boots.

Some make you feel uncomfortable and constricted. Some feel so good it’s almost like an addition to, or slight alteration of, your identity.

The point: Not every language will fit perfectly.

Photo: erredoppia

I feel much more natural, much more like myself, speaking in Spanish than in French.

I’m still happy that I speak French and I love speaking it, but I can recognize that sometimes it just doesn’t fit with my personality.

Understanding that some languages fit you better than others can help you get beyond some of your frustration with language learning.

4. An Archeological Dig

Language learning is a process of cultural excavation. At first, you’re simply pondering over shards and fragments, holding them up to the light, trying to put them in context.

Little by little, the culture behind the medley of artifacts starts to come through.

The ways people think and behave – and have thought and behaved over time – reveal themselves through the bits and pieces you’ve uncovered.

The point: Language is culture. Culture is language.

This basic lesson takes some time to figure out.

The longer you speak a language and the more time you spend in areas where it’s the native tongue, the better chance you stand of getting access to a new way of thinking and a new way of seeing the world.

Little by little, you come to realize that phrases and expressions you use for the sheer practical purpose of communication are deeply cultural, and reveal cultural values and beliefs.

5. Driving through a fog

Language learning is like driving up a long winding road through a thick fog. You arc around curve after curve, hypnotized by the monotony and the concentration of driving, by the feeling of being totally lost and insulated in your little car world.

Photo: blyzz

Then you break through the fog. You’re at the flat peak of the mountain and a whole valley of undulating green, edged by a distant bay, spreads before you.

“Holy shit!” you think. This is what I’ve been approaching!?”

The point: Immersion is a fog.

If you’re really, truly immersed in a language and unable to escape it, you’re probably going to spend quite a bit of time feeling completely isolated and unsure of yourself.

You’re going to muddle through things and feel a bit lost in every conversation, just trying to inch up the road.

And then suddenly, there will be a moment, or moments, when you can sense how far you’ve come.

Community Connection

Getting started on that maddening, thrilling journey that is learning a language?

Get motivated, and learn to follow your intuition..

And if you’re not sure where to begin, why not learn the importance of eating a new language?

Language Learning


About The Author

Sarah Menkedick

Matador Contributing Editor Sarah Menkedick has traveled, lived, and taught on five continents, and is constantly in pursuit of spicy food, dark beer, and new places to run. She is an MFA student at the University of Pittsburgh.

  • Michelle

    I love these! Thanks!

    One of my favorites is that it’s akin to learning to play the violin. (Or any instrument, I suppose.)

    • Tim Patterson

      Is there a violinist in your reggae band?

  • Ryukyu Mike

    Great write. In fact, I think I’ll apply this to my learning to write. It’s just like a foreign language to me !

  • Julie

    Loved this– especially the department store metaphor. Fortunately, my language learning experiences are more positive than my clothes shopping experiences. ;)

    • Tim Patterson

      It’s all about thrift stores and inappropriate slang.

  • Valerie

    Love this! Having studied multiple languages myself, I can definitely relate to every one of these metaphors.

  • Turner

    Heh, nice Sarah.

  • Tim Patterson

    I always liked the classic analogy of a blind man trying to describe an elephant. Spend enough time feeling it up and you’ll either become fluent or get gored.

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  • Adam

    In Japanese, they describe the awkwardness of communicating in a foreign language with the nearly untranslatable phrase “yoko meshi” which glosses as something like “sideways meal” or “trying to eat sideways”.

  • Pingback: 簡単だ! - To proste! Japoński nie gryzie! » Blog Archive » GUEST POST: 5 metafor dla uczących się języków

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  • Paul King

    These are some really good metaphors. I tell my students here in Thailand that I learned to speak their language (and continue to learn more and improve) not by memorizing grammar, but by simply trying to put words together (the scraps on the desk) and make sentences. After making a million mistakes and having native speakers correct me along the way, eventually I found some of the rhythm, the cadence of it, and began to develop an intuitive “feel” for what sounds right. (And this continues every day – the rug still comes out from under my feet from time to time!) But if I don’t know quite how to say something, I’ll just have a go at it based on this “feel,” rather than rack my brain for sentence structure. Even if I get it wrong, people will typically understand what I’m trying to say, and I can ask them to correct me.

    I often think practicing and learning to play a musical instrument is another good metaphor for language learning. The point isn’t to play each line exactly like Hendrix (native speaker), but to have people hear it and think, “Hey, that’s Purple Haze.”

  • Elizabeth Angel Lopez-Hayward

    yep…you just have to fınd the language that fıts your personality. when I’m studyıng foreıgn languages I defınıtely “feel” whıch ones fıt me.

    • Bret Griffin

      What about the language of math?

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