On the democracy and physicality of language learning

Language really is different that other intellectual pursuits in its physicality. Learning to properly pronounce “Vevey” isn’t a matter of abstract theory–it’s a matter of training your mouth and tongue, in the same way a ballerina or singer trains, in the same way one would master a jump shot. There’s just no way to make that go quicker. Hours must be put in. Reps must be performed. There’s no other way.

In many ways I compare it to my journey of becoming a healthy person. The same get-rich-quick claims revolve around language-learning, as around weight loss. But I found that becoming a healthier person meant acting, thinking and making the kind of decisions that a healthier person would. It was not enough to say that I wanted to lose 20 pounds, any more than it would be enough to say I want to speak French. In both cases, I have had to learn to think like the man I wanted to be. Your old self can’t come with you. In both cases I found that I what I doing was more important than what I consider myself to be. Words like “intelligence” and “discipline” held no power for me. Words like “practice” and “planning” did.

I don’t say this to ward anyone away from a foreign language, or from French specifically. On the contrary, there’s a beautiful democracy to it all. I am not convinced that anyone can be a Baudelaire. But I am convinced that anyone can understand, and make themselves understood. It’s just that the work is unrelenting. It’s a law of nature. There’s no way around it.

–Ta Nehisi Coates, “Letters to a French Autodidact”

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