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How to learn a language

My journey to running a language media company has been a bit unorthodox. I studied Computer Science at University for years. I first got my Bachelors Degree, then worked as a programmer, then I went for my Masters Degree. After my Masters, I got a job as a programmer, but I got sick a few months in and was booked off work. After 2 weeks off away from work I decided that I was sick of programming and didn’t want to go back. So I resigned and tried to see what else I could do out in the world.

I did odd jobs for my parents and people that I knew. I made a program here and there. Working in my own time was a better experience than being stuck behind a desk. I discovered the online language community in late 2014 and realised that I really liked talking about language. I discovered translation work which brought in a bit of money, which was nice. As I explored the language space online I realised that there was so much out there, but also that there was a lot more stuff that could be done.

I created a comic focusing on language in 2015 and in the middle of 2017 I created a series of language lessons that has helped grow the business. I launched a language magazine a few days ago and it is going really well. I feel like now I am finally coming to a point emotionally as well as financially where I was before I got sick and I wanted to reflect on that and share with you guys what I have learned.

Growing up I was very sick. I always had a cold, or some other ailment. During those years I went to the hospital many times. The physical world was not a place I enjoyed. I retreated to the world of stories and ideas. I loved reading books and imagining those new places. I also loved video games, movies and TV shows. I was drawn into those new spaces. I loved explore the possibilities of life.

In high school I focused really hard on my work and got really into computers. I liked working with hard problems and using my mind to tackle and overcome problems. I went straight from high school to university and started a Bachelor’s Degree in Computer Science. I wanted to use computers to help solve problems. Technology can be an amazing tool for helping with all sorts of issues.

While all this work in technology was going on, I had quietly started a new path, something that at the time didn’t seem big at all. My dad speaks German natively. He speaks to his brother, aunt and extended family in German. But he never taught me.

It didn’t really bother at the time. I was more interested in technology than languages. But I have always had an interest in languages but I had never really pursued it fully before joining the language community in 2014. At University there were many courses that I had to take, but they also gave you the opportunity to pick a course. So, with my German heritage in the back of my mind, I decided, why the heck not and I chose to do German I.

My student advisor was a bit perplexed, but since it was not technically against the rules, he allowed it. I just had to take this piece of paper to the other side of campus, get it signed and bring it back to the Computer Science department.

My German didn’t immediately take off, but it was the start of something. I started going to the German bookshop about 20 minutes away from my house and buying comics and magazines in German. I didn’t understand everything. Actually, I didn’t understand much at all. But I just kept at it. Every now and then I would pick up my “Asterix in Belgien” and started reading. Sometimes I would just look at the words and try to get a feeling for them. Like, what did the words look like and what did they sound like. I wanted to know what the language of my ancestors was like.

Other times I would look up every word on a page to try and understand what I was reading. I tried lots of different things. It was just a hobby and I approached it in the way I felt like approaching it that day. I only did one year of German at University but I never stopped learning German. About 4 years after that I went on holiday to Germany and stayed with family. My German was about half way there at that point. I could talk about the essentials and also muddle my way through a more complicated explanation if I needed to. On and off through the years I just kept at it.

It was only when I joined the language community in 2014 that I really started seeing my experience with German in a whole new way. I had learned another language. I had done it without ever looking up how to do it. I just did it however I wanted and it eventually worked out.

When it came to Computer Science, I was endlessly reading about how this and that worked and talking to people about it, but not German. With German, it was a solo activity. I just looked up words, and engaged in the language. Reading all the things people were posting I realised that a lot of people were doing with language what I did with Computer Science. They were analysing things, breaking them down, discussing tips and wondering about how best to do this and that.

I realise in hindsight that the reason I burned out in programming is because I pushed myself too hard. I wanted to conquer the world. I wanted to be the very best. I wanted to work at the best companies and working at the cutting edge. But no one ever gets to the front of the line when they are just starting out. You have to build up to that. If you push yourself too hard, you will burn out, sooner or later.

My brain was tired and worn out and I had left programming behind. I decided to start a new path and this time do it differently. Languages are complex, and full of structures, just like programming. They are both about communication, if you think about it. With languages you are speaking to people, but with programming you are communicating with a computer.

I think my programming has come in handy with languages, but this new ways of doing things I think has turned out to be more important. The irony with German is that I succeeded when I wasn’t trying. I never set out to get fluent. I just wanted to see what I could learn. I didn’t say to myself, “I must become fluent in 4 years”. I didn’t even say, “I must learn 10 words today”.

I just had fun with it. If I felt like getting more immersed in it, I did. If I felt like I just wanted to listen to it, even if I didn’t understand everything, I did.

Languages are amazing. I want to learn them all. I want to become fluent in all the languages that I know little bits of. But now I have finally come to the point where I am ok with not being 100% at things. I am taking my time. I will learn what I can learn today and tomorrow I will do the same.

Languages are so cool that we all want to get to perfect today. I have finally realised that perfect doesn’t really exist. There is only “I know a little” and “I know a little more”. Certainly you could eventually get to the much vaunted and sought after place of “fluent”. But that is not a thing I think you should be holding in your minds at all times.

Remember your love of languages but don’t let it be a weight on your neck. Do what you can today. The problem with pushing yourself too hard is that you can become so tired you end up sometimes not doing anything and could even burn out.

I have been teaching myself Swedish and there are times when I am busy and I get tired and I just don’t do anything with it that day. And frankly, unless you are a super hero who never gets tired, or a savant who can learn a language in a week, it’s ok to not be perfect. If you have any ideas about where you should be or how hard you should work, you might want to let them go.

Languages should be fun. They are amazing. It’s tons of fun learning about other languages and cultures. But if you want to get the most out of them, ironically, you should let go and get rid of your schedule and todo list and reminders. Tap into why you want to do this. Rediscover what got you into this in the first place.

I set out to get good at programming and computers and I did that. I worked hard and I got results. But at the same time this other thing was growing and I never set any goals for it. If you are ok with setting yourself goals, and you like reminders, and you feel that works for you, then you need to follow your gut feel. But what I have learned over the years, is that sometimes not having a map of where you are going can actually lead you to exactly where you wanted to go.

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