By Aaron Myers
Resting square in the center of Colorado sits Mount Princeton a 14,197 foot mountain that is part of the Collegiate Peaks range just outside of the quite mountain town of Buena Vista. I spent four summers in the shadow of Mount Princeton as a whitewater rafting guide on the Arkansas River. I took groups of high school students backpacking through the forests beneath its talussed slopes. I watched countless sunsets over its north ridge from the front porch of Bongo Billy’s while sipping a hot caramel-almond steamer. And I made four attempts at its summit; four failed attempts. On each attempt, I was able to make it up to the saddle, the low part of the ridge found between the false summit and the real summit, but was unable to climb past it.
Mount Princeton is in no way a difficult mountain to climb. There are no technical sections. The trail is not all together steep. The approach is simple; easy even. And yet in four attempts, I never managed to reach the summit.
My adversarial relationship with Mount Princeton in many ways reflects some of the challenges that we language learners face in our attempts to summit, or master, the language we are learning. It is fairly easy to make it to the saddle, to that intermediate level of language mastery, where we can accomplish all the daily tasks that we need to accomplish in order to survive. We can get around, have simple conversations, order meals at the restaurant and in general live comfortable lives among native speakers. But at the saddle, the summit always looms above us as a reminder that we aren’t there yet.
Climbing past the saddle is a difficult challenge for most language learners. We even have terms for getting stuck there, saying that we have “reached a plateau” or that we “have fossilized in our learning.” Like my attempts to climb Mount Princeton, there are reasons for this stagnation, some of which are valid and some that are not.
My first attempt to climb Mount Princeton ended in a snowstorm. It was mid May and by the time we poked our heads out of the tent to greet the rising sun, the snow was so deep that we had no chance to make it to the top.
Life is like that isn’t it? A new baby is born. A new job begun or an old job is lost. A sick family member needs daily assistance. Sometimes there are snowstorms in life that force us to retreat – for a time – from our goals. But we needn’t fear – the mountain, barring a Mayan Apocalypse, isn’t going anywhere. We can take the time off necessary to weather the storm and then return to climb again another day. Snow storms seem to me a valid reason to remain at the saddle.
On my second attempt to climb Mount Princeton later that same summer, my friend Chris and I had the great idea of climbing it at night. It was a full moon and we knew many friends who had enjoyed the glory of the galaxies from the summit. Our not so great idea was to drive my 1983 Ford Mustang up the fire road as high as we could to save time.
An hour into our adventure the Mustang was high centered and going nowhere. We spent the next three hours working to free it from the mountain’s grip. Having spent all our energy on our own stupidity, we slept there in the road and returned to town the next morning. Sometimes our own bad choices thwart our endeavors and we must live with the reality of the consequences.
On my third attempt I went alone to the chalet that snuggles into the ridge just below the saddle. Its stone fireplace and panoramic east-facing windows make it a great getaway. I hiked up after supper, planning on spending a quiet night at the chalet before rising early enough the next morning to reach the summit by sunrise.
When my alarm went off at 4:30 the next morning, I made my decision: I’d sleep another hour or two and skip the sunrise summit party. I reset my alarm for six. This time when the alarm went off, I sat up, reached over and lit my small stove to heat water for coffee and grabbed a muffin from my bag. I made another decision: I’d enjoy a few hours there in the chalet as the sun rose before the world in front of me. It was warm in my sleeping bag, I had a good book and I had coffee. I was very comfortable. By the time I finally extracted myself from the warm cocoon of comfort at the chalet, it was time to return.
And this, of course, highlights what is perhaps the most common reason that we plateau as language learners: We get comfortable.
I believe there is a truism in language learning that you reach where you need to reach in the language. If you need to be at a low intermediate level of proficiency, you will get to that level and perhaps a bit past that level. But pushing forward toward the summit requires extra effort and that effort requires more than most of us want to give.
My fourth and final attempt to conquer Mount Princeton took place on January first. My friend Lee and I left a cabin full of good friends, with whom we had brought in the New Year, to snowshoe up to the top. It was fun and we had a great climb, but as we approached the saddle three hours later, exhausted, we began to think about all of our friends back in the valley. The thought of being to being back in the cabin, chatting with our friends, continually distracted us from our goal of summiting Mount Princeton and so we turned back.
Language learners are also prone to distraction. We pick up new hobbies. We even decide to begin learning a completely different language.
I’ve climbed many mountains in Colorado and elsewhere and have discovered a simple secret for reaching the top: Put one foot in front of the other, one step at a time and don’t stop until every direction you look is down. It’s that easy.
Learning another language is similar. It’s not rocket science or brain surgery or the IRS tax system. Everyone on the face of the earth does it at least once in their lifetime and it is something that most people do it two or three or more times.
If you have found yourself hanging out at the saddle for a while, with the summit looming above you, take heart. You can continue to push forward, continue to grow and expand your command of the language. You can reach the summit. It won’t be easy, though, so I’d like to offer a few ideas to help you along the way.
Stay in the Game
When I asked my wife what she thought was the most important factor for continuing to move forward as an advanced speaker of a language, her advice was to “stay in the game.”
She demonstrated this to me again the other day when I came home to find her pouring over a grammar supplement and writing sentences with a form she hadn’t quite figured out yet. This was after spending three hours drinking tea with our neighbor – three hours of conversation about every topic imaginable. Her Turkish is really good and yet she continues to intentionally work to fine tune and work on the aspects of the language that she hasn’t yet mastered.
Here are three things that can help the most:
Read, Read, Read
Reading is an enjoyable way to continue to expand and grow in your mastery of the language. Read for pleasure and read a lot. Find books you’ve read and loved in your native language and read translated copies. Read before you go to bed. Read over your lunch break. Read and read and read.
Whether you are an expat living abroad or living in your home country, you need to develop deep and lasting relationships with native speakers of the language you are learning. Relationships take time, of course, but it is worth the effort to have a native speaker who will be there for you, who can correct your mistakes and with whom you can email, chat, call or skype with regularly.
Imagine and Do
Imagine what you would like to be able to do with the language. Maybe you’d like to be able to interpret speeches for an audience. Perhaps you’d like to be able to give a speech about a certain topic. Or maybe you’d like to write an article in a magazine. Imagine what you would like to do and then begin doing it – now.
This final point is very important. I was working with a coaching client of mine here in Istanbul who was starting her own business. She wanted to improve her Turkish so that she could continue to grow her business in the Turkish market. When she imagined what she would need to be able to do in Turkish, she said she needed to be able to be interviewed by the media. I encouraged her to have Turkish friends come up with questions for her to answer. I encouraged her to start by writing out answers to interview questions; to give mock interviews to friends, to the mirror, to the cat, to anyone who would listen. I encouraged her to video record some mock interviews so she could watch them and see what she still needed to work on. I encouraged her to not let her first real interview be her first interview. By giving hundreds of mock interviews, she would push herself forward, preparing her for the day when the media would call.
So imagine what you would like to do with the language and begin doing it today.
Here are some ideas to get your imagination going:
- If you want to be able to interpret speeches, start interpreting speeches now. Find a speech online and practice.
- If you want to write articles for a magazine, start writing weekly at a blog (your own or someone else’s).
- If you want to give speeches, preach sermons, address corporate boards or teach a lesson – start doing so now, even if only for yourself or your family.
No cowboy rides their first bull at the rodeo. They start back at the ranch on ponies and move up to bulls and one day – probably before they feel ready – they sign up for the real rodeo. Imagine what you’d like to be able to do with the language and begin doing it today.
Need Not Want
I’d like to end by telling you that all you need in order to move forward as an upper intermediate or advance speaker of the language is desire – that all you need is to want to move forward.
However, if I am honest I have to recognize that for most of us, that may not be enough. We want to do all sorts of things in life that we never get around to. The warm cocoon of where we are at right now is comfortable and as powerful as a sedative. And so merely wanting to continue to improve for most of us is rarely enough.
As I mentioned before, in general we will always reach the level to which we need to reach in order to accomplish all the required tasks of our daily life.
If you were to cross-examine all the expats living in Turkey, for example, you would probably find that all of them can accomplish the daily tasks required to be able to live in Turkey. However, I think you would find that a great many get stuck at that level. A few push forward through sheer force of will. But in examining those whose Turkish is a superior level, of near native like fluency, I think you would find that it wasn’t so much will power that had propelled them forward as much as it was a raising of the level of need.
Many have married into a Turkish family and therefore, it’s all Turkish all the time. They have taken a job with a Turkish firm or have enrolled in a Turkish Masters program at a local university. They have signed on to something that has raised the level to which they need to speak the language.
As advanced speakers we must find ways to increase the level to which we actually need to know the language. You have to be creative in finding this need.
I am going to try to do this by beginning to write a monthly newsletter about independent language learning for a Turkish website I have created to help Turks learn English.
Here are some ideas that might be helpful for you:
- Buy a cookbook in the language and commit to making a meal from it every week.
- Switch all of your technology (ipods, cell phones, etc) from your native language to the target language.
- Sign up to audit a class from a foreign university taught in the language.
- Offer to teach a class or give a seminar in the language.
The view from the saddle is always nice. But the view from the summit is spectacular. As language learners, we need to take intentional steps to avoid getting stuck in the shadow of the summit of language mastery. It is worth the effort and will offer unparalleled views and amazing opportunities.
Get started today and don’t stop.
What additional tips can you offer to avoid getting stuck in the shadow of the summit of language mastery?
Aaron Myers is a language coach, the the author of The Everyday Language Learner’s Guide to Getting Started, and the creator of The Everyday Language Learner, a site dedicated to helping regular people learn another language. He, his wife and two kids live in Istanbul, Turkey. For a limited time, get 50% off Aaron’s Everyday Language Learner’s Guides with the code: challenge180!