Language Learning at the Olympics Level

Everyone who wants to be good–really, really good–at something has to pay a price for it. We see this every Olympics, as the top medalists tell their stories and say the same thing over and over: in order to train as intensely and as relentlessly as they have, they had to give up normal lives. Many of them gave up normal childhoods. Yes, they still had fun and they still had friends . . . just not the fun and the friends they would have had if they hadn’t decided to become Olympians.

Becoming an Olympian when you weren’t born a Greek god is like becoming a native speaker of a foreign language. (See the previous post: Extraverts Need Motivation; Intraverts Need INSPIRATION) The main difference is that it’s easier to master a foreign language than to get to the Olympics. You do not have to be better than everyone else; you just have to be really, really good.

It isn’t impossible . . . but it means you have to give up a normal life.

How to Give Up a Normal Life

Imagine this . . . You have the chance to live in a foreign country where your target language is spoken. You can move there immediately and stay as long as you like. The only condition is that you cannot go back home until you speak your target language fluently. You must be so good that native speakers think you are one of them. Would you say yes?

Be careful! If you say yes, you will lose many things. Birthdays and holidays with your family. Milestones in your friends’ lives. Historical moments in your country. Too many shared experiences to count: weddings and funerals, campaigns and elections, favorite books and favorite movies . . . In short, a normal life with your original community.

But you will also gain many things. As you master your new language, you will make new friends. And you will have great experiences with them that you will treasure for a lifetime, including birthdays, holidays, and weddings! But these will not be the same as the ones you lost.

Becoming serious about learning a new language is a little like moving to a new country . . . even if you never leave your home.

How I Gave Up My Normal Life

I write from experience. I once moved to a foreign country to attend university and didn’t fly home until I had graduated.

Only when I got back and met up with my old friends did I learn how different I had become. I had acquired a whole other culture that we could never share.

Take music. My old friends and I had different “soundtracks” for our university years. One of my favorite songs was something my new friends and I liked to play every Friday night, to celebrate the weekend. When I introduced it to my new friends, they listened politely . . . but never fell in love with it. The song simply had no meaning for them.

And I’m sure there were songs that were meaningful to them that I could not connect with. It was as if we were speaking different languages!

After our reunion, we were able to make a new “shared playlist” together; but we can never make up for the years that we lost. I don’t regret this. Remember that I also gained years with other good friends.

How I Gave Up My Normal Life at the Olympics Level

Believe it or not, the first time I gave up my normal life was when I was just a baby.

My family wanted me to be bilingual in Tagalog and English. Since Tagalog was the language everyone around me spoke, they “immersed” me in English through media. Books, cassette tapes, cartoons, comics. A relative who visited the US came back with a Betamax of cartoons and commercials taped off American TV just for me. It worked brilliantly for English.

And it worked horribly for Tagalog. By the time I started school, where I supposed to speak it all the time with my classmates, I could barely talk to anyone. Not only was I speaking the “wrong” language, but I was also talking about the “wrong” things. My classmates and I had no shared interests because they had read different books and watched different shows.

To make matters worse, I had a very visible disfigurement that always drew stares. I think that if I had looked normal and just sounded different, or if I had sounded normal and just looked different, I would have had a better chance. And I was sensitive about the my appearance, which made me sensitive about my poor Tagalog. Both at once was too much. When my classmates teased me about either one, I just retreated further and further into English.

In a Tagalog-speaking country and community, I did not have a normal Tagalog-speaking life.

What I did have was English at the Olympics level. Like a native speaker, I was able to major in English Literature and earn top marks. Later I taught both English Literature and English as a Foreign Language. And I learned that the only thing better than learning a new language is helping others do it. This is why will soon offer personalized online English lessons to subscribers who feel ready for their next level.

Bonus: German at the Olympics Level

In the meantime, I will also be blogging about how I have moved to Germany without leaving home. I am “immersing” myself through German media: books, music, TV series, movies. When a friend recommends something to me, I always ask: “Is it available in German?”

The good news is that so much international media is now being translated into German that my English-speaking friends and I can still share many things. The better news is that there are many German things that may never be translated into English. I will still have the great adventure of gaining a new life.

I will write more about my German studies in future posts.

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