Bruce Lee on the ‘hard part’ of language learning


What’s the hard part of language learning?

I’m often moved to quote my Japanese teacher’s opening comments in my first-ever Japanese class: “Learning Japanese is not difficult; it will just be a little challenging for your spirit, and you’ll need to work hard!”.  As the years go by, and I continue to explore other languages and cultures, the wisdom of her words continues to ring true.

You may have never imagined that the great Martial Artist, Actor (and Dancer!) Bruce Lee also expressed a philosophy of language learning.  Just like my Japanese teacher’s brevity, Bruce Lee captured an essential truth about language learning in just 30 seconds during this TV interview (an old Canadian talk show btw)–before you hit play, take a moment to imagine the one thing you think is the ‘hard part’ of language learning.

On a similar note, I read a wonderful book many years ago by Kevin Carroll, entitled “Rules of the Red Rubber Ball“.  One of the themes that he talked about was the “lonely” work that is part of positive growth in any domain.  He doesn’t take the word lonely in the sad sense of the word; rather, he talks about the significant personal work (i.e. at home work) that we must invest, and how we really should pursue that time, effort and attention with a sense of Joy.

I’ve been trying to imagine a few projects to try on this blog.  Upon reflection, I realized that I wanted to state clearly that I don’t believe linguistic fluency is the same as cultural fluency– more significantly, I don’t believe in shortcuts to learning how to navigate the unique context of personality, privilege and circumstance that will frame your interactions.  I certainly don’t pretend to offer anything like that in the posts that I share.

If we aspire to become good communicators for the languages we study, the real challenge doesn’t even start until we’ve attained a level of comfort, fluidity and sense of self within new linguistic communities.  From that point, we go through a kind of intercultural adolescence that often teaches us more about our own worldview than it will about the other culture.

Yes, you can achieve a reasonable level of comfort in another language while working on your own; however, the truly interesting part (so challenging and so rewarding) will be ultimately measured by the depth of the connections with souls who not only use this language to communicate, but more importantly to dream, to learn, and interpret the world.

If you’re going to take a language to a truly advanced level, you’re going to need a teacher—in the sense that you’ll need to find someone who can share some of the lessons from their lived experience.  You’re going to need to make friends.  You’re going to need to learn how to ‘be yourself’ in a new personal and/or professional cultural context.

Like Bruce, I believe that the process of learning the mechanics of how to make and understand the sounds of another language, though challenging, is not difficult. “The hard thing, the difficult thing, is behind the meaning.”

“A language is not just a body of vocabulary or a set of grammatical rules; a language is a flash of the human spirit, it’s a vehicle through which the soul of each particular culture comes into the material world. Every language is an old growth forest of the mind, a watershed of thought, an ecosystem of spiritual possibilities.” Wade Davis @ TED

Having said that, I think I have a few ideas about practicing the ‘lonely work’ along the language learning journey; I think that is going to be the focus of this blog for the next while.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this topic.


11 thoughts on “Bruce Lee on the ‘hard part’ of language learning

  1. Pingback: Weekly Blog Roundup Ep. 2 – The Medical Culture Blog

  2. Wise words. For me the main “footwork” of learning a language is studying in the early morning hours, alone, like a hermit. It’s almost like meditating. But to truly make the language “my own”,I need the personal connection. This is through interaction with my fellow human beings. When you start learning a foreign language, you may have some ideas about it, but it is only after having experience communicating through the language that you (I) start to recognize the “mood” or “spirit” of the language. These are obviously subjective, but for me, each language that I speak, I have a specific state of mind based on the connections I’ve made in the language.

    • Thanks for that! To your last point, I definitely remember someone commenting that my body language changed completely when I switched languages. When you say ‘early morning hours’, have you always been one to get up early, or is it a habit you developed in order to support your learning?

  3. Very interesting post.
    There is so much behind a language, that it’s a hard concept to transmit to new students.
    I remember becoming overwhelmed when I began to realise that Spanish literature was an immense territory, as immense as that of English Literature. Yet at school there was never a hint that other literatures even existed!
    And this is true of ALL countries’ literatures.
    How limited are we each to our own small, mono-lingual literary world!
    Mind blowing.

      • Yes, the whole concept of literature was confined to English Literature at my secondary school.
        It really makes you think there might be another way to go …
        Regards. Marie.

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