Becoming an Expert

Meaningful language practiceA little over two weeks ago, I noticed that one of my hens was limping and looking a bit listless. After doing a bit of research on the internet about possible causes, I looked at her feet and discovered that she had a marble-sized abscess on her right foot, a condition called bumblefoot. According to what I read, bumblefoot can kill the chicken if it’s not treated, and it can also spread to other chickens in the flock. The treatment: surgically remove the abscess with a razor blade.

Usually I would get help from my mom with procedures like this. My mom grew up with a lot of animals, and her parents were both medical professionals (a doctor and a nurse). I feel like my mom knows what she’s doing in situations like this. I, on the other hand, don’t.

Walking around, 10 minutes post-op.

Walking around, 10 minutes post-op.

Unfortunately, my mom was busy for the next several days. I was nervous that if I waited too long, the hen would get worse and die. So I did the surgery myself. There was blood involved. There was no anesthesia. The surgery, though, was successful. A friend agreed to hold the chicken while I ‘operated’ with a razor blade. The hen was remarkably calm, considering (apparently chickens don’t react when they feel pain, it’s a survival thing). I bandaged her up and she started running around.

But it wasn’t over: I had to change her bandage and soak her foot in salt water regularly.  At first I got a friend to help, and my mom, when she had time. Finally I decided I wanted to be able to do it on my own. The first couple times it took around an hour total, and my heart pounded through the whole procedure as I juggled the struggling chicken, tried not to spill the salt water and bandaged her foot again using one hand.

Last night, it took me just 20 minutes. It still makes me a little nervous, but I think I’ve got it down. In other words, I’m an expert.

What is this story about chickens doing in a blog about language learning? There are three ways the lessons from my surgery adventure can be applied to language learning.

The importance of practice

Learning a language is like any other skill - you have to practice it a lot in order to get good. There might be more or less effective ways to practice, but if you don’t put in the time you will not excel, period.

Meaningful Practice is Uncomfortable

When I cut an abscess out of the chicken’s foot, and when I started soaking and changing her bandages, alone, I was very nervous. I would rather have had someone else do the whole procedure for me. If some else had done it for me, though, I would never have learned to do it myself.

No one can learn a language for you. But getting practice that is really meaningful – which means talking to people in the target language, writing to people in the target language and generally using the language outside of a classroom or lesson – is uncomfortable at first. The first time you speak with someone in your target language outside a lesson or classroom will be awkward and you will feel nervous, but the second time will feel less so and by the 10th time you won’t feel nearly as nervous. But there is no way to avoid feeling nervous that first time, you just have to do it and get over it.

Don’t Let Other People Be Your Crutch

I rely on my mom for help with pet care, but I need to learn for myself how to take care of urgent animal health problems. As I said earlier: No one can learn a language for you. In terms of languages, many people use a spouse / partner as a crutch, especially if he or she speaks the target language well. When you travel, the spouse does the talking, orders dinners, reserves train tickets and goes with you to the dentist, if need be. This is more comfortable in the short term, but it harms your ability to learn in the long-run. Don’t let someone else be your crutch. You will be much happier with yourself – and more independent – if you can just order your own dinner.

In conclusion: Even though the first couple of times you practice a new skill will be nerve-racking, you just have to do it. It will get less harrowing the more you practice, and there is no way to become an expert without getting over your fear of trying something new.

So what’s the real reason that I’m writing about the chicken surgery? I’m quite proud of myself. I’m so proud of myself that none of my friends or family members want to hear me talk about it anymore :). And that’s the final lesson: Succeeding at something that is new and/or difficult is a major source of pride, whether it is healing a hen or using your target language to order dinner or taking a university course in your target language. There is no pride in having done something that is easy, or something that doesn’t make you nervous.

Onward language learners!