Learning the Rules

Learning a language takes thousands of hours and thousands of mistakes. Yet somehow, we expect ourselves to be able to apply new rules to our lives in a heartbeat. | 22: Learning the Rules

A few months ago, I started teaching myself Japanese. So far, I only know a few words and some grammatical rules, and I can only build a few versions of the same simple sentences. When it comes to French, I know how to build sentences and inflect words; but as soon as I have to talk about new things, I am lost. Knowing the grammar doesn’t help, because I haven’t practised enough to be able to apply it in every situation.

Learning a language takes thousands of hours and thousands of mistakes. We know we will never be fluent in Japanese if we never speak Japanese. Yet somehow, we expect ourselves to be able to apply new rules to our lives in a heartbeat. We may hear some great advice on a podcast and curse ourselves for having forgotten about it a week later.

We have to remember it will take time and practice before we can apply new rules naturally, no matter how obvious they may seem to those who have practised them longer than us.

For example, I know very well that speaking in public isn’t dangerous. I know exactly how to prepare and give a lecture, but in reality, I still can’t apply all the rules.

A week ago, I gave a lecture at my old university. Having done this twice last year, I somehow expected myself not to get scared this time. So when I did, I was too disappointed in myself to admit it. I should have been practicing in Scotland, but I was too anxious to even think about the lecture. Instead, I pushed my notes to the bottom of my backpack and pretended the fear wasn’t there.

During the lecture, I had to keep reminding myself of the simplest of rules. I struggled to find the right words, the ones I had practiced out loud for the first time the night before, in a mind cluttered with instructions:

Focus. Keep breathing. Stop blushing. Stop shaking. Look up. Don’t stare. Speak louder. Slow down. Stop saying um. Stop looking at the screen. Stop thinking about later. Stop fiddling with your hands. And on and on until I was done and stumbled back to my seat wanting to melt into it.

It was impossible. There was no way I could keep track of all those rules. So I made mistakes. I lost focus. I ran out of breath. I broke all the rules.

And it wasn’t the end of the world.

They didn’t laugh at me. I didn’t die. It was a completely acceptable lecture.

And yet, a part of me was disappointed. A part of me had built unreachable expectations of some utopian lecture and I blamed myself for not practising more, for always being so awkward in crowds.

Then I stopped. I kindly reminded myself that I’ve only just begun practising these rules. A few years ago, doing a 30-second pitch at a networking lunch required so much practice and courage and so many sleepless nights that I was completely drained afterwards. Being able to give a 30-minute lecture with such little practice and no major catastrophes was actually a huge accomplishment.

Talking in public is still French to me, and I’m far from fluent. But knowing I inspired at least one girl in that classroom makes it worth all the fear and awkwardness. I’m prepared to keep trying and failing and trying again, and maybe one day, it will be simple.

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