Few of you probably know that long before I was “John the Language Guy” I was “John the Bike Guy.” I got my first real mountain bike in junior high school. It was a beautiful blue GT Tequesta it changed my life forever. Suddenly, my world was not limited to just the backyard or schoolyard. I could now go anywhere my 12-year-old quads could propel me!
Around the same time, I befriended a fellow bike nut, Scott, who would go on to become my best friend and “comrade-in-wheels”. Our fledgling mountain bike posse crisscrossed just about every mile of road, gravel, and trail in Woodinville, a quasi-rural Seattle suburb enveloped in towering evergreen trees, ferocious blackberry bushes, and very stingy stinging nettles. Thanks to the adrenaline, I usually didn’t notice the protruding blackberry thorns and puffy nettle welts on my legs and arms until I got home and saw the look on my mom’s face. I doubt she was thrilled with the mud and blood plastered on my limbs, but at least the rides also plastered ear-to-ear grins upon my face. But beyond toys of play, our bikes evolved into our primary mode of transportation. We rode to school. We rode to parties. We rode everywhere and everywhere we wanted to go, even if myriad miles away. I didn’t realize it at age 13, but Scott and I had stumbled upon the freedom of time and place that most don’t experience until getting a drivers license at 16.
With all that time in the saddle, this hitherto shy, flabby, uncoordinated kid transformed into a confident, lean, athletic teen in just a few years.1 In ninth grade, I began competing in cross-country mountain bike races. In tenth grade, I got interested in trials riding, a quirky sport where you attempt to roll, jump, and balance your way through natural and man-made obstacle courses. The increased levels of testosterone and growth hormone endowed by puberty certainly aided in my physical and psychological transformation, but I am pretty sure that I would have become even shyer and chubbier if not for biking. I would then have probably blamed my plight on genetics (most people in my family put on body fat very easily) and the fact that “I’m just not good at sports”. But more and more, science is beginning to realize just how malleable genetic expression can be based on signals from the environment: how (and how much) you move your body, what foods you put in your face hole, how much (and how well) you sleep, how much sun exposure you get, etc. It turns out that it’s epigenetics, not mere genetics, that matter most.
But these positive changes in body and brain require action. Far too many of us let fear and self-defeating beliefs hold us back from learning new skills. Fear of physical discomfort keeps us on the couch. Fear of not being able to understand (or not being understood by) native speakers keeps us from practicing new foreign languages. We don’t improve because we don’t practice. And we don’t practice because we don’t think we’re good enough to practice. It’s a vicious cycle. But you can break free! You can start pedaling down the long road to fitness or fluency by making a psychological shift today. You just have to adopt three fundamental principles, which I can see in my 20-20 hindsight were the exact same keys to physical and psychological transformation at play when learning how to ride a mountain bike and speak Japanese:
- Put in the time week in and week out.
- Believe you will continue to get better if you engage in enough deliberate practice.
- Focus on—and actually enjoy—the process of getting better, not just the outcomes you hope to achieve.
Recently, I observed another interesting parallel between riding a bike and speaking a language: one’s fitness and fluency may atrophy with lack of use, but you never fully forget a physical skill thanks to the power of procedural memory.
After graduating from high school, my interests began to change and I gradually replaced bike riding with martial arts and language learning. Okay, martial arts, languages…and women. In high school, I had poured every free hour I had into riding, and every dollar I earned into maintaining and upgrading my bikes. In college, the bikes collected dust in the garage as I started spending whatever discretionary time and income I had on kung fu, languages, travel, and girlfriends. But then a few weeks ago, after over a decade of being out of the saddle, I decided to start riding again.
Having sold all of my two-wheel steeds before moving to Japan in 2003, and lacking the financial wiggle room to acquire a new ride right now, I settled on fixing up my brother’s mountain bike (a late 90s Specialized Rockhopper). Repairs complete, I set out down the Huntington Beach Bike Path on a sunny Friday afternoon. The first few miles were equal parts exuberance and pain. The robust procedural memories instructing my body how to balance on two wheels, laid down so many years ago, were still intact! Even my ability (though perhaps not the bravery) needed to hop over curbs and potholes remained. My cardiovascular fitness, however, was a very different story. I could once ride all day long up and down steep, muddy, technical single-track. Now I was huffing and puffing, with a sweat dripping down my beet red face, despite riding along a flat, paved bike path. For shame! But at least I know that: 1) I can regain, if not even surpass, my former fitness if I put in the time and effort, and 2) I don’t have to learn to balance all over again.
Around the same time, I had a similar revival on the language front when I decided to refresh my Japanese skills, which took a backseat to learning Mandarin while I was in Taiwan. Just as I saw on the bike, the procedural memories needed to string together flowing grammatical sentences in Japanese remain, even though my tongue and mouth muscles (and to some extent, my vocabulary) have atrophied somewhat since leaving Japan in 2005. But just like my quadriceps, I know that my “Japanese muscles” can be built back up quickly if I put in the time. This time around, thankfully, most of the riding is downhill.
- Whether it was because my family lacked insurance during my youth or because I preferred drawing over playing sports, I seemed to have missed out on most of the physical exercise, play, practice, and development children usually get. [↩]