As Richard Feynman said, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool.” Many of us tend to think we are better than we really are. Better drivers. Better employees. Better lovers. And yes, better language learners. But perhaps just as many struggle with the exact opposite problem: feeling worse than we really are. Worse drivers. Worse employees. Worse lovers. And yes, worse language learners.
Why is it so damn easy to delude ourselves one way or the other? The answer is “ego.” This psychological con artist resides inside all of us, and is masterful at hiding our true identity and inflating (or deflating) our true abilities. It creates a “false self” that is defined through comparison with others and attachment to ideas, beliefs, and physical forms, none of which are who we truly are. I certainly fell for the ego’s seductive lies for most of my life, and have only begun to peel back the many layers of ego-induced delusions thanks to great books like A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle and Ego is the Enemy by Ryan Holiday.
So what does all of this have to do with language learning? The ego is the enemy of language learning in three key ways:
- The ego blocks honest assessment, and we can’t improve if we can’t accurately measure our progress.
- The ego hates looking foolish, but nobody can learn without making mistakes.
- The ego hates hard work and delayed gratification, but we need both to reach fluency.
The Ego Blocks Honest Assessment
“One might say that the ability to evaluate one’s own ability is the most important skill of all. Without it, improvement is impossible. And certainly ego makes it difficult every step of the way. It is certainly more pleasurable to focus on our talents and strengths, but where does that get us? Arrogance and self-absorption inhibit growth.” —Ryan Holiday, Ego is the Enemy
When we allow ourselves to be led by the ego, it’s nearly impossible to honestly and accurately measure our current language abilities. And if we can’t measure something, it’s tough to improve it. As Peter Drucker put it, “What gets measured gets improved.”
Moreover, the ego will almost always over- or under-estimate our current abilities, making it difficult to choose resources that fit our comprehension level. As Stephen Krashen argues, we only learn when we understand what we hear and read. When our materials are too far beyond our current level, we learn little and struggle greatly.
The Ego Hates Mistakes
“If you don’t make mistakes, you’re not working on hard enough problems. And that’s a big mistake.” ―Frank Wilczek, 2004 Nobel Prize Winner in Physics
Mistakes are an inevitable, essential part of any learning journey. We simply cannot make progress without them. This is especially true in complex biopsychosocial skills like foreign languages. Each time we misspeak, mispronounce, misspell, or mis-conjugate, we learn. So a lack of mistakes in our target language is not necessarily evidence that we are getting better. At best, it’s a sign that we are staying the same, not improving.
When we let our ego run our lives, we begin choosing comfort over growth. We stay in our tiny comfort zones and focus on flaunting what we already know instead of following our curiosity into uncharted linguistic territory. To continue learning and refining our language skills, we have to put a muzzle on the fearful voice of the ego, forgo the pursuit of perfection, and make tons and tons of informative mistakes.
The Ego Hates Hard Work & Delayed Gratification
“My friend the philosopher and martial artist Daniele Bolelli once gave me a helpful metaphor. He explained that training was like sweeping the floor. Just because we’ve done it once, doesn’t mean the floor is clean forever. Every day the dust comes back. Every day we must sweep.” —Ryan Holiday, Ego is the Enemy
The ego thinks to itself, “I spent 10 minutes on Duolingo. Why am I not fluent yet!?” But it should come as no surprise to anyone that reaching and sustaining fluency in a foreign language takes a significant amount of time, effort, discipline, humility, and delayed gratification. It requires showing up day in and day out, and being willing to “sweep the floor” again and again. The ego hates all of this. It would much rather have us believe one of the following lies:
- We are already “fluent” in the language and needn’t “sweep” again.
- We are naturally gifted at languages and needn’t “sweep” so hard.
- We’re simply not good at languages, so why bother “sweeping” at all?
The truth is that:
- We can always improve. I’ve been learning Japanese for decades, and still learn new words every day. Heck, I still learn new English words every day, and I’m a 38-year-old native speaker! There’s always more to sweep!
- Even those who are naturally more gifted at language learning still have to put in time and effort. In fact, naturals often give up because they never learn how to put in the requisite time and effort that fluency requires.
- Anyone can learn a language if they get enough practice and believe they can reach fluency. As polyglot Steve Kaufmann puts it, “In language learning, it is attitude, not aptitude, that determines success.”
So What’s the Solution? Light, Not Fight
“Whatever you fight, you strengthen, and what you resist, persists.” —Eckhart Tolle, A New Earth
Whether our tendency is to inflate or deflate, we all have an ego that will get in the way of learning and growth. But we can’t fight it head on. Trying to fight our ego is like trying to fight our shadow. The solution is not to fight but shine light. When we bring honest, loving presence to our lives and learning adventures, the ego falls away and our true selves—and true potential—arise.