This is a post about going too far. It's about stepping over the line. It's about pushing your boundaries. This is a post about stepping beyond what you know. It's about crossing past your comfort zone. And most of all, it's about choosing to do that willingly.
I just had lunch with a friend, and we talked about a lot of interesting things — traveling to new places without a plan, starting conversations about crazy things with complete strangers, working on new and exciting projects that haven't been done before, etc — and I realized that the people I consider to be my friends all have something in common: they like to go to the edge.
What's at the edge?
Everything in life can be thought of as a circle. At the center of that circle, everything is the same. If that circle is your wardrobe, the center is the clothes you wear most often. If that circle is your friends, then at the center are the friends you talk to most often. And if that circle is a language, the center is all the words you know the best and use the most. (There's a reason they call it the "core".)
But you don't get new ideas when you spend all your time talking to the same people. You don't have new experiences when you spend all your time in the same places. And you don't learn anything new in your language when you spend all your time doing the same things you already know.
The edge is where everything happens. The edge is where the circle of everything you know butts up against the universe of everything you don't know. The edge is where you learn.
It's only learning when you don't already know it
If you want to learn, you need to test your boundaries. You need to take risks. You need to do things that make you (and perhaps the people around you) uncomfortable. If you want to learn, you have to stop being safe.
I can understand the desire to be safe. It's true, safe never offends anyone. Yes, safe never gets into an argument. Of course, safe never gets hurt. And safe never has to say I'm sorry.
But safe also has nothing to show for itself. Safe never has anything interesting to say. Safe has never had an adventure. Safe doesn't have an opinion. Safe is boring. And safe never learns.
It's only learning if you don't already know it. You don't learn to ride a bike by already knowing how... you have to take that risk, and scrape your knee, and get back up and do it again.
Stop worrying and just do it
When I first learned to develop film, I bought a book about processing film. I worried when I saw the elaborate darkroom in the book, and I didn't have any such thing in my home. I worried about chemical mixtures and light leaking under the door, and not getting the times right.
There were a lot of details to manage, and there was a lot to think about, and it was very stressful. By the time I developed my first roll of film, I was a nervous wreck. But after having tried it once, I realized it was utterly simple. And after my fifth try, I realized that all those details were trivial — all you have to do is dump some chemicals into a can and watch a clock. The mixtures don't have to be perfect and neither does the time. And that light creeping through under the door doesn't matter either.
And in much the same way, it's totally possible to overthink a language. There are conjugations, and tenses, genders and maybe even declensions. You have to think about pronunciation, and word order, and intonation... oy! It's overwhelming if you think about it. But if you just do it, and stop thinking about it, well... it turns out that it's actually not so hard.
Go to the edge
Stop worrying so much and just go to the edge. Get outside of that safe center of your language circle, and start putting your feet on the boundary. Try something you don't already know.
Go sign up for a new email account on a web site in a foreign language. Choose a foreign option the next time you use an ATM machine. The next time you call your credit card company, take a chance and marque el number dos para español.
Go to that one neighborhood in your city where all the stores are Mexican, or Polish, or Chinese or German, or Italian, or whatever it is that you're learning. Go buy groceries in your target language. Stop waiting until you're ready, because you'll never be ready until you do it.
There's nothing to lose
What's stopping you? You have nothing to lose. If you push the wrong button on the ATM, it's not going to give your money to someone else; the worst thing that could happen is you have to cancel and start over in English.
If you press "2" on the phone system and suddenly you don't understand the Spanish instructions, they're not going to cancel your credit card. You just hang up and start over in English. No big deal.
And if you go to the store in a foreign part of town, and find yourself unable to understand, they'll probably just switch to English and you'll be fine... but even if that's not an option, everyone can point and read and figure things out. And if not, you can just leave. There's still nothing bad that will happen.
So quit worrying. Quit delaying. Stop being "safe", and start pushing your boundaries. How else are you ever going to learn?
Want to see my favorite language resources and courses?
I listed them here.