Slow language learning now

I’ve been on a language studying kick for a few years now.

It started out as something pretty modest. The habit has grown a bit now, to a point where I’m juggling a handful of different languages that are of interest to me, but my progress is still pretty slow.

I was thinking the other day about how different my languages would be in an alternate timeline where I didn’t start developing this habit, one where “that’s too slow” was a good reason to wait for an opportunity when I could learn more quickly.

Many of the languages I’m studying now I wouldn’t know at all, in that alternate timeline. I’d have no German, no Russian, no Arabic, no Italian, and basically no Mandarin.

And the other languages I’m studying would be embarrassingly bad, as they were a few years ago. I would have a little Greek, a little Latin, a little Hebrew, and a whatever smattering of French I possess just by dint of being a Canadian. But I probably could read hardly a sentence in any of those languages.

If I compare my German as it is now to my German as it could have been if I’d spent an hour a day on it for the last three years, then my German will look pretty sad.

If I compare it, though, to what it actually would have been by now if I hadn’t started studying when I did (it would have been nothing), then my German as it exists now will feel like a miracle.

Habits are amazing. Start slow, start now, and watch the years transform you.

A gently cautious conservatism

I think the part of me that is “conservative” (which I would distinguish from rightwing) is a gentle hesitancy about breaking with the ways we currently do things.

My tendency is to ask how much can be improved or fixed without overhauling the entire system, and I have intellectual as well as intuitive reasons for adopting that stance.

What my conservatism is not is a pin stuck on a timeline that says, “this was the moment when everything was perfect, and the further we get from that the worse we’ll be.”

In recent lifetimes, we’ve seen remarkable changes in the way the Vatican speaks about numerous social, economic and ecclesial matters. That’s not to say unchangeable dogmas have changed, but how they’re contextualized and interpreted certainly has. This isn’t something new, and it won’t be stopping anytime soon.

I’m generally happy to change my way of relating to the “cultural norms” on something approximating the Vatican’s timeline. Even as many of the personalities and messages and decisions visible from within that institution do have problems (let’s be honest), I still think that its pace of change is a helpful guide, at least partly for reasons that are not rooted exclusively in any sort of claim to divine guidance.

Something like the Vatican has to be constantly weighing what from the past is essential and needs to be preserved in some form, what valid concerns might be motivating those who wish to bring about sweeping changes, and what our rhetoric ought to be emphasizing and downplaying for the sake of the good of our political communities today. That’s a good model.

For most cultural changes I have no desire to be on the speculative cutting edge, but also no desire to be the immovable curmudgeon. My stance is neither hurried progress nor stubborn immobility, but slow and thoughtful change, keeping the best of the past and embracing the best of the new and striving for words that heal and preserve.

Who wouldn’t get on board for that?

Waging war on self

I know a couple things about myself.

One is that if I don’t try to get better, I generally won’t.

Another is that if I do try to improve myself in some specific way, I’ll almost always fail.

With that knowledge, it is easy to coast. To live in society we need to have reached some minimum level of competence, and most of us are especially capable in a couple areas that set us apart from the people around us. Isn’t that good enough? We can pretty easily make it through life not needing much more than that.

The problem with trying to better ourselves is that it takes huge investments of time and effort, some of our most precious personal resources, and not only that, the investment isn’t guaranteed to pay off. What if you spend years trying to learn a language or a skill and eventually just have to admit that you aren’t up to it?

When we’re improving, training, learning, the temptation is to look at the people around us and see how they’re doing. They’re the enemy I have to be able to defeat. They’re the ones I’m struggling to beat. And that way of thinking has real value, done correctly.

But the reality is that they aren’t the real enemy. My true opponent, first and foremost, is myself, is the gravitational pull within me that makes me desire to stay the same, that makes me doubt the very possibility of change for the better.

Every step in the right direction is a step into the impossible, a triumph against the unknown and the uninviting.

That would be cool

I think that when I undertake some project of self-improvement, it’s because I have looked at a thing and I think to myself: “That would be cool.”

It has to be something sufficiently audacious that it inspires me to make a big effort. Not just “I’m going to learn a second language,” but, “I’m going to be able to read ten languages.” Not just “I’m going to lose ten pounds” but “I’m going to have low body fat and big muscles by the time I’m done with this.”

Neither of those example goals have come true for me yet. Perhaps they never will. But I’ve made huge progress because of my attempt to achieve them. That’s part of what makes audacious goals so attractive to me, I think: “Even if I fail, as I probably will, even just getting halfway there would be pretty amazing.”

It seems likely that the form of this goal setting determines, to some extent, the content. There’s definitely a social aspect to my thinking, even if it’s largely implicit and not actually shared (initially) with others. I’m thinking, “if someday a new friend randomly learned that I could understand ten languages, that would make me look so smart and disciplined!” So there is a social aspect to the experience, even if it is an imaginary or forecasting social experience when I first conceive of it.

What that means is, the things I choose are chosen at least in part based on what the people around me care about, or at least what I believe they care about. Now, that’s not the entirety of it, by any means; I’m not an empty vessel that just passively absorbs all the preferences of all the people around. But it does play a part.

So probably if I’d been born ten or fifteen years later, I would have followed a somewhat different path. Maybe. I’m not sure how much one generation differs from another in the important respects, but it does seem possible that considering how quickly social and ethical intuitions are shifting, the journey would have been different in some ways.

I’m still thinking about what the other elements are, what other factors affect how and why I’m attracted to one thing over another. But I do suspect that, however juvenile it may initially sound, this is part of what motivates me when I undertake a big project. It’s a feeling, a sense. “That would be cool.”

Theology to philosophy to theology

Early in my intellectual life, I felt drawn both to philosophy and to theology. I studied a bit of both, but I decided early on that I needed to ground myself in theology before I could proceed to consider philosophical matters.

In hindsight, I think that was a wise decision. Maybe not a good career move, but intellectually very worthwhile, even necessary.

I eventually reached a frustrating point in my theological studies, however, where I felt that I couldn’t progress further in theology competently (especially, but not exclusively, for studying modern theology) without first learning a whole lot more about philosophy. At that time I turned my attention to focusing more on philosophy.

That’s the phase I’m still currently in. I do have some hope, though I don’t know if or when it will be realized, that when I have studied philosophy to a sufficient level, I will want to return, at least to some degree, to studying Christian theology.

The reason why I think it was so worthwhile, in hindsight, for me to begin my studies with theology, relates to an insight from Leo Strauss. He notes that divine revelation represents a radical, perhaps the most radical, challenge to the philosophic life. Whether or not you think he is correct in general (I do think so), it is a certainty that his assertion would have been true for me personally.

Studying philosophy as a Christian can be very disorienting, and it can feel as though you are presented with the choice of either abandoning (or at least bracketing) your faith, or else giving up on the pursuit of philosophy. (I suppose the third option, which at the time felt unacceptable to me and still feels like almost the worst option, would be to approach philosophy with the heart of an apologist, judging all philosophical thought according to the standard of revelation, picking and choosing philosophical teachings insofar as they confirm what I’ve already decided must be true.) Even with a pretty extensive biblical and theological education I felt the strong pull of these temptations, but I had some tools that enabled me to find, within philosophy, a way to reach an equilibrium that gave me the freedom to pursue philosophical thought with honesty and radical openness to where it would lead.

What had slowly dawned on me in my theological studies was the fact that for the Christian faith, and equally for all faiths based on revelation, there is the ever-present problem of interpretation. Not all interpretations are equally good, but by the same token there is never one interpretation that is clearly and unquestionably the correct one. There always lurks the possibility that a given interpretation can be shifted in one direction or another to make room for other considerations as they arise.

I was constantly aware, in my first serious forays into philosophy, that I could find a way to be a Platonic Christian if I were convinced of Platonism, or an Aristotelian Christian, or even a Hobbesian or Rousseauean or Nietzschean or Freudian or Marxian or analytic or phenomenological (etc etc) Christian. St Thomas further helped me see how philosophic reasoning and theological interpretation can interface seamlessly if we see them correctly.

I think proceeding in this way has made me much better at thinking philosophically than I would have been otherwise, and has made me a more faithful and settled Christian than my philosophically inclined soul could have managed otherwise.

Learning several languages at once

In some ways, it’s much better to learn fewer languages rather than more. I would certainly recommend starting with fewer. But once you’ve built up to it, there can be reasons for working on many languages at once rather than just a few or just one.

That’s the path I’ve chosen. I’m currently working on nine different languages; two of them I practice daily, three every other day, and four of them about once a week. I only do a few minutes for each study session for an individual language, partly so I don’t tire my brain out (it’s deeply important to try to avoid overworking the brain if we want to be able to keep up a consistent and long-term life of intellectual activity), and partly because as a stay at home dad I only have a few minutes at a time to do these sorts of things.

There are lots of good reasons not to do a bunch of languages at the same time. The biggest is that it drastically slows down how quickly each language can be learned. That obviously happens in part because if you’re learning four languages at once, you have a quarter of the time to devote to each (on average) as you would if you were only learning one.

But I think it’s even more than that. I think that learning four languages rather than one wouldn’t make you go a quarter the speed in each language, but probably even considerably more slowly than that. To keep four going rather than one requires a more rigid discipline and schedule that will clamp down on some of the room for feeling inspired that you might be able to get in a simpler system. And in learning four new languages the brain is being called on to do something that’s not four times more complicated than learning one but in a way, ten times more complicated.

Still, clearly for me the arguments against, though I’ve weighed them very seriously, haven’t dissuaded me. Most importantly, I’ve decided at this point that I don’t need to be in a great hurry to learn any one of my languages, so going slowly is okay by me. I’m in this for the long haul. I will get benefit from this, if slowly, so long as I stay consistent, which I plan to do (barring any really big changes in my life).

Given that opportunity for patience, I opt for the smaller advantages of studying several at once, since those advantages better match my goals. The languages I practice once a week are getting better only very slowly, not fast enough to matter much—but at least they are not getting worse. For me, being able to maintain the languages I’ve studied is the biggest benefit of doing several languages at once.

I’m able to improve at a decent pace in the languages I care most about (German and classical Greek, at this point), and to make at least perceptible improvement in the languages I practice every other day (Latin, French, Italian). And as I make slow progress in these, I am able to make use of the languages in the sorts of ways I want to be able to use them at this point, puzzling out phrases that show up in quotations in the books I read, or making sense of the original text underlying a translation I’m reading when I have a question.

With time, I hope, I will become pretty adept in all nine (and many more besides, I dare to wish). In the meantime, they are all kept at the level I want to have them at, and with each passing month, I find I’ve grown a little bit more competent in each, without even having noticed it happening.

Why to study martial arts part 2

There’s someone I know who was influenced by the teacher who had the greatest influence on me, and who has read a lot of the same books that I have. Like me, he was not ever really interested in martial arts until the last few years. Without the two of us ever speaking about it, we became independently interested right around the same time. He says that the reason he wants to learn martial arts is because philosophical thought requires speaking about things that will be unsettling to the current regime, and so he doesn’t trust the authorities to protect him if he’s ever in danger. To me, that reads like the sort of self justification I discussed previously that attempts to recreate a line of thinking and lazily settles on something inadequate. He doesn’t care whether the explanation is a good one, because he can do martial arts training if he wants to and no one will stop him no matter how poor his articulation might be. And that’s fine. But I feel like there’s a missed opportunity there, because the actual line of reasoning that leads there can help us understand ourselves, and might end up being much better motivation.

There’s a part of me that wonders whether, if I can find an answer that satisfies me, I’ll have learned about my motivation not just for studying martial arts at some point in the future but also for studying languages, and improving my strength and fitness, and studying philosophy and economics. There are easy, good reasons for all of those things, but I think there’s also a deeper posture behind it all, something that has been really compelling to me, and it is frustrating how difficult it is to try to articulate it. I plan to do at least one more post on this topic after the present one. Perhaps all it will say is, “well that was a failed experiment, I’m no closer to expressing it all now than I was before,” but I really do want to try to pursue this line of thinking as far as I can now that I’ve started, to see if I can manage to turn up anything valuable.

In this post I will try to avoid the most easily dismissed reasons to study martial arts (“Martial arts can be good exercise, sure, but why not just go for a run?” “Martial arts let you participate in a venerable tradition, sure, but why not just go to church or get involved in politics or learn calligraphy?”).

Martial arts is self defence. We are lucky to have a state apparatus that keeps most of us safe, or at least safer than most people at most times through human history. Still, the state is not yet omniscient. There is a a gap between the things that deserve to be punished or prevented, and those that actually are successfully punished or prevented. Martial arts isn’t the only or even the best means of self defence, and it certainly isn’t infallible, but it’s really pretty good. The person who fails to train in martial arts isn’t to blame for suffering a hardship that might have been avoided, but the person who does train might have the good luck of successfully managing to avoid it.

There are also two interrelated benefits of martial arts: character and reputation. In terms of character, I’m not thinking so much of discipline or self-discipline, which is probably where our minds go first. I’m not saying you can’t learn self-discipline from martial arts (though my limited experience with them makes me doubtful that they are uniquely effective at imparting it), nor that I couldn’t stand to learn more self-discipline (though I’m overall pretty pleased with how far I’ve come so far!), but more just that when I examine my attraction to martial arts, that’s not the focus for me. Rather, I think it’s more about self-confidence, and self-confidence particularly in a small subset of situations. I like the idea of being sure of myself, or at least more sure of myself, when in the vicinity of a potentially dangerous person in a location where assistance might not be close at hand. I think that’s what it comes down to.

Reputation. Here again, I feel the need to nuance a bit. When we think of a reason a person might want to study martial arts for the sake of their reputation, our mind might go to, “He wants to be cool, he wants everyone to know or believe that he could beat them up.” This sounds not only superficial, but also a bit small-minded, to me. But I think there is something relatively close to that, which is more in line with what I find myself thinking. I wonder if a good way of speaking about it as the desire to be justly seen as capable. You want the sort of people who aren’t reasonable, who won’t be respectful and thoughtful, to know that in their arena you are capable, and you want those who rely on you to know as well that you are capable relative to such unreasonable people.

There’s community, too, but not just in the sense of spending time with other people. For me, part of the attraction is to spending time with those sorts of people who are drawn to martial arts. I feel like that is a type of person I probably don’t interact with all that much, which seems like a meaningful lack in my social world. I’m interested to remedy that lack, for some reason.

Further thoughts in another post before long!

Why believe a thing when you can’t say why you believe it?

I’ve been reflecting in recent posts about how I often feel as though I’ve forgotten why I believe a thing, even things that I believe very strongly, and that the best justifications I can think of for my beliefs seem to fall short of the reasons that I feel I once had but have forgotten.

It occurred to me that someone could very reasonably ask me why I still bother believing something that I don’t currently have a good reason for. Surely it would be a superior option to jettison such beliefs and just be agnostic about the questions they address until I find a better reason, or replace my beliefs with some ready-made system that I can work with and feel confident everything is rationally derived from some acceptable set of first principles.

It’s a fair question, and I thought it might be worth setting out some of the answers that initially occur to me when the question first comes into view.

For one thing, perhaps least convincingly but most importantly, these things I believe are what motivate me to be the person I am, to act in the ways I try to act, to strive to become the person I’m trying to become. And I’m very happy with who I am currently, and with the ways I spend my time, and with the person I’m working to become. I don’t take that for granted. I don’t think it’s always been true. Where I’ve come to be has come about through long and arduous efforts, and it does feel somewhat fragile. I don’t want to risk all that too hastily. So I continue to weigh and evaluate those beliefs, and to shift them as I find need or reason to, but I do feel it would be irresponsible to tear it all down without having made a real effort to test and examine them first.

Furthermore, I have many good reasons for the things I believe, even if I feel that the deepest reasons and the strongest coherence is eluding my ability to articulate. As I said about martial arts, there are no shortage of more superficial reasons to appeal to, and they are all true and good as far as they go. None of my beliefs are entirely reasonless, and all seem eminently justifiable and preferable to the alternatives for reasons I can state. What I’m looking for is not reasons, but the best reasons, the truest, the ones that really move me most profoundly.

I also don’t know that there is a better alternative available. Of the available alternatives it might seem hard to choose, without some starting place from which to judge, which is exactly what I would be giving up by jettisoning what I currently possess.

And if I did accept an alternative that someone else had thought through more carefully, I suspect I would not be as good, at least not for a long while, at scouring its depths and recognizing the strength of its arguments and of its structure.

And lastly, there is always already a good dose of agnosticism present in the conclusions I hold. Even where I feel that there are good reasons, remembered or forgotten, I never take for granted that I must be right. That is precisely why I search to recover the reasonings that have guided me, and to think through other views that are not my own to see what value might be found in them.

Why to study martial arts

I don’t study martial arts, and haven’t since I was a kid. The last time I did practice a martial art, I hated it.

I am interested to resume studying them at some point in the future. I’ve come back to it a bit later in life. I’m entering the latter half of my thirties, and have not been able to work on my physical fitness to the level I’d like in recent years thanks to a set of circumstances that I’m overall very grateful for. (Being a parent is one of my greatest joys, but having needy little toddlers in the house all day and no family living close by, means not getting a lot of time to oneself. Prioritizing language learning and the study of good books in that situation, even in small ways, means having basically no other leftover free time when the day with the family is over.) So I’m not expecting to become a great fighter, not by any stretch, only hoping to learn some skills that could someday be useful to know.

The conclusion that this is a worthwhile way to spend time has grown up within me, following along with another set of growing beliefs, over the course of several years. As I said in a recent post, whenever that happens, I find myself with a feeling that the conclusion is well-founded, but I can’t quite summon immediately the line of reasoning that led me to it. I have a feeling that such a line of reasoning exists, just beyond my grasp, forgotten, and all I need to do is remember it. Much of this blog so far has been me trying to remember, reconstruct, rediscover such forgotten lines of reasoning. The big problem with such an approach is that I am liable to seize on a weak argument, mistake it for the original one that led me to my conclusion because the weak one is obvious and easy to piece together, and then mistakenly assume that it is stronger than it really is. Or at least, pretend to think it’s stronger than it really is, and hope no one points out the flaws, and kick myself for still not quite being able to remember the good argument that I’m sure I knew once.

But what’s the alternative? Here’s the first alternative approach that occurs to me: list three possible positions (e.g., martial arts are worth studying, they are not worth studying, or it doesn’t matter whether you decide to study them or not), and make a list of arguments for and against them. I think that’s a good starting point for thinking through a question, but in a way it’s not much better than the first sort of approach, because it stays at the level of the superficial, even more than the first approach. “Martial arts is good exercise, and it can help you meet people, and you might be able to defend yourself if someone attacks you randomly!” All of those are wonderful things, and I’m sure you can find a million websites with lists like that. But my feeling is that there’s a much deeper, more coherent, more human reason residing behind my conviction than a cheery list like that can possibly convey.

So, let this post be that first imperfect step, as an experiment. Maybe it will help draw me more deeply into discovering what that deeper reasoning could be, since the first approach didn’t seem to do all that well, no matter how often I tried it. There’s something appealingly Thomistic about this manner of proceeding. Just a note: I will be choosing only arguments that are convincing to me, so even though an argument from pacifism would be relevant to the question I’m not a pacifist so I will pass over that in silence.

It is better not to study martial arts because, insofar as the martial art will be useful, it will also be dangerous. If you aren’t sparring then you won’t be all that much better prepared to fight, but if you are sparring then there’s a pretty good likelihood you will take some injuries that will cause chronic problems later on. Besides, most violent encounters won’t be made better by martial arts training; if the attacker is part of a group, or has a weapon, or catches you by surprise, then you’ll probably lose the fight anyway even with all the training in the world. So it’s a waste of time and worse than a waste of time.

It doesn’t matter whether you study martial arts because, while there are undeniably benefits that can be gained from studying martial arts, the great majority of those benefits can be gained in other ways without studying martial arts, with a bit of forethought. These alternatives are faster and cheaper to acquire, and can be more effective, and do not come with the serious risks of martial arts training. But if that’s how you want to get the benefits, it is one legitimate way to go and it probably does have some small advantages not present in the other options.

It is best to study martial arts, if you’re able, because, well, I actually don’t want to limit even the superficial of that discussion to one or two paragraphs, it turns out. So I will continue this in a part 2 post!