The open road somewhere near Granada, Spain.

It can be easy to forget that everyone who speaks a second language starts out without being able to say a single word. At some point, even the most fluent speakers were complete beginners, struggling to make sense of strange unfamiliar sounds and unknown combinations of letters, taking their first awkward steps on an untravelled path.

So it’s reassuring to know that, for everyone who learns a second language, if we stick at it and give ourselves enough time, things actually do start to make more sense. The unknown combinations of letters become words, and the sounds that once were strange become more familiar. We have one A-ha moment and then another, and we struggle less and less, taking more and more confident steps.

Maybe it’s inevitable that somewhere along the way, in the transition from the unfamiliar the familiar, from not knowing to knowing, we stop seeing ourselves as beginners. 

At first glance, being a beginner seems to be a momentary thing, something we outgrow, an identity we get to shed.

But if we look closely at our experience as language learners, we can see that even if we’ve been studying for years, we are continually faced with the new, with things we’ve never seen before.

And so we discover a paradox of learning – that it’s impossible to learn without the unknown and without the things we don’t understand.  

If this is true, then in order to learn, we need to befriend not knowing.

And this is where the experience of being a beginner comes in handy.

As it turns out, the attitude of being a beginner is useful even if we've been learning for years.

Beginner vs. Expert

Usually, when we think about being a beginner, we imagine beginner at one end of an imaginary measuring stick and expert at the other. We imagine that we start out as beginners and finish up experts, that the goal of learning is to become an expert and to leave being a beginner behind.

We also often imagine that the struggle involved in being a beginner – the confusion, the uncertainty – will be overcome when we stop being beginners. When we reach the other end of the measuring stick and become experts, we hope we’ll find certainty and no more confusion, no more struggle.

This linear way of seeing being a beginner misses a key point: when it comes to a second language (or anything for that matter), the learning never ends – there is no finishing line.

If the learning never ends, then at what point do we stop being a beginner? And how useful is it really to hold onto the ideal of becoming an expert if this endpoint is always out of reach?

What is it to be a beginner?

Let’s chuck out the measuring stick, liberate ourselves from the ideal of being an expert, and embrace the fact that, in some sense, we're always beginners. 

And let's reconsider what it is to be a beginner – not in terms of a study timeline or a linear sense of progress, but in terms of some the qualities that beginning entails:

To be a beginner is to be open and curious. 

As beginners, everything is new, so to be a beginner is to notice and be attentive to whatever arises.

Because we’re not experts, we don't have any preconceived notions or ideas about how things should be. To be a beginner is to appreciate how things actually are, and to hold any conclusions we come to lightly

And how excellent is this: as beginners, we don’t have to always get things right.

Rather than something we should outgrow and leave behind, the attitude of being a beginner – an attitude of openness, curiosity, attentiveness, flexibility and many other qualities – is worthwhile holding onto as we progress.

But what about the confusion and uncertainty?

Anyone who learns a language will know that alongside the openness, curiosity and other qualities that learning encourages, there is also usually a fair amount of confusion and uncertainty – feelings that we'd rather not have.

One reason that we feel things like uncertainty and confusion is that when we learn something new, our brains change: new neural pathways are formed, parts of the brain reorganise themselves, different connections are made.

This is an amazing time for our brains, but to us it can sometimes feel a bit uncomfortable. We can feel confused, baffled and overwhelmed – all because our brains are working so hard.

Normally, we think that feeling these things is a sign that we’re not doing so well. We hold onto the ideal of the struggle-free expert and judge any difficult feelings as bad. 

But in fact, the feeling of confusion or of uncertainty is simply the way we experience the brain changing gears. It's a sign that we’re in the process of learning, and that we're forging new pathways in our brain. 

Rather than seeing confusion and uncertainty as ‘bad’ or as feelings we'd rather not have, how different would we feel if we saw them as messengers, as a sign that we’re onto something, and welcomed them instead? 

Our feelings of confusion and uncertainty might be trying to tell us: ‘hang in there, you're almost there – understanding is on its way!’ 

Forging new pathways – off the beaten track, up in the hills.

We're always beginners

Whether you’re just starting out with Spanish or you’ve been studying for years, next time you’re you’re faced with something you don’t understand, try bringing a beginner’s attitude to what you’re experiencing.

Don't worry about being an expert, it’s much more rewarding to start where you are, wherever that is. 

And remember: you don’t need to have all the answers – seeing yourself as a beginner means you allow yourself not to know and not to get things right.

Whatever difficulty you encounter, the attitude of a beginner will help. Bringing qualities like openness, curiosity and a fresh mind to your studies will get you unstuck when you’re stuck. 

And when you do feel stuck and feel uncertain and confused remember why – your brain is working overtime. Take these feelings as a message that you’re in the process of learning something, that you’re headed in the right direction, and stick with it.

There are many benefits to being a beginner – excellent news because always being a beginner is the best way to learn.

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By Craig Burgess, photos by Craig Burgess
December 16, 2016



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