It’s Like Learning a Language

Wednesday 22 June, 2011

I often compare personal development to learning a language. This post sheds some light on that comparison, drawing parallels between the two most fulfilling processes and achievements of my life. During my own training and now, in the work I do with clients, the emphasis is on self-awareness. It can be an intense experience. Because we are so focused on observing ourselves, our natural behaviour can become inhibited. For many, this appears overwhelming and restricting.

When taken to the extreme, that is indeed the case, but there is no need to go that far. Our goal is to improve ourselves, not to stifle our natural personality by putting everything – every word, every gesture, every facial expression – under the microscope. Although sometimes that can be a useful exercise to demonstrate how much information we can actually glean from a given situation. No, the idea is much more to allow the personality to shine through whilst keeping one eye on what is happening and the consequences thereof.

When our goal is to learn a foreign language the best thing we can do is practise. That is what all language teachers tell us. Practise listening, reading, writing and speaking. The first three we can practise in isolation. Speaking, however, is best done in the social arena, and how we go about that falls between two extremes.

At one end of the spectrum we talk freely, without any inhibitions and without worrying about making mistakes, but also without any reflection on the quality of our language. At the other end, we watch everything we say in an attempt to be precise and get things right first time, which is the category I tend towards, thanks to my ‘Be Perfect’ driver (TA).

The latter of those extremes means that, with everything we say, we are focusing fully on the words we use, the sentence construction, making sure we conjugate the verbs correctly, that we use the right prepositions and conjunctions, remembering to ensure the adjectival endings agree with the nouns, that cases are correct and that the whole thing makes sense. When we do this we have a greater chance of using the correct language but there is no flow and often no fun and, probably, very little conversation. We become inhibited, when what we need to do is relax and just talk.

So, ideally we have to be able to speak freely whilst also keeping one eye on our vocabulary and grammar, seeking to improve as we go along. Better still, if we ask those around us to correct us, we will begin to make excellent progress. The people whose help and support we enlist do not need to correct everything we say, but if we are making the same mistakes over and over again then surely we want to be told?

I remember at the beginning of my time in Germany, I had to insist that people correct me. Most people would say, ‘Oh, it’s okay, your German is good enough and I can understand what you’re trying to say.‘ That may be fine in some situations but my goal was to learn the language as well as I possibly could and for that I needed the help of those around me.

It’s the same when I am coaching people, especially teams. One of the goals is always to reach the point where all the members of the team look out for each other. This takes a certain level of trust – trust in each other and trust in the process – but once a certain level of support has been attained, people can move on to challenging each other, and the results can be astounding.

I live in the Netherlands now and my favourite question of the Dutch is, ‘How many languages do you speak?‘ Most people speak two or three. There are a fair number who speak four or five. Some speak six and then there are the seven-and-abovers. If it’s like learning a language then maybe, just maybe, personal development is easier than I thought.

Related post: The Lifecycle of Development

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