Thoughts on balance in language learning

“Can I just learn to speak Japanese, but not to read it? Kanji’s so intimidating…”

“I can’t be bothered to write Spanish with accents, I always get them wrong”.

“I don’t like reading in Italian. It’s so complicated!”

These are just a few of the complaints I hear most often by people who actually want to learn these languages. It always gets me a bit down to hear these; they don’t only point to the fact that people have no patience nor endurance for errors, but also that they don’t know what a language really is. Do you?

At least to me, a language is a wonderful thing, the closest thing to the embodiment of a world. Through a language we’re able to express culture, science, love, ideas; in a nutshell, it is what makes us human.

Thing is, language isn’t a caramel macchiato. You don’t get it at the counter and demand they take off the whipped cream off because you’re on a diet. While it is a powerful tool you can make work for you (if you know how to), it isn’t a product that you receive customized and ready to go. Language is more like a table (a traditional one, not one of those fancy coffee ship central-post tables). If you lop a bit off one of its legs, it will still stand, but will eternally be wobbly and unstable. It won’t stop being functional, but it will certainly be a little less beautiful than if it was complete.

The same goes for a language: if you don’t have a certain balance of the four abilities required for communication (speaking/listening, writing/reading), a point will come at which one of your shortcomings will start affecting your strenghts.

I am not the kind of person who demands perfection in language use, because like I’ve said before, perfection in itself is an illusion and the road to perfect language usage is a slippery slope that more often leads to frustration and demotivation than to actually competent use. This is why I want to establish that balance doesn’t equal perfection; it equals feeling satisfaction in that you’re using a language integrally and wholly, to the best of your capacities.