NYR 1904: “Learn A New Language.” Part 2 – The Most Important Word In Language Learning.

“Good morning,” I said to Elizabeth and Mrs. McKaig, shivering as I took my seat at the table. It was my senior year of high school, and as students rushed to first period I could hear the sounds of leaves crunching beneath their feet through the paper-thin walls of the classroom.

The word “classroom” is a bit misleading. Technically it was one of many relocatable classrooms. We called them “ReLos” for short; most people would call them “trailers.” Whatever you called them, they didn’t do much to keep the cold out.

“Good morning,” Mrs. McKaig replied cheerfully.

I heard the heater click on beneath my feet, and smiled. Mrs. McKaig had been my Latin teacher for the better part of four years. A lot had changed since we first started studying the misadventures of Lucius Caecilius Iucundus in this book my freshman year:

cambridge latin

Back then, we probably had thirty students in Latin I. A few less in Latin II, far fewer in Latin III. Now here we were in Latin IV, and the only ones left were me, Elizabeth, and Mrs. McKaig.

In a class of two students, it seemed silly for Elizabeth and I to sit at our desks while Mrs. McKaig lectured at the front of the classroom. So we sat at a small table together, huddled around the heating vent as Elizabeth began to translate last night’s homework, an excerpt from Virgil’s Aeneid. I knew it would be a while before it was my turn, and my mind began to wander.

I was thinking about the TV show Family Guy; I’d stayed up watching reruns of it the night before on Adult Swim. As I felt the air begin to rise from the heating vent, I remembered the warm feeling of my body sinking into bed under the weight of my comforter, shifting positions so I could comfortably watch the TV while lying down, my eyes getting heavier as the flicker of the television and the murmur of the dialogue lulled me to…


I felt a firm but civil hand shaking my shoulder. I immediately looked up from my desk and saw Mrs. McKaig. Her expression was one of disappointment, but not surprise. I looked down and saw drool on my sleeve.

“Sorry,” I mumbled.

A few seconds of silence.

And Elizabeth continued.

Now, this certainly wasn’t my first (or last) time falling asleep in a classroom. But guys… this was pretty bad. I mean, I literally fell asleep while a fellow human being was reading to me from across the table.

This is not the way to learn a language.

And it wasn’t Mrs. McKaig’s fault. She was a sweet lady, and actually one of my favorite teachers. It was my fault because I was there for the wrong reasons. I took Latin because it was supposed to help me with my SAT scores, and sticking with it until Latin IV was more a function of inertia than passion.

Years later, I now find myself studying languages as a hobby, and have found it to be incredibly fulfilling. Looking back, I’ve come to believe that the most important ingredient for success in this area can be summed up in a single word. It’s a word that I don’t use very often, and which acts as a sort of compass as I’m navigating the peaks and valleys of studying something difficult.


Studying a foreign language should be a delightful experience. The successes and the roadblocks should fill you with delight as you encounter them. And if you find yourself getting frustrated, or feel like it’s become a chore, you should pause and reevaluate your perspective.

For example, when I started studying Italian one of the first things I learned how to say was “I love you.” I mean, my wife and I were planning a trip to Italy, so being able to say “I love you” had to be a top priority. A quick Google search got me the answer: “ti amo.”

But as I started using Rosetta Stone, I noticed something strange. The program kept showing pictures of people who clearly loved each other–husband and wife, boyfriend and girlfriend, mother and daughter–but they weren’t saying “ti amo.” They were saying “ti voglio bene.”

I typed it into Google Translate, which returned “I love you” as a translation.

So wait… why do Italians have more than one way of saying the same thing?

As I continued with the course, I noticed that sometimes the husband and wife actually would say “ti amo.” But if it was a brother and sister, or a mother and child, they would only say “ti voglio bene,” never “ti amo.”

Now, there are two ways to respond to this:

  1. Italians have more than one way to say, “I love you?” Great, more stuff to memorize. How do I know which one to use? How do I know there aren’t three, four ways to say I love you? Where does it end?
  2. Italians have more than one way to say “I love you?” Well isn’t that delightful!

If you pick the first option, you’re not going to get very far studying languages (or really any subject that’s broad and challenging).

But if you pick the second option, nothing can stop you. Having a sense of playful curiosity, you’ll be compelled to investigate more. You’ll look at language forums online and find out that “ti amo” is reserved for romantic interests, while “ti voglio bene” is used to express a special kind of love that isn’t necessarily romantic, but is still appropriate to say to a romantic partner.

Then you might reevaluate your own language. I mean, has there ever been a time that you wanted to express love to someone you cared about, but saying “I love you” would have been weird because of the romantic baggage that comes with it?

Maybe instead of asking, “why do Italians have multiple ways of saying ‘I love you,'” you might ask, “Why do Americans have only one?” And maybe that question will start you down a path toward having a more balanced perspective on the world as you start to gain insights into another culture. How positively delightful!

Over the next few weeks we’re going to get into the nuts and bolts of studying language, but just remember that first and foremost this is supposed to be enjoyable. And if you find yourself going down a rabbit-hole, keep going. That’s where the real learning comes from (and the fun).

Next week, we’ll be diving into the practice of spaced repetition, a concept that will help jump-start your learning and save you a lot of time. See you then!

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