How meditation helped me to learn a new language

I’m awful at learning how to speak foreign languages. Horribly awful.

When I lived in Argentina my Spanish was elementary at best after studying for 4 years in high school and college.

When I lived in Korea I only learned how to say hello, thank you, and count from 1-10 despite living there for a full year.

When I lived in India I only learned how to ask people what their name is, and then say my name back to them after living there for THREE years.

For some reason (mostly lack of discipline), I never took the time to learn how to speak a foreign language. It was something I just assumed wasn’t for me. I dismissed languages and said “I’m not good at it.”

However, I wanted to change this. It was something I always felt guilty about. Despite being a self proclaimed “world traveler” I never made an attempt to learn the local language.

By definition, this made me a shitty traveler. I didn’t want to be this person any longer.

So when I moved to Rio De Janeiro this past year, I made it my mission to learn how to speak Portuguese.

Luckily, my trusty friend of meditation was here to help me along the way 😉

This was the first time learning a new language since studying meditation, and I believe it dramatically accelerated my learning process.

Yes, while this was the first time I made an honest attempt at learning to speak another language, there were certain techniques I learned in meditation that directly impacted how I treated the process.

After 6 months in Rio I’m proud to say that I can speak Portuguese at an intermediate level. I feel confident in a conversation with a native speaker. And I have meditation to thank for that.

Here are two examples of how techniques I learned from meditation improved my ability to learn a foreign language…

# 1- Pay Attention to Breath

Early on in my meditation practice I noticed that I was a horrible listener. Rather than listening, I was constructing a reply in my head based on what the person was saying.

Then one day I noticed that if I paid attention to my breath while listening to someone, the dialogue in my head that creates a reply went away (or at least calmed down).

This technique worked like a charm. Ever since discovering it, I pay attention to my breath while listening to someone talk to me. Now I frequently get compliments on being a good listener.

Seeing how this small hack improved my listening skills, I was curious to see if it could apply to language learning as well.

One day I went on a tour that was entirely in Portuguese. At first, I didn’t understand anything that the person was saying. I would catch the first sentence, and then by the time he was onto sentence 3/4 I was completely lost. I grew frustrated very quickly.

Then I remembered my listening hack and made an important discovery.

I was trying to translate while listening, which was preventing me from grasping the entirety of the conversation.

If you’re trying to translate while listening, you stop listening. You’re trying to translate sentence one, but by the time you’re finished the speaker is already on sentence 3 or 4.

You fall into a trap of playing catch-up to what the speaker is saying…which eventually leads to you getting lost.

So what did I do instead? I remembered my meditation and started paying attention to my breath. Rather than trying to translate, I would simply pay attention to my breath while listening.

Strangely, once I started doing this I suddenly started understanding more of what was being said. Now that I had turned the voice in my head off, I was able to listen and understand more effectively.

This has revolutionized my approach to listening in a foreign language. Instead of trying to translate, I just allow the conversation to happen.

Now I catch the context of the sentence, instead of searching for individual words.

Then came the 2nd benefit,,,

#2 – Celebrate the small wins.

When I first started meditating I would get frustrated if I couldn’t focus and my mind wandered. I would get discouraged because I felt like the practice wasn’t working and I wasn’t improving.

Then one day I switched the dynamic. Rather than getting mad at myself when my mind wandered off (which will ALWAYS inevitably happen), I rewarded myself with a smile when I caught myself lost in thought, and then went back to my breath.

Instead of beating myself up for what I didn’t do, I was congratulating myself for what I DID accomplish.

Remembering this lesson while on the tour that fateful day, I put it into practice for a new context.

Instead of getting frustrated about what I didn’t understand, I focused on what I could.

If I was able to catch ONE WORD out of an entire sentence, WIN. If I understood an entire sentence, even better. If I didn’t understand anything at all, no problem at all 😃

Rather than getting discouraged at the inevitability of not knowing what the person said, I encouraged myself when I seldom understood what was going on.

Rather than getting discouraged at the 90% I didn’t understand, I celebrated the 10% that I did.

I rewarded myself for my improvements and growth, rather than frustrating myself for how little I understood.

After I implemented this approach it took the pressure off of language learning. I stopped being so hard on myself. I celebrated the small wins.

As a result, I learned faster. I’m frequently told that I speak very well considering I was only there for 6 months, and I attribute a lot of my success to these two methods.

The best part? You can implement this in your own life regardless of if you’re trying to learn a language or not.

Having a difficult conversation with someone? Let go of the need to reply and instead pay attention to your breath so that they can fully express themselves.

Struggling to understand a non-native english speaker while having a conversation with phone support? Focus on what you do understand, rather than what you don’t.

Having difficulty learning something new? Reward yourself for small improvements instead of beating yourself up when you miss a day of practice.

Learn to reward yourself for small wins, and let go of the small losses. You will create a different relationship with yourself. One that is congratulatory instead of self defeating.

For someone like me who is very hard on themselves with everything that they do, implementing this helped me to curb the optimization oriented mind and instead reward myself for the small wins I previously shrugged off or overlooked.

Meditation and its applications into daily life continue to amaze me, and I couldn’t be more grateful for the ways that it continues to have a positive impact. I hope that it has the same effect for you 😃


Also published on Medium.

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