A few years ago a friend described language learning as being on the slope of a mountain with no summit. As much language and culture as you learn, there is always more to learn. You never arrive at complete knowledge of the language and culture.
He made this observation with a tone of voice somewhere between frustration and discouragement, but I think the comparison is a good one. You never do arrive. There is always more to learn. How do we maintain our motivation in the face of such an impossible task?
First, let’s take a step back and observe that endless learning is also a part of our native languages and cultures. I have been learning English for decades and have tens of thousands of hours of experience listening and reading. I still have to look new words up in a dictionary. I still have to agonize over proper word choice and sentence construction when I write. There are plenty of “English” books from which I can do no more than recognize a few words (e.g., technical manuals, medical books, legal texts, etc). Moreover, there are cultural situations in which I don’t know what to say. Or I say something and then agonize later over how it was interpreted, or over what I should have said. And that’s just in English.
So let’s at least acknowledge that some of what we’re going through with Dari (or Hazaragi or Uzbek or Pashtu or…) is the same as what we go through in our native languages and cultures. We’re all still growing as people, and it just so happens that language and culture are with us every step of the way.
Next, it’s important to realize that staying motivated requires that we have some positive feedback. Dwell on the small successes you have in life. This morning I was in an office doing paperwork and understood almost everything that went on. Success! I glanced at an open magazine in the office and was able to get through the first paragraph while a waited. Success! Even without having “arrived,” we can still celebrate the progress that we’ve made.
Finally, I would suggest that rather than having unrealistic expectations about our language learning goals and activities, we should think about language learning with the language of responsibility. I would love to be a person who could read the Shahnameh the Rubayyat, discourse on religious and philosophical subjects, and make causal small talk with the furthest flung villagers on Afghanistan. I could torture myself with those expectations. But instead, I need to think about the language I need to responsibly fulfill my role in this country.
Would I judge myself to have responsibly fulfilled my role if I could not make small talk with people? If I could not go shopping on my own? If I couldn’t talk about my work? No, probably not. I think that a responsible person, given my goals opportunities, would be able to do those things.
Would I still judge myself to have responsibly fulfilled my role even if I could not read the Shahnameh or the Rubbayat? Or if I could not read the Afghan constitution? Yes, probably so. A responsible person with my goals and abilities really does not need that ability.
Those are the obvious cases; many will not be so clear-cut. About eight months ago I began pondering the significance of the fact that, after five years, I still can’t understand the news. On the one hand, that seems really basic, but on the other hand I know that the news uses really high Dari. And what does it mean about how well I participate in society? There’s not an obvious answer, certainly.
So as you think about this impossible task, I encourage you to think not about everything that you could learn, but about the things that a responsible in your position would learn. I will close this with a quote from Dag Hammarskjöld (which, coming from 1954, features a generic use of the masculine):
“A mature man is his own judge. In the end, his only firm support is being faithful to his own convictions. The advice of others may be welcome and valuable, but it does not free him from responsibility.”