Language-Learning Is a Type of Meditation

Written by Dyami Millarson

This is me studying Elfdalian grammar at home in 2019.

Learning languages calms the mind. One has to empty one’s mind and immerse oneself completely in the work of learning any language. Language-learning is my favourite way of distracting myself. It helped me through the most difficult times of my life and it has helped me to find inner peace. Meditation is characterised by (a) emptying, (b) calming and (c) training the mind. Language-learning helps me achieve all three of these. My tireless attempts at successful language-learning have, over the course of many years, helped me overcome many learning problems, including attention problems and dyslexia. Language-learning has significantly improved my reading, spelling, logical reasoning, hearing, speaking, etc. Indeed, it has trained my eye for detail, I notice far more things than I used to, my mind is sharper than it ever was. The calmness of my mind is helping me do things that I was not able to do in the past, it allows me to dedicate all my energy to problem-solving.

Language-learning as a type of meditation allows one to achieve an altered state of consciousness, and this new consciousness may perhaps be permanent. I can see how much my mind has been changed by language-learning. This may be attributed to a couple of factors. I am very dedicated to achieving the highest perfection with whatever I pursue, and this means that I will also pursue efficiency relentlessly. Additionally, I have the quality of never giving up. No matter how many times I failed trying to achieve my goals, I kept trying over and over again. Trial and error is the approach that has helped me evolve to the point where I am now. If one desires to use language-learning as a method of meditation, one requires the aforementioned approach; one learns best if one can accept failing over and over and over again. Failing never bothered me, because it only made me more determined to keep trying new ways to achieve the results I wanted.

Problem-solving skills speed up the language-learning process. If one can solve problems very fast, one can learn languages very fast. Learning languages involves solving very practical problems, such as how to learn pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar very efficiently and how to remember whatever matters the most. My memory has improved as a result of language-learning, it is much easier for me nowadays to remember relevant information. This may also be because my mind knows what to do, I know what to identify as the most important to remember and what to deem the least important to remember. Absorbing information has become easier, yet what I have noticed is that it works best to give the mind some time to process all the information, giving the mind no time to play with the information and to look at it in different ways usually results in the information not being stored in the most efficient way possible. I have learned that taking breaks from learning is better than learning continuously without taking any breaks, intense studying sessions followed by long breaks usually work best.

Meditation involves focusing on a single target. This means that meditation involves intentionality, one has to know what one wishes to achieve otherwise one will be distracted from that aim. Studying languages intensively requires that one be acutely aware of what one wishes to achieve. Whenever I am studying languages, I always feel a strong desire to become a native speaker; no matter whether the language is a dead language such as Latin, an endangered language or a widely spoken language, I simply want to study intensively so people will perceive me as a native. I dislike the expression “faking it until you make it,” because there is no faking involved; when I pursue authenticity, I do not require an intermediate stage of faking. My intense desire for becoming a native is equal to a strong desire for authenticity. When one speaks Latin in an unnatural way, it means that one has not pursued authenticity enough; sounding like a native, no matter what kind of language it is, requires dedication to authenticity, which means that one has to adopt authentic pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar. I focused for many years, starting in 2009, on studying how to achieve authentic pronunciation in any language.

These are the three Northern Goesharde Frisian books I used for studying Northern Goesharde Frisian in 2019 and 2020 (see this article for an overview of the exact years when I studied specific Frisian languages). I had initially mostly relied on the dictionary which included some information on the grammar of the language in the back of the book and also there were some hints in the lemmas about the structure of the language, then I studied the text to formulate my own findings on the structure of the language and finally I studied the Northern Goesharde Frisian grammar book to compare my findings.

When one’s pronunciation is not perfect, it means that one’s pronunciation is unnatural, inauthentic, non-native – these three adjectives are simply three synonymous adjectives for describing the opposite of perfect. I have never settled for anything but perfection when it comes to pronunciation. I am used to making pronunciation mistakes, the most important thing is to keep correcting oneself and to have a willingness to keep changing one’s pronunciation as one gains new insights. Whenever I am studying the pronunciation of languages, new insights are revealed to me and I am eager to respond to these new revelations in order to improve my pronunciation; I do not mind changing over and over and over again because that is the way to become a native. Others might find my process of learning a total chaos as I keep changing pronunciation, sometimes even back and forth, but through accepting this chaos, I learn to distinguish what is right and wrong. A willingness to experiment is very important for the study of phonology, an attitude that is opposed to trial and error usually leads to stagnation. I have often started out completely with the wrong assumptions about the pronunciation of a language, but I gradually keep internalising new information and as time goes by, I learn to adopt the right pronunciation. The hypothesis that one starts with is not necessarily the same conclusion that one will finally end up with, one simply has to follow the evidence.

My approach to pronunciation is logical and it is scientific. I have always been open to absorbing scientific knowledge that can be useful to my language-learning efforts. I discard whatever I consider useless, I keep whatever I consider useful. Making rapid progress requires immense flexibility, one should not be afraid of losing oneself. I am not afraid of losing myself because I do not feel that I have anything to lose, but I have only to gain from internalising new information. Since I have clear goals about what I want to achieve in life, I have not ever felt like I lost myself; I am still pursuing the same goals tirelessly like in the past and the only difference between my old self and my current self is that I have become more efficient, this is exactly what my old self wanted to achieve and so I have become the person I wanted to be in the past. I am willing to sacrifice all of my old knowledge for achieving new insights, learning new languages feels like sacrificing parts of myself and while I sacrifice parts of myself, I have full faith in gaining something back for every part I sacrifice. The principle of such sacrifice is that whatever you give, you will get the equivalent back, so you do not need to worry about losing yourself, it is okay to give yourself completely to a language because what you get in return is another version of yourself; the learning of every new language means the acceptance of mental rebirth, and continuous language-learning is continuous rebirth.

I have already touched upon the notion of achieving an altered state of consciousness through meditation; while I perceive language-learning as meditation, I might add that every language is associated with its own reality and consequently when one learns a language, one enters a new reality. Language-learning is such an effective way of distracting oneself because it takes one to a new world. I find a language such as Wangerooge Frisian invaluable because it takes me to a new world, I appreciate the world that is associated with Wangerooge Frisian. I am someone with a deep appreciation for different experiences, and I like the experience of every language that I have adopted into my life. Adopting different languages feels like adopting different souls; every human is a vessel or carrier for a language. A book or written document can be a vessel for a language, but a human can also be a vessel for a language. Therefore, endangered languages can either be documented and saved for future generations by writing them down or by absorbing the information personally. The latter option is the most ancient and most traditional method of preserving languages. I can appreciate the value of written documentation, yet I am a strong proponent of absorbing information into one’s own brain and thus making languages live in one’s brain. Written documentation can help languages escape the biological demise of human beings and therefore the information may be preserved longer than the individual lives of human beings, but the disadvantage of this non-biological method is the fact that it removes languages from the symbiotic relationship they have with living biological humans; a language cannot live if it is not part of a living biological human, languages need human carriers in order to live and therefore I advocate human-based documentation for endangered languages rather than written documentation.

This is me in Ap Lei Chau on the day of arrival in Hong Kong in 2017. I lived on the densely populated Southern Hong Kong island of Ap Lei Chau for most of my stay in the Asian metropolis.

According to my philosophy, people have lost sight of what language really is and that is why they obsess with written documentation whenever they are faced with a dying language. The solution to language death is learning. In general, Western philosophies have a tendency to be rather lofty and to stay away from what is natural, human and biological. This is, I believe, an explanation for why people do often not see there is an alternative to written documentation. I regard human-based documentation as equally valid, it is a way of preserving a language. Storing information in one’s own living memory is a legitimate way of documenting an endangered language, in my view. Operation X is based on this insight. We need to return to the human aspect of language; said in another way, we need to return to biology, to nature. I appreciate Confucianism because it is a human-based philosophy, it is different from Western philosophies in that Confucianism acknowledges the practical importance of having a human-centric worldview. My language philosophy, which I have been preaching for many years, is that we need to have a human-centric approach to endangered languages; writing is a nice technology, but the ultimate technology is our own body, our mind is the most traditional technology we have for storing language. Many individuals may not yet have come around to my views, but I believe that I can prove the merit of my views through my work and that is why I will keep working hard; my views are simply practical. I have studied the written documentation of languages diligently and I see how this can be useful; writing is, no doubt, really a wonderful technology that I happily adopt, but I do believe that the best way for saving languages is for relatively young people to store languages in their own brains and thereby achieve what I would call the human-based documentation of languages.

After all, one might argue it is arrogant to think that writing a language down is the only legitimate way of preserving that language; or that combining this with other non-biological technologies is the only way. The big issue with this arrogant view is that it delegitimises the biological path of language documentation that language communities traditionally rely on. Westerners appear to be stuck in a mind-set where they think non-biological methods are the best way of preserving languages for the future. I beg to differ, because languages can be preserved very efficiently in the minds of human beings. The languages may change over the course of centuries, but if preserved with proper care, the languages will remain relatively stable. Unchanging languages are dead languages; even if a language does not significantly change the fundamentals of its pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary, new phrases and new words might still be added to the language over time. I do acknowledge the value of non-biological methods for the documentation of languages, yet I reject arrogant views that this is the only way to do it properly; the best way, in my view, is the traditional human way because this is how languages have been preserved since time immemorial, and the loss of continuity in this tradition is exactly the reason why languages die out. Continuity in the transmission of languages from one person to the next is a necessary component for preservation in the traditional way. Although I do prioritise biological methods of preserving languages, I do myself also use non-biological methods; since I have a both-and mind-set like Easterners do, I do not restrict myself to one method although I do prioritise the traditional over the modern way of documenting languages.

My study of Confucianism and folk religions have helped me find additional support for my appreciation of the notion that it is important to focus on humanity and tradition, rather than loftiness and abstraction which is a tendency in Western philosophy. Confucianism values learning in the same way I do, I believe that learning is the solution to the loss of languages; this is one of the core principles of Operation X. Having visited Hong Kong, mainland China and Taiwan in 2017 to learn more about Confucianism and to experience the Eastern way of thinking first-hand with the goal of comparing the compatibility of this with my philosophy about language-learning, I found in the end that I had indeed managed to adopt authentic Confucianism and I could confirm that there were indeed interesting parallels between traditional Eastern philosophy and how I think about language; Ken Ho had come to the West to study Shire Frisian in 2016 together with me, I had come to the East in 2017 to study Eastern philosophy together with Ken Ho. I had already noted prior to 2016 that Confucianism might be more or less compatible with my philosophy on how to save and document languages, and during my conversations with Ken Ho in 2016, we both agreed that Confucianism might be useful for supporting my philosophy and after studying Shire Frisian in the West, the next important thing would therefore be to study Confucianism in the East. Although we had originally considered that our exchange should be based on trading Shire Frisian for Cantonese, we decided that the most practical trade was Shire Frisian for Confucianism, and so while Ken Ho learned to live, speak and think like a Shire Frisian, I learn to live, speak and think like a Confucian. Going to the original environment of what we intended to study was an essential component of our exchange plan, and due to the success of this formula in 2016 and 2017, it naturally became a standard part of our procedure in the following years. Ken Ho studied Shire Frisian in its native environment, and I studied Confucianism in its native environment; by adopting Confucianism when I was in the East like Ken Ho adopted Shire Frisian when he was in the West, I managed to achieve authenticity. Being able to reason like an authentic Confucian is valuable to me because it allows me to compare my own philosophy with that of Confucius; I do really believe that there is much to be gained from a learning-based, human-centric approach to language saving, and I think that this philosophy, which underpins the work of Operation X, does resonate with the the Confucian cultures of East Asia, this philosophical kinship is definitely an important reason why East Asian culture is often prominently featured on our blog, although my approach is a solution to a specific problem that I observed in my own immediate environment where I live, namely that of the decline of Frisian, and it would be unfair to say that this philosophy is some sort of linguistic Confucianism or that it is a linguistic philosophy based on Confucianism. It is relevant to note that the Operation X approach is rather strongly based on my father’s philosophy about de oer, and consequently should rather be characterised as Millarson philosophy, thus it is not “linguistic Confucianism” but “linguistic Millarsonism.”

41 comments

  1. Deep but so true! Language acquisition is the most powerful part of the mind to enter into, shape, and define realities. And your personal approach of meditative focus, resilience, and flexibility in life allows you to use language(s) daily to connect, to develop your mind, and to problem solve as a human being— as you so ably do. Vocabulary and grammar in books are only the beginnings of what language is….

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Learning language is magical; opening a new world. We often say: One language is one person.. Now I try to translate my poems to English even if so hard to give the feeling. Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you for writing. I feel similarly about drawing and other artistic disciplines. I remember a previous partner felt similarly about running. I read an article once about a person who practiced harpsichord and martial arts and felt strongly that they were both vital aspects of his spiritual life, and then, of course, there’s the famous Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance… More and more we are having a spiritual awakening in our world, in which people are realizing that the Divine essence of spirituality is not contained in a book or a building or priest but is revealed continuously to us through earnest pursuits and mindfulness and in the careful observation of oneself.

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    • Learning a language really is like a meditation – never thought of it that way before. Not only the vocabulary and grammar but the sound, too. Repeating the words brings out the feeling of the language and the culture (kind of subconsciously) as well.

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  4. Fascinating and beautifully written. I’m struggling to find time to improve on the little French that I know, but I love the French language, to me it is beautiful.

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  5. Very interesting blog. I congratulate you for your interest and activities in saving languages. I find language interesting. I liked learning Latin in high school and Spanish in college. I lived in Germany for a year and learned as much of that language as I could, too. In both cases (Spanish and German) people thought I was a native speaker, probably because I’m a good mimic. Language is an important key to culture, in my opinion, and it’s an adventure to immerse oneself as much as possible in a culture through their language. (Food is a good way, too). Languages are inroads to the culture that spawns them, and I love exploring cultures. It’s like discovering hidden treasures. Thanks for this post.

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  6. Thank you so much for this article! Most language learners state that studying a language is a hard work. This is true, of course. But what your post reveals is that it can actually serve as a mind-calming and life-structuring experience, that it brings more joy than sweat and tears!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. It’s so strange that I just read this post. I have wanted to be a Spanish teacher since I was in middle school. I went a different path, but the language came to me with the best teacher, Miss Now We Sell Skis. This was not her real name, but it is her phonetically sounding name. She taught me how to commit to memory words through rote memory, where I would write the word and its translation four times each, and I would do the same speaking it in practice. There was a strict Spanish only rule in her class, and a way for us to use the words we knew to communicate an unknown word. It was a sort of idiomatic algebra that I love using with writing, in that it can convey a sort of ongoing search in finite permutation that fascinates me. As an adult, I have tried learning French and the language is gorgeous though quite difficult for me to learn, as I would need a series of immersive experiences and not just a semester class to get really good at. Yesterday I picked up a CD of French children’s songs and I love it. I may not know the language, but may actually learn how to sing these songs before too long. Thank you for sharing your lovely blog!

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  8. I don’t have a gift for learning new languages. But I do enjoy and find the manipulation of the English (American English) language to be quite meditative and relaxing. When I’m in the “zone” I can easily write 10-20k story in a few hours. And finish totally relaxed.

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  9. A most practical start to motivate me to study a new language begins with the idea of cognates. Question: How can one best crossover sounds and spellings from more familiar to unfamiliar familiar modes of communication (notably from western to eastern modes of written thought?)

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  10. You and your well-exercised brain are operating at a whole new level from the rest of us.

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  11. I wish I could get my teenage son to listen to you. He loves languages, but don’t accept the idea of meditation. Perhaps that slows his learning.

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  12. I was an ESL instructor, and I hope my students were this reflective about learning English. Also, have you read the Tao Te Ching? If you like studying Confucius, you may enjoy meditating on Lao Tzu’s verses.

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  13. Excellent article. I love language because of its fluidity it is constantly changing what one language is today will not be the same even five or ten years down the road, as it was not the same that many years ago.

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  14. I liked your point about written language lacking in the authentic aspect of the language. When I studied music we came across the same thing, people seem to think that sheet music is the real thing but it’s not it’s about the experience of the sound.
    I think it’s interesting because when you start learning languages, you understand the nuances of the language and gain an understanding of the people that speak the language just by learning their language.

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  15. I too agree that language learning is meditation. I am an aspiring polyglot–have studied in school Spanish, French, Latin, and Ancient Greek–and am always adding new languages to learn. While I haven’t achieved actual fluency, only some basic functionality, I still find the process both relaxing and focusing. Thanks for sharing all of this.

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  16. I am happy to see a young person so immersed in something they love. It’s a shame that more young people have not been able to gain half of the serenity and the interest in life that you display. When I read your words, I saw how it would take an immense amount of concentration to learn a dying language. I find what you are doing is fascinating.

    Oh, P.S. I learned a new word today. Phonology, thank you.

    Like

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