Why Learn a Language? Because Doing Hard Things Feels Good.

Claire Handscombe


A while ago, I’m still not exactly sure why, I started ballet lessons. Those who know me best find this to be hilarious. I am not, to say the least, proportioned like your typical ballet dancer. I also have slightly inward knees, so even a basic first position is difficult for me to do with any measure of grace, never mind ease. I have never had hand-eye co-ordination or any ability to quickly grasp instructions regarding what I do with my body. I am not particularly fit.

Despite all this, inspired perhaps in part by a couple of novels I’d enjoyed, I found a beginners’ class, and I went. Only to find that, just like in many group language lessons, there weren’t many actual real beginners at all. There were lots of, to use the term we use in language teaching, “false beginners” — people coming back to it, who still had a foundation of sorts. In some cases, these people just needed a refresher — maybe they’d had a break of a few months or years, but they had danced for, sometimes, more than a decade prior to this. So the teaching, which was never going to be at quite the remedial level that I needed, adjusted itself to fit the median — way beyond beginner. In ballet classes, or at least mine, there isn’t much by way of explanation. Words like passé and relevé and petit battement are thrown in and you just have to keep up and copy the person in front of you. And when the person in front of you has danced for 10 years, you can quickly feel lost.

Still, in that first class, it felt good. Just holding your arms up ballet-dancer style makes you feel graceful, even when you catch a glimpse of yourself in the mirror and realise you look anything but. So I went back. In the second class, we had a substitute teacher. He called me out when I got something wrong. I cried. I felt like an idiot for crying, and so I cried some more.

I got a grip, refused to be so easily defeated, went back a few times. When our six-week intro class ended, I started going to adult beginner drop-in class: an even wider range of ability (always with me at the bottom). I cried again at the end of a class when I had felt utterly lost. I felt like an idiot. It’s no fun feeling like an idiot. And when you’re learning languages, sometimes that’s how it can feel. You’re not an idiot. But you feel like one, and that’s enough to make you want to give up right then and there. “I don’t get it,” I have said over and over again in ballet class, and I know that some language learners relate to that sentiment on the deepest level.

But today! Today made it all worthwhile. I have a fantastic, patient, encouraging ballet teacher — finding a teacher like that for languages is, I would argue, essential — and I finally got to ask her to explain to me how a move called dégagé works. And she explained it to me, and I did it, and it all made sense. Every week during the dégagés I have shaken my head and thought “I don’t get it”. But today I got it!

It felt like I could conquer the world.

“Nice pointe,” the teacher said as I practised, and my heart swelled with pride.

There are things I can do much better than I can do ballet. (Thank goodness.) I’m taking acting classes at the moment, too, and I don’t feel like I’m terrible at it, even though I kind of am, and the reason I feel that way is that I’m not as bad at that as I am at ballet. But I can speak three languages fluently; I’m a decent writer; I’m not awful at the flute. Achievements in those things feel good, don’t get me wrong. (Nothing, I imagine, will feel better than publication.)

But achievement in ballet did something to my soul that none of those things do. Most people walk into a ballet class and twenty minutes later are doing dégagés effortlessly. It took me weeks. But it was so exciting!

It sent me back to my writing desk — to the other things I do better than I do ballet — with more boldness, more excitement. If I could do a dégagé, I could do anything.

My teacher had promised me I would see progress if I stuck at it. I wasn’t sure whether to believe her. And progress for me does not look the same — even remotely — as progress for most other people. But it feels great! It’s given me a new confidence in myself, in my body. Was it coincidence that for the first time I also managed to balance on one toe, my other foot in coupé position, just a few minutes later? Probably not.

The small achievement in a thing you find hard: there’s nothing like it. So stick with your language learning. You will have a moment like my dégagé moment, too. Something you didn’t get will suddenly make sense. You’ll finally have the courage to ask what seems like a stupid question, and things will start to fall into place. Your tutor had promised you that you would see progress at it if you stuck at it. You smiled and thought, “not me; I’m not built for this, but that’s okay”. Well, guess what? Your tutor is right.

If I can do a dégagé, I’m pretty sure you can do anything. And it will feel great.

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Claire Handscombe is a British writer who moved to Washington, DC, in 2012, ostensibly to study for an MFA in Creative Writing, but really, let’s be honest, because of an obsession with The West Wing. She is the host of the Brit Lit Podcast, a monthly show about news and views from UK books and publishing; the author of Unscripted, a novel about a young woman with a celebrity crush and a determined plan; and the editor of Walk With Us: How The West Wing Changed Our Lives.

Washington, DC

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