OK, can I just be totally honest with you?
So many people admire my language-learning abilities.
"Oh," they say, "you're so TALENTED." "You're so LUCKY." "I could never learn languages the way you do."
And yes, it's true. There is such a thing as natural talent, and I am so incredibly grateful for and humbled by my talent in learning languages.
But I'll never forget that night in New York, about 5 or 6 years ago, when I was sitting at our dining room table bawling my eyes out. Seriously. I had been sitting there trying to translate a Yiddish newspaper article for my PhD research, and it was taking me HOURS. I had to look up nearly every word. I was stymied by non-standard spellings. And then there were the idiomatic expressions, the quixotic variations of sentence structure and grammar that made me feel like I was staring at a brick wall. Honestly, it was soul-crushing.
I remember crying out of frustration. If the article had been in English, I'd have read it in a minute. Instead, I was sitting there for hours and hours.
My wife tried to console me. "Just think how much better your Yiddish is now than it was 5 years ago! And just think how much better your Yiddish will become because you put in the grueling effort to translate this article!"
She was right. My Yiddish is so much better now because of all those hours I spent crying over nearly-indecipherable texts, looking up word after word in the dictionary and crunching my brain over unfamiliar idioms.
But when people admire my talent, do they realize just how many hours I spent crying out of frustration because language learning is just SO FRUSTRATINGLY HARD?
I remember my first summer at Yidish Vokh, a weeklong retreat/conference/camp/school for people of all ages, where there's really only one guiding rule: for an entire week, everyone only speaks Yiddish. I barely spoke that week. My Yiddish wasn't bad, really, but I simply couldn't express myself the ways that I wanted to. I went to workshops and lectures where I understand maybe 10% of what was said. I hung out with people who'd ask me questions or make jokes or philosophize on probably-very-interesting topics, of which I understand maybe 10% because of the language barrier.
"Soul crushing" – that's really the word, you know? I was a PhD student at the time. I'd like to think I was fairly smart. And yet, there I was, unable to have more than a basic conversation with the people around me, not even able to understand most of the words they were saying.
Talent is real. Talent exists.
But even for the talented, language learning is hard.
So how have I succeeded in learning Yiddish to such a high degree?
Talent is probably part of it. No, talent is certainly part of it. I can't deny the privilege that my natural abilities have given me.
But talent alone isn't enough.
What enabled me to achieve such a high level of fluency is OBSESSION.
I was – and am – obsessed with Yiddish.
It was obsession that drove me, as an advanced beginner, to read novel after novel by looking up nearly every single word in the dictionary – an absolutely painstaking process.
It was obsession that inspired me to attend weeklong immersive retreats, summer after summer, where I was barely able to speak or understand.
It was obsession that encouraged me through those long, loooooooong hours spent crying over Yiddish newspaper articles for my research.
It was obsession that sparked my curiosity, to the extent that I'd read Yiddish dictionaries for fun and lie in bed wondering about Yiddish etymology.
It was obsession that gave me the conviction to raise my child in Yiddish, a language that I had only begun to learn a few years prior.
And it's my obsession with Yiddish that has helped me to maintain my commitment to raising our child in Yiddish, even when I don't know such basic expressions as "tuck in your shirt" or "stop picking your nose."
Obsession. Passion. Commitment. Purpose.
These are what enable us to achieve high levels of language learning.
Because the truth of the matter is this:
If you're obsessed, and passionate, and committed, and driven by purpose, then lack of talent will never, ever stop you. And if you haven't got all that, then pure talent alone will only get you so far.
Talent helps. But it isn't a gatekeeper, nor is it a guarantor of success.
Obsession. Passion. Commitment. Purpose.
That's what truly matters.
❤️ Shuli Elisheva