Have you reached a plateau? (Wow, it’s a commercial – maybe I should go into motivational speaking . . . or not). Seriously. A plateau in your professional career? In education? Maybe even in your personal life? I was thinking about progress in language learning since that is all I really do these days. It is pretty common when you hit an intermediate or lower advanced stage of language learning that you feel like you have hit a plateau. I was reminiscing back to my running days and how much improvement new runners tend to make. They may start out running the 5k in 27 minutes and then weekly click off 2 or 3 minutes on their best 5k time. It isn’t uncommon to see a new runner jump from 27 minutes down to about 20 minutes in a short period of time. In language learning you go from having little to no communication skills to becoming a person that native speakers actually want to talk to without walking away in frustration. You make huge strides in those early days and the progress is so noticeable.

When I was a runner, I recall making pretty significant improvements all the way through junior high and high school. I started out running my first 5k as a 6 year old in 25 minutes or so. My age 7 I knocked it down to 22 minutes. Age 9 or 10 and I was at 19 minutes. By age 12 I had a huge leap and ran and 18:18 as a 6th grader. I then started to level off a bit and remained in the 17:30-45 range through 8th grade. Then I busted through again and ran 16:45 as a 9th grader and the summer before my sophomore year ran a 16:17 and won my first 5k adult road race. I raced for 3 more years and the fastest I could ever get was 16:14. From the time I hit 16:17 to 3 years later when I hit that mark again I was able to run that time almost every race when I hit the roads.

I share all that to say that we definitely get to a level that is very difficult to maintain improvement. Though I only improved by 3 seconds on my fastest 5k, I became a better runner over those last 3 years. That first 16:17 was unbelievable as it was 32 seconds faster than I had ever run. By the time I was running low 16s consistently I didn’t think much of it.

I think my language progress is a bit like this right now. I am clearly way farther along than I’ve ever been before. I’m communicating more easily than I ever have in my life in this language. But the days of huge leaps and massive improvements have faded. It reminds me of the days of running in the rain, sweating my butt off on the track all alone, only to see a one or two second improvement over 5km/3.1 miles. Those days and times when you can bust through and feel like you are on top of the world are wonderful. Maybe God allows these things to happen to really encourage us and build our confidence. But after a while, the slow grind is on. I don’t really think I have hit a plateau but I am slowly and steadily going up this mountain of a language, becoming a better communicator.

I guess this can apply to just about anything where we are putting in a lot of work. Tenacity, dedication, and a lot of lonely days on the track (so to speak) are needed. But in the end, we keep steadily climbing towards the goals we have set. For me it is trying to communicate in Narnian so I can socialize with my friends, share my life, and most importantly, give them the Gospel that Christ has so graciously given me.

So there is my motivational speech and reflection on my running days. Keep at it.

A few tips from my running days that I’m trying to apply to the language plateau

1. I loved running. Workouts were exhilarating to me. Even more fun was racing. As you work hard learning, love it. Enjoy the journey.
2. I was responsible for my own training. I tried to rarely compare my training to the next guy. If I was doing what I knew I was supposed to do, improvement would come. Sin rears its head everywhere we look and it is so easy to compare yourself to other missionaries, other foreigners, or whoever as you are learning language. Apply that as you wish to your context and your endeavor.
3. I trained when I didn’t feel like it and tried to force myself to rest at least a day a week. Again, if I only tried to improve in this language when I felt like it, I’d be in deep waters.
4. Though I tried not to pay much attention to other runners training, I did have a general sense that no one else was going to out-work me. As a Christ-follower I have to re-define this competitive stuff and let the competitive nature God put inside me drive me to be the hardest worker I can for the glory of God. I am clearly not the most talented language learner in the world . . . but I put my hand to the plow and go for it.
5. I was part of a community. Though I correspond with few of my running buddies still today, we had a very special bond. Hours and hours in our unique community. As I learn language, I’ve done my very best to enter fully into the community and society where I live. I don’t wish I wasn’t speaking Narnian or living somewhere else. The community is essential.
6. I was sold on the idea as a runner that the lifestyle of hard work, entering into the community, sometimes loneliness along the way were simply part and parcel with the task at hand. It was what I was supposed to do. As it seems like I’m in a language rut at times, I remember this is simply what I’m supposed to be doing.
7. As I became a more experienced runner, I realized I wasn’t anything that special. Lots of people were faster. Lots of people were going to beat me. I wasn’t going to be remembered as a track star. When I came to this realization it freed me to simply be myself as a runner and racer. My language ability (as I have already stated) is not great. It works and I know who I am as a communicator. We must become comfortable in our own skin.