Disclaimer: please do not take my analogies too seriously. A conversation is not a war; it is a partnership.
For every learner of a language, there are times when the quest to master a language seems like a war. Every word, every piece of grammar a bitter battle, evenings spent studying the language as thoroughly as if studying an enemy for weaknesses. The learner, in that case, is a warrior. Come to think of it, is that such a bad analogy? Like warriors, you have weapons: your dictionary, your textbook, your notepads. You may have allies – your classmates, for example. Perhaps you have a general, the skill of whom will, to a large extent, govern your outcome. So, for the Warriors of Words, here is some advice from Sun Tzu, which I hope is correctly translated:
„He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight.“
The mistake that a lot of learners make is to attempt to speak in their learnt language in the same way as in their mother tongue. This is only natural: after all, we want to appear as intelligent as we are, no matter which language we are speaking in. I have seen students become totally fixated on remembering the perfect word, sacrificing the fluency of their conversation, as if the word were a weapon with which to ‚win‘ the conversation. In truth, however, this is just one more word among many. Even if you do eventually manage to remember it, there will be another word-shaped hole in three or four sentences. Are you going to make your conversation partner wait while you remember that one, too?
What’s the solution, then? Perhaps Sun Tzu can help. To talk fluently, we should pick our topics as carefully as a general picks their battles. In English, I am proficient in the science of music. In German, I know that I could not hope to explain myself clearly; it would be useless for me to try. There is no shame in this. As I have said before, a gap in one’s knowledge, once identified, is nothing more than a compass, pointing me to where I should apply myself next. The Warrior of Words should understand that words are nothing more than tools – often, one perfect word will do that job of many, but if I do not have that perfect word, I can still use the many.
Before my career is over, I will say this a million times, I am sure, but here it is again: Get it said. Use your hands, your eyes, draw what you mean on a receipt left in your pocket from your last shopping trip. Does it really matter how the other person understands you? Of course not. Only that they understand you. When you learn to fight this way, your war will become many times easier. Before too long, you will surprise yourself by speaking first one sentence, and then many sentences totally naturally, without thinking. Thank you, Sun Tzu.
„The greatest victory is that which requires no battle.“