Learning a new language is a lot like building a new road.
For one, learning a language literally builds new neural pathways… But we can also think of language use as a road that goes from Point A, “having a mental representation,” to Point B, “communicating that mental representation (to someone else).” When we use our first language, it is like driving a road that’s very familiar.
But using a foreign language means that you have to build a new road in an unfamiliar landscape.
At first there is just wild. There are forests, deserts, hills, rivers, and mountains. It’s very difficult to find your way. Most of your time is spent “getting lost” in the unfamiliar landscape. It’s uncomfortable and frustrating because, as adults, we are not used to being lost. We’re not used to being unable to travel with ease between Point A and Point B.
What we have to realize is that all this “getting lost” is not all for naught. When you are lost, you are getting an intimate, close-up view of many details of the lay of the land. This are details that you’d otherwise miss if you took a shortcut.
Most students think that using a familiar map or a familiar roadway will help them find their way. That’s totally understandable. It’s less frustrating, and it brings an immediate sense of ease. But in the long run, these shortcuts won’t help you do the hard work of actually building the new road.
That’s because your map-reading skills and familiar roadways are all based on your old, familiar landscape. Just as you can’t learn anything by taking a map of the United States and laying it across the Tibetan landscape, studying Tibetan language by using English-language ideas of grammar won’t teach you how to see the structures of Tibetan language. That only comes from first-hand experience of the landscape.
And while using English in the classroom seems easier and more convenient, jumping onto old, familiar pathways for the ease and convenience of it won’t help you build new roads. That takes breaking boulders, chopping down trees, digging earth, and studying the lay of the land. It takes getting lost over and over again until you find the best route from Point A to Point B.
In this metaphor, your teacher is your guide. How does a native-speaker navigate their native landscape to get from Point A to Point B? Try to follow in their footsteps. Don’t try to build a highway on your first go. Get used to short, easy pathways first. Get used to getting lost!