Always arriving: celebrating language growth, but feeling like Achilles in Zeno’s paradox

My daughter recently celebrated her birthday, and I took the opportunity to measure her height and pencil it onto the wall by our bathroom which serves as our growth chart. We were surprised to see she had grown a full 3 cm since the last time we measured two months ago. It was hard to believe, but after I remeasured, I saw the increase was correct.

In one sense seeing progress in language learning is a bit like watching your children grow. You’re better off not focusing on it and you’re more susceptible to recording errors in the short term and creating challenges to self-esteem at apparent setbacks. But over time, language skills are usually improving. It’s important to see that progress happening.

After my first year of university I joined a university credit French immersion program. The homestay was located in Quebec in a small town called Trois-Pistoles on the shores of the St. Lawrence river. It was a wonderful experience and it super-charged my French, even if it now lies dormant and forgotten. However, I don’t think I would have fully appreciated my progress unless the school had administered a language assessment test at the beginning and then at the end of the program.

These tests were clear, undeniable (I didn’t cheat), objective evidence that my language had improved. The cause of the improvement was a combination of my efforts and all the interactions with classmates, teachers, ateliers guides, and members of the communitySure I could see that I was better able to hold a conversation at the end of the five weeks than at the beginning, but this wasn’t quite the same as seeing it objectively quantified! This was the language equivalent of my daughter’s 3 cm, but in just over one month!

I think it’s important for EAL teachers to maintain records that show students’ clear improvement over time. The evidence needs to be something that is tangible and immediately apparent. I’ve written in another post about using Flipgrid as a measure of progress, but you can also have students record journals, blog posts, or administer a regular vocabulary test.

Sometimes the markers of progress are there, but you don’t notice them if you’re not looking. Beginner ELLs often choose to spend their recess and lunch times with students who share the same first language, if they have the choice. But there’s this point of transition where a student will feel comfortable enough to branch out and play with kids from other language backgrounds. This is something to note and share, especially with parents.

Perceptive homeroom teachers can notice the interactions of the ELLs in the classroom during discussions or activities. Sometimes the task at hand is just too interesting for the ELL not to refrain from contributing. Those of us who have studied language know the wonderful feeling you get when you’re able to accomplish a task using the second language. We are experiencing the fruits of language learning, for ultimately language is a vehicle of communication and not just an abstraction.

However, while seeing progress in language learning is psychologically empowering, the flip side to the process is recognizing that we never really fully arrive at a state of having fully “learned a language”. It’s a bit like Zeno’s paradox of the tortoise and Achilles, where despite Achille’s best efforts, he can never catch up to the tortoise in the race because of the tortoise’s head start. Every time Achilles halves the distance between himself and the tortoise, the tortoise has progressed just that much further. (The paradox is not really unresolvable, I’m just trying to capture a point here.)

The thing is, there is no fixed ‘finish line’ that a language learner must cross before receiving the label of ‘fluent’. Young children learning a second language bear a better chance of acquiring a ‘native-like fluency’ in a second language, but they also are as likely to acquire the imperfections that are inherent in all native-language speech. The only difference being the types of errors and the signification of those errors.

A better metaphor would be one that accepts the impossibility, and undesirability, of acquiring perfect fluency and to recognize that the central purpose of language is to communicate. To communicate us. And being able to speak more languages means we are able to communicate more versions of us to more people.

So let’s celebrate language growth but not get discouraged because we haven’t quite got there yet. I’m going to call this in-between state always arriving.


  1. The idea of a language test at the beginning *and* end of a language program is excellent! That would lend to a great feeling of accomplishment. The comparison to a child’s growth is very apt! Good post. -R

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