Zen and the art of language learning

Babbel explores the Buddhist concepts for unraveling prejudices and assumptions while traveling.

At the heart of Hanoi, Vietnam, there is a lake. Many roads converge to form a circuit around it. As evening falls and the city’s suffocating heat drops, people start cruising around the lake on scooters, driving around and around and around. They aren’t going anywhere. Sometimes I drive around the lake too, feeling the air on my face.


Beginner’s mind

‘Beginner’s mind’ is a buddhist concept that was popularised in Western culture by Shunryu Suzuki. He argued that a beginner’s mind is open and inquisitive, a bit like that of a child. When it encounters something new, it doesn’t judge it or dismiss it. In other words, it is about trying to see the world without the prejudices and assumptions that we all carry around with us.

I once tried to teach an English class of particularly reluctant Vietnamese teenagers. They point-blank refused to speak to each other. A big blanket of social pressure hung over the classroom. The breakthrough came by accident, when the students discovered a shoebox filled with rubber finger puppets that I’d brought for my class of six-year-olds later that day. Five minutes later the room was full of monsters attacking aliens and princesses holding court.  All in English. I couldn’t shut them up.

Is this what happens when we forget to remember to be ourselves?


The first time I sat in a German class during a sweaty Berlin summer, the teacher asked me to read a sentence aloud to the class. I stared at the first word as if it were a piece of oversized baroque furniture. It came out as a strangled shout.


Everybody laughed.

My German textbook was large, heavy and blue. Every day at a certain hour I sat down with a coffee and did my exercises. I sounded out the words. Entschuldigung. Ent-schul-di-gung. There were z’s and umlauts everywhere. Sometimes I just stared at them. Some of the words were so long that I had to break them up with a pencil. I left the radio on in the background; I didn’t understand what they were saying but I loved singing along with the jingles.

Can speaking a language make you happy? Can learning a language make you happy?

I wonder if sometimes the pressure to be able to speak inhibits the desire to learn.  I have a friend who focuses on the fact that he can’t speak German, although he’s lived here a long time. He feels ashamed and insecure about it. I sometimes have similar thoughts. Learning a new language can be an embarrassing, sometimes terrifying experience. But I know I am at my best (and most fluent) when I am playing in the language, laughing at my mistakes, and delighted by new words instead of embarrassed at my ignorance.

This is how I try to approach new languages: not as an expert but as a child. Any talent I have for language is born out of curiosity and affection. I am at my most productive when I’m not trying to produce.



Everybody wants to be happy – just ask Pharrell Williams. The top five countries according to the World Happiness Report 2013 are Denmark, Norway, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Sweden. In America, ‘the pursuit of happiness’ is enshrined in the constitution. This implies that we think of happiness as something to be achieved or attained: a state of being.

Happiness is like peeing in your pants. Everyone can see it but only you can feel the warmth.

~Urban Dictionary, definition by ~~~, July 12, 2005

Many philosophers seek other words, like ‘satisfaction’ or ‘flourishing’ or ‘living a good life’. In the 1930s American psychology professor Abraham Maslow deconstructed happiness into a hierarchy of needs. They ranged from basic requirements of food, shelter and security, to higher-level needs such as affection, creativity and morality. People who ascend to the highest level, ‘self-actualisation’, can experience powerful moments of rapture, or understanding, or love.

Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, a Hungarian psychology professor who studies happiness and creativity, calls this ‘flow’.

Effortless action

When trekking at high altitude, you have to focus on your breath. The air is very thin. Each step becomes an inhalation or an exhalation: in, out, in, out. The act of walking becomes highly rhythmic.  You get endorphin surges, and the more you walk, the more it can feel as if you are in a trance. For some people it is a spiritual experience. For others it feels like being high. It is often gruelling, walking for long days with sore muscles. There are times when it just feels like hard work.

Step, step. Step, step.

Have you ever tried to meditate? For the first few seconds, most people can keep their minds clear, but then thoughts drift in. It can be terribly frustrating. On the other hand, have you ever lost track of time while you were gardening or jogging or drawing or doing something that required all your focus? Do you remember how you felt at the time, or only after the event?

Csíkszentmihály’s concept of flow is closely related to the buddhist or taoist idea of ‘action of inaction’ or ‘effortless action’.  This is when you lose yourself in doing something, and it happens quite effortlessly and spontaneously. Happiness may well be a byproduct of flow, almost a retrospective side-effect. Was I happy at the time I was walking in the mountains? Or is happiness – like melancholy or nostalgia – an Instagram filter that we apply to the past?

The lake

Around and around Hoan Kiem lake we go, a swarm of slowly shifting bikes. The air is cool now. Neon lights and red lanterns play on the surface of the water. I don’t need to focus on the road or the bikes around me, nor on my own driving. We circle the ancient lake, lost in the gentle hum of our machines.
I feel the air on my face. I see the ripples on the water.