What Skiing and Learning a Language Have in Common

April 17th, 2010


I recently celebrated a birthday, and as I look back, year by year, and decade after decade, I can see the inevitable march of time.  I am not the same person, either physically or mentally, as I was 10 or 20 or 30 years ago.

The good news is that each decade adds experience and a body of knowledge that helps me think better, more deeply, and in many ways, more innovatively.

The bad news is that, by and large, each decade sees me less able physically.  I don’t run anymore (knees!), I can’t swim as fast, and I wouldn’t even think of playing softball or volleyball with a 30 year old.  Last summer I tried wake surfing, but couldn’t even get up on the damn board! (I will try again this summer!).


For me, however, skiing has been a notable exception.  I’ve skied all my life, a lot.  When I was young, and at my physical peak, I was not a very good skier.  I resisted instruction.  I just wanted to “do.”  I didn’t want to think about how to “do” it.  I can remember watching really beautiful skiers, and wishing I could ski like that, but I never noticed what they were doing that made them so good.  So, I just went along skiing at a mediocre level for years.

When I was 40 that changed.  In order to have a good excuse to ski more, I joined the Master’s Ski Program at our local resort, Diamond Peak.  I don’t recall actually thinking I was going to ski better.  I was just going to ski more and meet some nice people.

What I didn’t bargain for was my coach, Josee LaCasse.  Josee actually wanted me to be a great skier.  Even though I was old.  She taught me how to think about skiing.  She taught me the distinctions of skiing.

And, guess what?  I began to get better, for the first time in many years.  Now, in spite of age, I get physically better at skiing every single year.  I’m not great yet (sorry, Josee, and also my other great coach, Wayne Wong), but, damn, I’m pretty good for a 56 year old.  And I’m better than I was as a 55 year old.

How did I get there, since I no longer have Josee coaching me twice a week, and I’m 15 years older?  Well, I learned the distinctions of skiing, and I think about them every day that I am on the snow.  I think about my knees, my shoulders, where my center of gravity is.  I notice what happens when I do one thing versus another.  I watch other skiers constantly, and analyze what they are doing or not doing, and then try to do or not do myself.

I make distinctions.  When I was young and mediocre, I had no distinctions beyond fun and not fun.  Now, the more distinctions I make, the better I get.

So, how does this apply to the Lake Tahoe Institute of English, and to learning English, or any language?


What I have noticed is that some clients come just wanting to talk more.  OK.  And some come wanting to learn about how to talk.  They are active learners and listeners, wanting to use me and Kim as their coaches, wanting to learn the distinctions of English.

Learning a language is not a spectator sport.  It is not easy.  You can learn some, and get by, just by listening and talking a bit.  But to be good in another language, you have to become an active learner.  You have to learn to look for the distinctions of language.  You have to pay attention to how a language is spoken, to how you are speaking, to the music of the language, and how you can duplicate it.  You have to actively take charge of getting better.

If not, you’ll just be another traveler mangling the language.  Accomplishment takes work!

Leave a Reply