As many of you know, I am now living in Mexico with my fiancée, Patricia Zamudio. Things are going very well overall, but the transition from the United States to Mexico has been quite an adjustment for me in many ways. And the biggest challenge by far has been the language barrier. Virtually no one speaks English where I live (understandably so — I would not expect otherwise), and I had very little Spanish when I came.
This is a completely new experience for me. For the first time in my adult life, I can't communicate with the people around me. Oh, I can call a taxi, order food, pay for groceries, and ask where the bathroom is, but I can't truly communicate in any depth. It is a profoundly isolating and disorienting experience. Overnight, I have been transformed from a witty intellectual to a babbling toddler. Ever-helpful Patricia has become my linguistic equivalent of a seeing-eye dog, leading me around and keeping me out of trouble. But when she's not around, I'm on my own, dazed and confused, groping about for a sense of connection and home. I am a stranger in a strange land.
I have taken steps to remedy this situation: I'm now in an intensive four-days-a-week Spanish class at the state university (conducted in Spanish with only the bare minimum of English). As my skill and vocabulary have increased, I've been speaking more and more Spanish with Patricia at home, which has been extremely helpful. And I've recently acquired a new learning partner, a young Mexican man who is learning English from me as I am learning Spanish from him. So, I'm definitely less dazed and confused than I was when I first arrived. But I still have a long way to go.
And as I've been trying to bridge the gap between me and the people around me, I've been thinking a lot about how this relates to our experience of A Course in Miracles. The Course, too, feels a lot like a foreign language to many of its students, at least initially. Indeed, at a Course conference some time ago, writer D. Patrick Miller gave a talk entitled something like "When Will A Course in Miracles Be Translated into English?" Course students, too, have often felt something like I'm feeling now in Mexico: a sense of disconnect, a gap between them and the Course. They too have felt like strangers in a strange land.
If you think about it, there are a lot of similarities between learning a foreign human language and learning the "foreign" language of the Course. In both cases, we start out in a state of confusion and lack of understanding as we encounter a language that initially sounds like gibberish to us. But through a process of diligent study, frequent practice, and ongoing application in real-life situations — a process of immersion — this language slowly but surely begins to make sense. If we keep at it, something wonderful will happen: we will become "fluent" in our new language. And when we become fluent, we will have much more than just a useful new skill. We will enter a whole new world, a world we can connect with, a world in which we feel at home.
Here, I want to draw out the similarities I see between learning a foreign human language and learning A Course in Miracles. Those who know the Circle's work will recognize many of the points we have made in previous articles about how to really learn the Course — especially the familiar triad of study/practice/extension. But what I hope will be fresh here is the light that my process of learning a foreign language has shed on this topic, at least for me. This experience has had a deep impact on me. It has shown me in a new way just how critical these various elements are if we really want to bridge the gap between us and the Course and walk its path all the way home to God.
Some elements of learning a foreign language
I admit at the outset that I'm no expert in learning a foreign language, and no doubt there are elements that I've left out here. That being said, based on my experience (with both German and Spanish, as well as with the Course) and the experience of others I've known, it seems to me that to really learn a foreign human language or the "foreign" language of the Course, the following elements are vitally important:
I've discovered the hard way that to learn a foreign language, you have to be really motivated to learn it. I knew months ago that I would be moving to Mexico, but as long as I was in my comfortable English-speaking world, my efforts to learn Spanish were sporadic at best. Once I got to Mexico, however, everything changed. There's nothing like that linguistic wall of isolation to motivate you to do whatever it takes to knock down the wall. My urgent desire to reach past isolation and connect with those around me has lit a fire under me to learn Spanish as quickly as possible. Good thing I have that motivation, too, because it is difficult work. Without that fire burning under me, I just wouldn't do it.
Motivation is also critical for learning A Course in Miracles. The Course, in fact, tells us that motivation is the alpha and omega of walking its path, the most critical element for good teachers to instill:
Strengthening motivation for change is their first and foremost goal. It is also their last and final one. Increasing motivation for change in the learner is all that a teacher need do to guarantee change. (T-6.V.B.2:2-4)
What is the motivation for learning the Course? That could be expressed in many ways – for me it is a deep yearning to help my brothers and sisters by giving them the blessings of a God Who is only Love — but I think it is actually very similar to my motivation for learning Spanish: the desire to overcome isolation. As we know, the Course teaches that our core problem is separation from God and from each other. We don't realize it, but in truth we are all profoundly isolated, even from those who speak the same human language we do.
The Course wants us to realize just how incredibly painful this isolation is, and how wonderful true joining with God and our brothers is in comparison. Speaking of the holy relationship, the ultimate experience of joining with another person here on earth, the Course tries to increase our motivation through a series of poignant questions:
Do you not want to know your own Identity? Would you not happily exchange your doubts for certainty? Would you not willingly be free of misery, and learn again of joy? Your holy relationship offers all this to you. (T-20.VIII.2:1-3)
In the introduction to lessons 181-200, we are told that if we just lay down our barriers for a little while each day, "Your motivation will be so intensified that…You will be sure of what you want" (W-pI.In.181-200.2:5-6). Wow, I would really love to have that kind of intense motivation to walk the Course's path!
That path is far more challenging than learning Spanish — facing and undoing our morbid attachment to our egos makes conjugating a few verbs look pretty simple in comparison. But with the kind of motivation the Course speaks of here, we will have what it takes become totally fluent in the Course's language of joining and walk its path all the way home: "It will be enough to guarantee the rest will come" (W-pI.In.181-200.3:6)
A human teacher
Before coming to Mexico, I (in my not-so-motivated way) used many of the Spanish instruction resources out there: books, audios, online translators, online courses, etc. There's so much out there, and there's no question that much of it is extremely helpful. I continue to use such resources today.
But now that I've been in my class for a while, it has become more clear to me than ever just how much I need a human teacher if I truly want to become fluent in the language. There's just no substitute for frequent, personal interaction with a flesh-and-blood human being who is an expert in what you are trying to learn. I think this is true of any kind of learning we undertake. A good human teacher is the best resource we can have.
My Spanish teacher is great. She gives personal instruction geared to the real needs of her pupils in a way that no one-size-fits-all course could do. She guides us, explains difficult concepts to us, praises us when we are right, gently corrects us when we are wrong, and encourages us to keep at it. What impersonal language course, however valuable, could do that? The personal relationship makes a huge difference. And speaking of personal relationships, I also have Patricia as my teacher, so I am doubly blessed.
Just as the various language instruction resources out there are extremely useful, so the many Course teaching resources out there can be as well. We at the Circle, of course, have spent many years creating such resources. But I think that just as with learning a foreign language, in the end there is no substitute for a good human teacher providing one-to-one instruction tailored to his or her pupil's needs. Who would not benefit from the guidance, affirmation, gentle correction, encouragement, and example of a person who has real knowledge and experience of the Course's path, someone who can teach this one-size-fits-all Course in a uniquely individual way? I know that for me, having such a teacher completely changed my life, and having pupils of my own has been a transformative experience as well.
As those who are familiar with the Circle's work know, we believe that the Course's Manual for Teachers plainly advocates a plan (the "plan of the teachers" — M-1.2:10) in which human Course teachers serve as mentors to Course pupils. Teacher-pupil relationships are in fact the only means the Course specifically advocates for passing it on. There is nothing in the Course about books and study groups, however useful those might be. (I think the Course would certainly approve of them if they are helpful.) But there is a whole volume devoted to teachers mentoring pupils.
Salvation itself, in fact, is said to rest on the relationship between two people who have joined in a common goal, and the teacher-pupil relationship is a prime example of this. So, while the exact contours of each person's journey are different, if we really want to become fluent in the Course, ideally most of us will (eventually) be guided by the Holy Spirit to a human teacher who will guide us through the Course's path.
The Course promises that this joining in a common goal, more than anything else, will undo the sense of isolation that motivates us to walk the Course's path in the first place:
In the teaching-learning situation, each one [teacher and pupil] learns that giving and receiving are the same. The demarcations they have drawn between their roles, their minds, their bodies, their needs, their interests, and all the differences they thought separated them from one another, fade and grow dim and disappear. (M-2.5:5-6)
This is the end of separation. This is how we breach the wall between us and join once again. This is how we reconnect with each other and with God.
Intellectual study is essential for learning a foreign language, as I've been experiencing firsthand. True, we didn't learn our first language this way, and children can pick up second languages relatively quickly if they are exposed to those languages early enough. But for us unfortunate adults for whom that window has largely closed, there's just no avoiding it: to truly master a new language, we need to study it.
This means that we need to roll up our sleeves and get to work on vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation, and all the rest. At the most fundamental level, a language consists of words structured in a certain way to convey meaning. If we want to experience that meaning as a living reality, we have to learn what the words represent and how the language is structured. How could we learn this without study?
I've been studying Spanish intensively. We have a textbook for my class, and of course our teacher is guiding us through it. I have spent my days immersed in memorizing vocabulary lists, learning how to conjugate verbs (especially those tricky and all-too-common irregular ones), sorting out word order, wrestling with pronunciation (drop the dang "h"!), trying to remember those masculine and feminine word endings (did you know that men's underwear is feminine and women's underwear is masculine?) and, most difficult of all it seems, figuring out which prepositions go with which objects. Though I actually enjoy such things, it is still a challenging puzzle to put together — so challenging that if I weren't so busy with other aspects of life, I would be studying even more.
Study is essential to learning the Course as well, especially study of the Text. Yes, in the anti-intellectual climate of alternative spirituality, there are many who minimize the value of intellectual study and even regard it as a barrier to progress: "Get out of your head and into your heart." But with the Course (as with any communication in words), using your head is the way to the heart. Just as I could never convey any heartfelt communication in Spanish without knowing how the language works, so the Course cannot convey its heartfelt message to us fully unless we know how its language works.
Study is especially important with the Course, because it has such a unique vocabulary and structure, and it presents such original and radical ideas. Though written in English, it really does feel like a foreign language at first. Speaking for myself as a native English speaker who has read thousands of books, I can say with certainty that the Course is utterly unlike anything else I've ever read. It is in a class all its own.
So, as with any foreign language, with the Course there is no substitute for study. My experience with Spanish has reminded me of just how important my own Course study is to my progress on the path. Study is the foundation for everything that follows. As Jesus once said to Helen about the Course, "Bill has very intelligently suggested that you both should set yourself the goal of really studying for this course. There can be no doubt of the wisdom of this decision, for any student who wants to pass it" (Absence From Felicity, p. 285).
Of course, to learn a foreign language, you have to do more than just study — you have to practice. Here, I'm not talking so much about using the language in daily life (that will be covered in the next point). Rather, I'm talking about using the words and structural principles you've studied in a controlled setting that is designed to help you learn: in the classroom with other students, with a practice partner, and the like. The idea is to train your mind in the language, to repeatedly practice the things you've studied to really get them down, so you'll be prepared when it is time to go out into the world and use them in daily life.
That's what we've been doing in my Spanish class. Our textbook is also a workbook, and we've done many of its exercises. Our teacher has also provided a variety of additional ways to practice the words and principles we're trying to learn. We've had dialogues, such as the exchange of personal information in Spanish with a dialogue partner. We've done numerous written exercises outside of the book, such as a description of the things in my house. We've played games, such as a game in which teams competed to see how well they could match a verbal description of someone with his or her picture. All of this has proven absolutely indispensible to me.
The Course, too, requires extensive practice of the principles we've studied, in order to help them sink in more deeply. This practice, of course, is provided by the Workbook, which tells us at the very beginning that while "a theoretical foundation such as the text provides is necessary…it is doing the exercises that will make the goal of the course possible" (W-In.1:1-2). The Workbook offers numerous exercises to "train your mind to think along the lines the text sets forth" (W-In.1:4).
And just as in my Spanish class the workbook is meant to be gone through in order so we can learn in a step by-step, systematic way, so with the Course and its Workbook. It too aims to train our minds "in a systematic way" (W-In.4:1). If you really want to learn what the exercises are trying to instill, you can't just skip around willy-nilly. There is a structured program to follow, in which new learning is built on prior learning. And just as in my Spanish class, there are frequent reviews.
Interestingly, the Course's main practice is similar to the main practice in foreign language learning: the repetition of words so that their meaning will sink in. Needless to say, because of the Course's very different curriculum, it provides many other kinds of practices as well: meditation, forgiveness exercises, asking for the Holy Spirit's guidance, etc. These are practices aimed not just at teaching us how to communicate in a worldly way, but at bringing about nothing less than salvation from the human condition.
But the basic principle is the same: practice makes perfect — or at least it makes you a lot better at the thing you're trying to learn. Just as my experience of Spanish has underscored the importance of my Course study, it has done the same with my Course practice. I have been inspired to renew my dedication to my Course practice in a big way. It is difficult to overestimate the value of this practice, for in the striking words of the Workbook, "Your practicing can offer everything to you" (W-pI.RIII.In.4:5).
Study and practice are important foundations for learning a foreign language. But eventually, you have to leave the security of the classroom, go out into the world, and try the language out in real-life situations with real people. That, after all, is the whole point, isn't it? A human language is a communication device, a way of reaching out to and connecting with other people. It is a form of extension. And it is this extension, this daily use of the language to communicate with others, that really makes the process of learning the language complete.
Because I'm completely surrounded by Spanish speakers, I've had plenty of opportunities to do this. I've tried to throw caution to the wind and just dive right into talking with people. To be completely honest, it has been difficult. I'm finding out with each clumsy interaction that I need a lot more training before I can really connect with others the way I want to. This is why I'm looking for creative ways to study and practice even more. Without that foundation, I simply cannot do it. My ability to extend is tied directly to the how much studying and practicing I'm doing.
That being said, the study and practice I have done has truly helped me get better at speaking Spanish in daily-life situations. My program is clearly working, even if it is not as fast as I would prefer. (Besides Patricia, with whom I dearly love speaking her native language, I seem to do especially well with cab drivers.) And it is truly exhilarating when I use the language properly and a real human connection is made. Every time that happens, I feel like one more brick in that wall between me and the people around me has been removed. It seems like it is only a matter of time (and a lot more study and practice) before that wall will be removed for good. I look forward to that with great joy.
In like manner, ultimately our study and practice of the Course is meant to be applied to real-life situations. Specifically, we are meant to extend miracles to our brothers and sisters — loving thoughts, words, and actions that break down the ultimate wall of separation and reunite us with each other and with God.
Miracles are the whole point of this course in miracles, and learning how to perform them is the whole reason for all that study and practice. They are "communication devices" (T-1.I.46.2) far more effective than any human language (though human language can be used to extend them), because unlike human language, they can only be used to bless. They are expressions of forgiveness and love that heal separation forever:
Forgiveness, truth's reflection, tells me how to offer miracles, and thus escape the prison house in which I think I live. Your holy Son is pointed out to me, first in my brother; then in me. Your Voice instructs me patiently to hear Your Word, and give as I receive. And as I look upon Your Son today, I hear Your Voice instructing me to find the way to You, as You appointed that the way shall be: "Behold his sinlessness, and be you healed." (W-pII.357.1:1-5)
This is my real reason for learning Spanish: I want to be a miracle worker with Patricia here in Mexico, and learning Spanish will make me more effective at doing the very thing my spiritual path aims to teach me. It is through extending miracles, the ultimate communication devices, to our brothers that the wall of the "prison house" of separation is finally breached, we are connected with each other and with God once again, and our process of learning this course in miracles becomes complete.
Putting it all together: immersion
When you are learning a foreign language, what you want to do ideally is to completely immerse yourself in it through engaging in all of the above activities and more on a regular basis. You want to surround yourself with it, let it soak in from all directions and at all times, until it becomes a part of you.
That's what I'm trying to do in my process of learning Spanish. Of course, as I've said, I'm already immersed in an environment full of Spanish speakers. But I'm looking for creative ways to make that immersion even more complete. For instance, I'm reading my daily Internet news in Spanish (though of course I still read a lot of English). I've changed the instruction menus on my digital camera and my computer to Spanish. I'm reading the Spanish version of the Course. And as I said, I'm speaking more Spanish at home with Patricia.
I'm also trying as well as I can to even think in Spanish, though that's going to take a bit more time. For starters, I'm doing it in little ways. For instance, when I see a numeral, I try to immediately think of its Spanish name instead of its English one. The point of all this, again, is immersion, so that I can learn the language much more quickly. And in my case, I do think immersion is having a positive effect. I knew that Spanish was starting to really sink into my mind the night I had my first dream in Spanish.
I think that's what we're really meant to do with the Course as well. We are meant to put together everything it offers us and soak our days in it. We are meant to study it daily, practice frequently throughout the day, consult the Holy Spirit for all of our decisions during the day, and of course "each day should be devoted to miracles" (T-1.I.15:1). Like my dream in Spanish, ideally we're even supposed to keep our minds soaked in the Course while we're sleeping at night. After all, "teaching is a constant process; it goes on every moment of the day, and continues into sleeping thoughts as well" (M-In.1:6).
True, "You are not asked for total dedication all the time as yet" (W-pI.181-200.1:2). It is a gradual process of committing ourselves to the Course's way. But total dedication is the end point — "In time, with practice, you will never cease to think of Him" (W-pI.153.18:1) — and we are meant to immerse ourselves more and more in everything the Course is teaching us so that it will become the place where we live. I dearly want to do that more fully, because I want the Course's magnificent path to be the place where I live. Don't you?
At home in a new world
Learning a foreign language is really a process of entering a whole new world, and finding a home in that world. As I said, I'm learning Spanish so I can be a miracle worker with Patricia here in Mexico, and to do so effectively I really need to have a sense of belonging. Sure, I could survive here without becoming fluent in Spanish, especially since I'm living with Patricia. But I don't want to do that. This is where I live, and I want to be able to extend real miracles to the wonderful people here, whom in these difficult times dearly need miracles. This is Patricia's world, too, and I want to be able to share it with her more deeply and more completely. I'm doing all this work because I want to be fully at home in this new world.
But I want even more to be fully at home in the Course's world. As Course students, what else could we truly want? Do we not want to become fluent in its language? Do we not want to experience fully the glorious message of God's Love its language conveys? Do we not want to live in the real world its language invites us to enter? If so, let us be willing to do all that this Course asks of us to really learn it in the deepest way possible. Let us do everything we can to immerse ourselves in its radical, world-transforming language and really make it our own.
If we do so, we will not just become fluent in a foreign language, but will make a wonderful discovery: "This is your language" (T-22.I.6:2). The language of the Course is actually our native language. Though now it can so often seem like a foreign language to us, by making the effort to learn it, we will eventually realize that (to paraphrase T-22.I.6) what we hear and do not understand is our native tongue, through which we truly communicate with all of our brothers and with God. We will recognize our true home, and see everyone there with us.
Whatever our place of human origin and whatever human language we learned when we grew up, learning the Course's language will awaken us to the language it reflects, the only language that is truly our own in the deepest sense: the language of the Kingdom of Heaven. We will awaken to "the single voice Creator and creation share; the song the Son sings to the Father, Who returns the thanks it offers Him unto the Son…the joyous concord of the Love They give forever to Each Other" (S-1.In.1:2-3). Is this not worth the effort to make the "foreign" language of the Course our own?