How A 2,300 Year Old Proverb Helped Me Learn Languages

  • Donovan Nagel
    Written byDonovan Nagel
    Donovan NagelTeacher, translator, polyglot
    🎓 B.A., Theology, Australian College of Theology, NSW
    🎓 M.A., Applied Linguistics, University of New England, NSW

    Applied Linguistics graduate, teacher and translator. Founder of The Mezzofanti Guild and Talk In Arabic.
  • Read time7 mins
  • Comments16
How A 2,300 Year Old Proverb Helped Me Learn Languages

Today I want to share a simple yet profound piece of wisdom that I came across 10 years ago which radically changed me as a learner, especially with languages.

I receive emails and private messages through social media all the time from people who all seem to say they have the same problem – they’ve been learning language X for a long time (in some cases even years) and are still struggling to get real results or reach basic fluency.


It’s an awfully long time to be chipping away at it and never reaching your goal.

The first question that enters my mind when I hear it is this:

How many months or years of struggling and getting nowhere does it take for you to realise that whatever you’re doing just isn’t working?

The bottom line is, if you’re really working hard at something and not seeing the results then something’s not right about the way you’re tackling it.

And it’s not because you aren’t good at languages.

I’m convinced that every human being is fully capable of learning other languages (with the exception of those who are handicapped of course). It’s an innate function that we’re all born with – we all have the same organs and parts, the same needs, and we’ve all acquired at least one language already.

We’re all able to do it.

If you’re putting in enough effort to learn a foreign language and are motivated to learn, then there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be achieving the results you’re after.

If you’ve been working away at it for a long time and still aren’t communicating then it’s time to step back and assess what you’re doing.

How a 2,300 year old line of foreign language text radically transformed me into a learning success story

The first two foreign languages I learned as an adult (I don’t count Mandarin as I had to learn it in school) were two dead languages – Koine Greek and Ancient Hebrew.

I’m polyliterate with these languages, which means I fluently read and write them but these varieties aren’t spoken anymore (languages evolve over time after all).

I don’t actually speak Modern Greek or Hebrew yet but I plan to in the near future as my background in these old varieties means that I’m already most of the way there (even more with Hebrew due to its crossover with my Arabic).

I failed my first year in college.

As I said in a previous post, I’ve always been a visual-spatial learner which means that conventional course material and structures are useless to me, so when I first started with Greek I had a really tough time.

Like many people who are learning their first foreign language, I had no idea where to start or what approach was best for me.

Greek and Hebrew were ultimately responsible for turning me from an absolute failure to a confident polyglot and an academic success story, as it was through loads of trial and error that I learned a lot about myself.

This I’ll never forget.

One day I was reading through and exegeting parts of Ecclesiastes (Ἐκκλησιαστής/קהלת) when I came across this incredibly relevant piece of wisdom that hit me like a hard smack in the face:

The original text

אם־קהה הברזל והוא לא־פנים קלקל וחילים יגבר ויתרון הכשיר חכמה

My translation

If the axe is blunt and its edge is unsharpened, more strength is needed but skill will give success.

Ecclesiastes 10:10

**חכמה translates most often as wisdom but can also loosely translate to skill/intelligence (H-K-M root in Hebrew and Arabic).

Language Learning Skills

When I read this I pictured myself with a blunt axe (my skills) smashing away at a stump with all my energy, getting quickly exhausted and only managing to hack out a few small chips of wood at a time.

It was so true!

I was utterly frustrated, pushing myself hard to learn these languages and pass my other subjects, and ultimately I was getting nowhere. The axe was completely blunt and ineffective.

It was so profound and yet it had such a simple solution:

Sharpen the axe.

Polyglots aren’t good at languages – they’re just damn good self-assessors

And it’s something anyone can learn to do.

I now realised that my skills were blunt; the approaches that I was taking were nothing but a waste of precious time.

So I sat down and mind-mapped what I was doing, where I was having some success and where I was failing miserably.

It changed everything.

As far as my academic skills were concerned, I sought outside help by getting someone else to help me identify major areas that needed work. Sometimes it really pays to allow someone else to critique you.

I wrote in my previous post that I ended up topping both my Greek and Hebrew classes because I identified that the traditional course structure, rote memorization of grammar and vocab lists, etc. were very ineffective for me. As soon as I identified where my strengths were (taking a very visual approach), everything became much more simpler and enjoyable.

Self-analysis should never be a one-time thing either!

You need to be in a constant state of pulling your ideas and methods apart, unceasingly refining yourself – this particular activity or approach isn’t quite giving me the results that I want so I’ll try tweaking it a little or using something completely different.

I take the same approach to every other aspect of my life and other pursuits. I’m currently on a serious fitness mission at the moment (hitting the gym morning and night), and I’ve had to reassess a lot of my previous workout routines that weren’t getting me close to my goal before.

I’ve made major adjustments and already seen huge improvements over the last 2 months.

I’m also convinced that Korean will end up being one of my greatest language successes so far because of how ruthless I’ve been in conditioning the way I tackle it each day.

Those of you who read this blog know that I passionately promote a particular approach to learning languages (which I’m convinced is adaptable to any style of learner, and backed up thoroughly by research and experience), but I also acknowledge every person is very different and therefore it’s impossible to offer a one-size-fits-all answer to everyone’s problems.

For this reason, unfortunately it’s impossible to serve up a single answer in this blog post (though I’m always happy to answer emails, Skype or meet with people to help work through some of these issues by identifying obstacles).

Take some advice from George Costanza and try the complete opposite of what you normally do

If you’re a Seinfeld fanatic like I am, you’ll remember this classic scene where George decides to do the opposite of everything he normally does and gets the results he’s been after the whole time.

Of course it’s completely comical and not meant to be taken seriously but there is actually something to be learned here.

Every week here in Korea I have these days where I’m exhausted and don’t feel like doing anything (as we all do). I get home from work tired and just want to collapse into a chair or my bed giving everything else a miss.

It’s these times where I push myself to get dressed and head out for some socializing in Korean, acting against all my impulses.

I’ve had some of the most incredible encounters by doing this – I get home and say to myself, ‘I just spent hours speaking Korean and making new friends. I can’t believe I nearly stayed home.’

The same goes for walking to the gym early in the morning in the freezing cold and snow. Before you do it, your body is screaming that it’s a bad idea but afterwards you experience the rewards for doing so and have zero regrets.

If something’s not working for you, stop doing it!

Life is too short to waste years doing things that you know aren’t working. It’s time for us to assess ourselves and try some very different strategies.

As always, I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts on this.

Please ‘Like’ this post and share it around. Also, make sure to connect with me on Facebook by clicking here.

This was written by Donovan Nagel.

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Cardinal MezzofantiCardinal Guiseppe Mezzofanti was a 19th century polyglot who is believed to have spoken at least 39 languages!Learn more
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Donovan Nagel
Donovan Nagel - B. Th, MA AppLing
I'm an Applied Linguistics graduate, teacher and translator with a passion for language learning (especially Arabic).
Currently learning: Greek


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Max Lu

Max Lu

What is the definition of being a polyglot ? how many different languages that you learned fluently ? for each one, how about minimum degree of fluency ? A polyglot have to be fluent in different language’ system ? For example : He/She got different English Latin group one language, Arabic/p or Hebrew, Chinese/Vietnamese/Korean/Japanese some different system ; not just within Latin system languages enough ?

Tim Wood

Tim Wood

The links no longer work (at least for me) in the article. Would you be so kind as to refresh them.

Donovan Nagel

Donovan Nagel


Thanks for pointing that out.



could you please remove the line ‘with the exception of those who are handicapped, of course’

it’s such a massive generalisation and very unfair. it’s also incorrect.
i know what you are basically getting at but even people with brain damage or some kind of physical impairment can still be capable of amazing feats. So please be careful about your broad brush strokes

i just saw an interview with a world class concert pianist, whom has released many massively successful albums, and played in the greatest concert halls to full houses all over the world including a TV broadcast to half a billion people. He didn’t begin learning until he was 14. He is now 27. he was told he would never succeed as a concert pianist.

oh, and he was born without his right hand.
(Nicholas McCarthy)



To me it depends on the expectation. I hate the word fluent because it has never been defined and the established levels by language teaching agencies because I don´t feel like I fit completely in to any of them. Although I will give credit the American Council on Teaching Foriegn language for creating in between levels. Most people think they have to sound native with zero mistakes not realizing that even natives make mistakes, different ones but they make mistakes. That´s why I never believed my Spanish was good until I heard other learners.



Wow, Donovan, this is probably the most powerful piece of advice and most convincingly argued you’ve given in your posts (not that others were bad or anything). Once the learning skills are there, you really don’t have to worry so much about the specifics of a particular language or task. Thanks for reminding me this with this great ancient snippet of wisdom.

Loving Language

Loving Language

Thanks again! I haven’t stopped thinking about this post, especially the “axe” metaphor. Your thoughts inspired my most recent blog post. I’m wondering what you think--if you get a chance

Loving Language

Loving Language

This is a great point. I would like to add a complicating factor. Sometimes a method works well, then stops working. Then, after a while starts working again. Sometimes the change itself gets things going again. Just because a method stops working doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try it again later. Thanks for the post!

BTW Thanks for the Hebrew--that’s what I did my graduate work in.



Good point!

Very true.



Great stuff Donovan. I always remember the Abraham Lincoln quote, “If I were given 10 hours to cut down a tree, I’d spend the first six sharpening the axe.”



That’s an awesome quote!

Thanks Aaron.



Thanks Donovan!
I’m changing my approach right now... Wish someone could have given me this advice some time ago... Came across your site recently and I’m hooked! After attending classes a while ago, I’ve been trying to learn at home but have been making poor progress. I like your attitude and I’m finding that your tips and advice ring true – they’re providing really good motivation for me at this time.
After spending ages at home with the previous course-prescribed textbook (which I always thought had boring and irrelevant stories and dialogues) - I’ve now decided to drop that one and switch to another book which seems much more practical and relevant to me. I really thought I had to get through that one ‘official’ textbook in order to learn ‘properly’ – but it’s been like flogging a dead horse. I’m now spending more time learning chunks and having fun saying them in different ways throughout each day. I need to try harder to interact with native speakers – but the changes I’ve made so far… they seem to be working. Thanks again! I appreciate you sharing your language learning experiences with us all.



Great post and a good bit of advice. ‘It’s not you it’s the method.’ But I’m curious what does a visual approach to languages look like and how does it differ from a normal approach? Also you said you have studied mandarin previously. Is it a language you consider yourself fluent in or have you forgotten it? How do you find it compares in difficulty to Korean or Arabic?



Hi Scott,

I explained a lot of it.

With regard to Chinese, I did about 5 years of Mandarin in school. It’s still there in the back of my mind but I just haven’t had any interest to take it up again to be honest.

However, I am considering brushing up on it again while I’m here in Korea (in the second half of the year if I do) as quite a few of my Korean friends are fluent Mandarin speakers.

For now though I’d rather focus 100% on Korean.



One of the hardest things to do is to get people to keep trying different things until they figure out what works for them. I think most people believe there’s “a system” out there that works best for everyone and all they have to do is find it, they want a step-by-step system that you will spoon feed to them and that will work perfectly for them. How would you know what will work perfectly for them? Because you’ve developed a system that works well for you and therefore it must work just as well for them.

But of course it doesn’t work like that, it’s not that simple. What works well for one person doesn’t work as well for another. So now you’re stuck with the problem of telling people that yes, something worked great for you and they should try it but that you can’t promise it will work just as well for them, and some of those people who find that it doesn’t work as well for them, instead of realizing that it’s just due to differences in personality and learning style, will think that you lied and made this up or something because otherwise, if it really did work that well for you, it would’ve worked just as well for them.

There are general guidelines--speak with natives as soon as possible, use contemporary material intended for consumption by natives (movies, music, books, etc.) that you enjoy, consider using some sort of SRS, etc.--that will generally apply to most people, but that’s all they are: guidelines. There are some people who are genuinely better off just going with passive listening/reading-only for the first few months until their comprehension is at a certain level, and that’s fine. The problem is that not only do you not know if someone you’re dealing with, someone you’re teaching, is one of these persons, but they might not even know if they’re one of these persons, and the only way to find out is to experiment and see what works.

It’s a major problem that I haven’t fully solved yet--let me know if you’ve got any ideas, haha!




That’s very true but I also believe there are some absolutes with regards to what works and what doesn’t.

At the end of the day, because enjoyment is such a major factor in determining success or failure, no one should be made to feel pressure to use a particular system or method if they don’t like it.

"The limits of my language mean the limits of my world."
- Ludwig Wittgenstein
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