A Gymnast's Guide to Balance, Learning, Evaluation, and Practice

Growing up, I was a (very unaccomplished) gymnast. I loved everything about gymnastics, but I particularly enjoyed the balance beam. I loved being up above the ground, I loved the opportunity to do fancy tricks while dismounting, and I loved the challenge of staying upright on just four inches of wood. Though I could do very few difficult moves in any of the events, on the beam I could do a 720° turn - in high school gymnastics, considered a high superior move - consistently and with ease. The skill of maintaining balance was something I enjoyed and excelled at (I think this may have leaked into other parts of my life!).

As I progress in my Luganda study, the metaphor of the balance beam has a strong resonance for me. While you are up on the beam, even the most basic movements, so easy on solid ground, become difficult. You must learn to move your body in a completely new way to suit the constraints of the beam. And, as you move across the beam you are checking in with yourself constantly to ensure you are keeping balance. You don't walk across the beam and assess your movement at the end of the walk. No, on every single movement you are aware and adjusting.

In Luganda, even the most basic communication feels incredibly challenging. You must learn to move your mouth in new ways to fit the new language, and they ways in which you hold yourself, or even the basic tenets of your personality may even change in the context of the new culture. All the while, you are making constant adjustments in response to how you are progressing, checking in with yourself to understand why things are working and why they may not be. Evaluation and adjustment are constant.

As I learn the skill of balancing in Luganda, I'm working on a couple tricks. One of the ones I'm struggling with the most is: How do you find the balance between the mastery of a topic and moving on to the next lesson? I am finding myself keen on achieving full mastery of a vocabulary list or tense before moving on to the next. However, this insistence on mastery is slowing me down. How do I expand the breadth of what I learn while ensuring that I am actually deeply learning the topics I've covered? I have to admit, I have not found the right balance on this front yet.

Maybe the most important similarity between the balance beam and Luganda learning is the absolute necessity of practice (and the importance of failure in the midst of that practice). In both, we learn by doing, by failing, and by many repeated attempts. Our brains learn what to pay attention to, muscle memory kicks in, and we eventually achieve success. And then, it's on to the next trick or the next topic.

My practice this past week has consisted of some of my standard techniques - my weekly mentorship session, practice writing out sentences using the tenses I have learned, listening to the radio, and practice on Quizlet. I also have been doing some reading of news stories and then supplementing them with watching videos about the same story, to practice both reading and listening, and to see if I can gain understanding through context. That has been a satisfying new addition to my routine.

Though I never gained any acclaim as a gymnast, I'm grateful for the ways it taught me to think about balance, about the process of learning and evaluation, and about the importance of practice. I'm confident that, at the very least, I'll be able to become much better at Luganda than I ever was at gymnastics!


  1. Hi, Lauren:

    This was a very beautifully constructed blog post, and the metaphor of gymnastics, as you've framed it, seems very appropriate.

    Although I am not entirely sure how you've framed your individualized study plan, I wonder if you can use some of the material from a previous week as you're learning new material, in order to address the issue you're having with mastery before moving on. For example, if, one week, you were learning food items (which I believe you were having trouble with last week), you could study it to the best of your ability the week it was "assigned," but the following week, you could combine it with your new material. If, for instance, you were learning to say "I want..." or "I have...," or to describe objects, these lessons could easily be combined, effectively allowing you to build new material onto "old" material and not learn by use of disjointed concepts.

    I hope that helps! Keep plowing along! I love to read about your (and the rest of our classmates') progress!

  2. Thanks, Kathryn, that means a lot!

    I like your idea - it really makes sense to bring in the previous weeks' topics into the current week's study. That way I'll feel like I'm still in the process of mastery of the first set, while expanding to a second. Thanks for the great idea and the encouragement!!!


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