I’ll never forget the most important word my Russian language teacher taught me, and I think it applies to every language.

When I was 16, my family moved from Texas to Missouri, and my new high school’s French program left a lot to be desired.

In my senior year, I decided to skip French and try out Russian, a new course offered for the first time that year. (Back then, Russian was the “in” language to learn, so we could help win the Cold War.) For me, the linguist wanna-be, it was just another fascinating language I wanted to try. Memorizing was easy for me, and I really liked the teacher, Mr. Bob Bair.

One day he was drilling the Cyrillic alphabet, writing the symbols on the chalkboard and calling on us to identify them. He wrote one of the few letters I’d not mastered – the equivalent of the letter “G” in English – and called on me. My mind went blank, and after a few tense moments of silence, I had to admit I didn’t know the answer. I was both embarrassed and furious with myself. I had gotten nearly perfect grades in my French classes, and I wanted to be the best student in Russian, too.

As he gave me the correct answer, I pounded my fist on my desk, saying loudly, “Dang it! I can NEVER remember that one!” I was truly frustrated, and my mind was full of negative self-talk, punishing me for my “stupid” mistake. Mr. Bair stopped and strode over to my desk. He leaned down to look at me and said quietly,

You’ve only been learning this language for a few weeks now. Be nicer to yourself. Don’t say ‘never.’ How can it be ‘never’ after just a few weeks? Instead say, ‘I can’t remember it yet.'”

He turned and went back to teaching, while I sat there dumbfounded. Such a subtle change in verbiage created a huge shift in my thinking. It was a defining moment for me, even a golden moment.

Yet.

This little word conveys enormous meaning. I like to think of it as a tiny cheerleader in word form. Those three letters express hope. A promise of something better to come, and courage for the journey to get there.

I don’t think I ever thanked my teacher for this word, but I hope I get the opportunity to reconnect with him someday. His lesson helped me a lot as a foreign language student, but even more as a student of life. It applies to any subject, at any level. Whenever I struggle to do something new, I remind myself of “yet.” I pat myself on the back and say, “It’s OK. I’m not good at this yet, but I will be.”

No matter what foreign language you are learning, always remember to be patient with yourself. Keep practicing and don’t give up.

Pas encore. Not yet.

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