Repetitio est mater studiorum, they taught me in the 6th grade of a classical gymnasium in St. Petersburg, Russia. That is, “repetition is the mother of all learning.” Despite having been expressed in Latin, I thought it was a dumb idea, as you can only learn something new, whereas you can only repeat something old.

Latin verbs were difficult, ideas elusive and uncomfortable to decipher. I did not like to repeat what was uncomfortable, I chose avoidance. When it was time to prepare for the final exam, I spent time playing computer games with my friend. The exam was failed to my shame, and I had to study and retake it. Yet I still could not comprehend the ancient proverb.

When it came to cooking, I hardly fared better. There was nothing elusive about it, I just didn’t do it. My mother was a firm believer that studying was more important than household chores, because if you study, it can transform your whole future, whereas if you wash dishes, all you get is clean dishes today. Different reason, same result: my cooking and my Latin have remained at the 6-th grade level ever since.

Coming back to the linguistic realm, I have been studying English since second grade, yet I was not good at it. Consistently, grade after grade, I would be placed in the bottom half or third of the class and given easier assignments than some of my classmates. However, English was taught every single year in school, and then in college, so I had no choice but to keep learning. I thought poorly of my ability even when, by my late teens, I was reading quite fluently, finishing Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” and Somerset Maugham’s “Theatre”.

Things began to change

After moving to the U.S. I still thought poorly of my ability because I could not pick up certain jokes on the fly; even at 26, “Wings of the Dove” by Henry James was way over my head, and I quit after the first chapter. Only two years later I found myself in the tutoring business. I took SAT, ACT, GMAT, scored in the 99-th percentile on each section of all three exams — including verbal sections, that is — and suddenly realized that I had more knowledge of English grammar, and more intuition, than most native speakers. Another couple years later I started seeing dreams in English and unconsciously switching from Russian to English and back in conversations with bilingual friends. Save for a remaining accent and my disdain for English punctuation rules, I had to admit my achievement of a rare level of proficiency for an adult immigrant.

It has never been my goal to become a fluent English speaker, reader, and writer, nor was I following a proven system. It’s just that I went through a lot of repetition and a great variety of experiences, and as a result, I have learned a great deal.

What can we learn from my story?

  • If you are not good at something, you have probably not practiced it that much.
  • If you are good at something, you have probably practiced it a great deal.

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