Why You Should Skip Comparing

Comparison is the thief of joy.

Theordore Roosevelt

Reading time: 3 minutes

Comparison is a dangerous poison to the language learner–but it’s one that we’ve all gotten ourselves sick on. 

Comparing our language ability to others’ can be enticing for lots of reasons. One of the most compelling reasons for us to compare ourselves with others is because we want to gauge our position and progress. It’s normal. 

But that doesn’t mean comparison to others is smart! It’s actually quite foolish most of the time. Why foolish?

Because we all are working off of different maps, so to speak.

Our maps and our checkpoints are different. Our needs, current and future, are different than those we know and work with. We all have destinations and goals we’re trying to reach, but we’re all trying to progress toward multiple, individual checkpoints along the way. 

Given that we’re all working off of different maps, here are at least two reasons why it’s stupid to compare yourself to others in your language ability–especially your classmates and friends.

  1. Because our needs and “checkpoints” in life are different, you can’t possibly hope to measure your progress on your journey by looking at someone else’s map!
  1. It’s a waste of your valuable energy and time. You have a tightrope to walk between Level Zero and Level Hero in your language abilities. And if you’re always looking to your left and your right, you just might fall. You certainly will have a hard time moving forward, which is the only direction that matters. 

Research shows that acknowledging the different ways in which we each learn languages can majorly work to our advantage. In fact, a study by Madeline E. Ehrman, Betty Lou Leaver, and Rebecca L.Oxford found that the most effective language learning programs leaned heavily on individualization where students had a good deal of autonomy and determined on their own what course they would take in their learning.

So chart your own course in your language study. Walk your own tightrope. Take time to decide what checkpoints you personally want to reach, independent of what others around you might be doing. Chart your own map, and let your classmates and others follow theirs. 

Parting thought: In the time it takes you to compare your language ability to your friend’s, you could have probably learned a new word. Or two. ?

So what can you do when you feel yourself start to compare? Find ways to work together with your peers, instead of competing. One student had this experience:

I have noticed myself comparing my opportunities/experiences with the successes of other people. Sometimes I wonder if there is something I am doing or not doing that is keeping me from these same ‘successes’…today Matt asked if I wanted to go read the Qur’an with some shabaab down the street. I didn’t want to because I was tired, but I decided to go anyway and forced myself to put myself out there. We ended up hanging out with them and talking with other people for about 45 minutes. I didn’t understand at least half of what they were saying, but I keep telling myself that that is okay.

When the student set aside his tendency to compare, he was able to take advantage of a great practice opportunity. It’s okay to not be perfect!

How do you know if you’re being distracted by comparisons? Take a look at our article about developing self-awareness as a language learner.

Try it out!

Time required: 1-2 minutes. 

How much is comparison affecting you and your study?

Be very honest with yourself for 30 seconds, and consider some of these questions as a starting point. 

  1. Who do you compare yourself to most often in the language? In other fields? 
  2. How much benefit are you deriving from this comparison? 
  3. What thoughts could you use to replace thoughts of comparison when they come?