11 Ways Running is Like Learning a Foreign Language

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11 Ways Running is Like Learning a Foreign Language

Two accomplishments I feel rather proud of were accomplished in Africa. Here, I became a runner and here I learned a foreign language. Both were incredibly hard and both changed the way I see the world. Amazingly, they have some things in common. Here are eleven ways that running is like learning a foreign language, in my case, Somali.

running and language

1. Its hard.

I thought I was going to die during my first mile-long run in Djibouti and I was already in relatively good shape from doing aerobics. At the end I put my hands on my knees and gasped. “People do this, like, for fun?!” Same with studying Somali. It was hard, required obscene amounts of time and strenuous effort.

2. Progress is slow and steady.

I added a few minutes to my runs each week and built endurance. A 5k turned into a 10k, turned into a half marathon, turned into two full marathons. But that took five years. A grunted sentence in Somali, “Me like rice” turned into grammatically correct, multi-faceted sentences that include cultural knowledge as well as vocab, “I like rice that has been cooked on holidays and dyed pink and blue, with roasted lamb and hot sauce.”

3. There are pitfalls along the way.

Injuries, tripping over stones in the desert, getting lost while running in a new city. Mistakes in language usage that leaves one saying, “Do you want my husband?” instead of, “This is my husband.”

4. They change the way you see the world.

I now notice runners everywhere, I notice shoes. A guest leaves a pair of Asics by the door and I know she is a runner. I even know they are Asics. I see the world in terms of running trails and get to know new places while on my feet. Learning Somali has taught me new things about camels and color and history and saying ‘Thank you.’

5.  They open up new communities.

I didn’t know people existed who use the word “bonk” in normal conversation or who eat Gu on purpose or who think nothing is wasted about four hours spent running solo or who don’t seem to want all their toenails. Not only have I met these people, I’ve become one of them. I didn’t know people who laughed back in their throat like Somalis or who could memorize entire poems and stories simply by listening or who would sweep and mop my house when I come back from time in the US simply because they cared about me. Now I call those people friends.

6. They are never done.

I can cross off a run for the day but I am never done being a runner. It is who I am now. I will never be fluent in Somali. I am now a Somali-language-learner.

7. They make you do embarrassing things.

Running in the hottest country in the world makes me sweat in unmentionable places. On the run things like farts, spit and other bodily fluids have been, um, encountered. Certain stories remain on the trail. Learning a language also brings up embarrassments. Giving speeches in broken Somali, language mistakes (see #3).

8. They make you feel proud.

Not in a boastful, arrogant way. But they make you feel like you have accomplished something hard, worthwhile, satisfying. A marathon. The first novel read in the new language.

9. They draw strange looks from people.

Once at the end of a run in the hot season, a child saw me and was so frightened he tried to crawl onto the back of my guard, who was praying at the time. The kids screamed, “help me! help me!” When I asked the guard who the kid was he said, “I never met him before in my life.” When I speak Somali sometimes people have physically fallen to the ground in shock. Other times they simply stare. That happens a lot while I run, too.

10. They make muscles ache and make the muscles stronger.

My legs will never be the same. I’m no Paula Radcliffe but I think I’ve got some calf muscle that wasn’t there seven years ago. Don’t mess with my calves. Don’t mess with my uvula, either. Or whatever it is in my throat making those kh, q, c noises. The first few months speaking Somali made the back of my throat ache like my legs ached the first few weeks running.

11. They require support.

I needed the people who cheered me on during the marathons and other races, needed to see their faces and hear their cheers, needed to grab the Gu or the water bottle. I am so thankful they were there at the end, sometimes to literally catch me, that they were there while I trained. Biking alongside, taking care of the kids. I’ll never forget the chocolate-covered strawberries waiting for me at my front door when I got home from my first marathon, a surprise gift from my sister who lived states and states away. Learning language requires similar support, cheerleaders, encouragers, motivators. Maybe some fresh-baked chocolate chip cookie deliveries. People who notice the minutest increments of progress and who honor that.

Runners? Language learners?

Anything else the two have in common?


  1. Tamie January 28, 2015 at 9:54 am - Reply

    These are great Rachel. I’m not a runner, but I identify with some of the running analogies from when I started aerobics, almost 8 years ago now, having never exercised before in my life.

    I like 7 and 8 in particular. I gave my first series of week-long talks in Swahili a few weeks ago. I’d done two-part things and longer things, but this was the first day-in day-out set of talks in Swahili, and I found my confidence slipping each day as there were now MORE mistakes or moments when I tripped over my tongue and they weren’t just in conversation, they were IN PUBLIC, at a lectern, when I had been asked to be the speaker! I think I got worse over the week as the mortification sank in. But I think what I should have been saying was, ‘Wow, I just gave a full set of talks in Swahili when I knew not a word of it 2 years ago!’ When I think of it like that, I feel proud (even though I’m still embarrassed.)

    • Rachel Pieh Jones January 30, 2015 at 11:22 am - Reply

      Absolutely – good for doing the speech. Those are the moments you realize your progress. IF we choose to focus on that part, instead of on all the mistakes.

  2. Nia January 28, 2015 at 1:20 pm - Reply

    Ya Allah. This article is so special. Awakens something within me that was fading. Thank you!

  3. Jenilee January 28, 2015 at 5:52 pm - Reply

    Totally and completely relate. We are Ms currently living in France for language school… learning French to go to West Africa in August. We are also newish runners. Started in August 2013 and about to run the Paris Marathon {our first marathon} this April. The running/missions/language learning parallel is quite profound. God has taught me SO MUCH about myself during our runs and I find myself able to apply pretty much all of it to our journey in missions and learning French. Thanks for your post!

  4. Ingrid January 30, 2015 at 11:00 am - Reply

    Bravo and what an accomplishment. Your blog title put a big smile only face and the more I read it the bigger my smile became. What a brilliant comparison. I am a runner living in Paris. Great city but not always easy finding a running path. I have mastered 5 European language but am searching a path to learn a more exotic language. Thanks for an inspirational post. Greetings from Paris where it is snowing at this very moment! 😉

    • Rachel Pieh Jones January 30, 2015 at 11:21 am - Reply

      Thanks Ingrid! Five languages, wow, congratulations! Bon chance with adding a 6th and enjoy the snow.

  5. Caitlin February 12, 2015 at 11:25 pm - Reply

    This is fantastic. I only recently became a runner again (I ran in high school) and have been learning Korean. My biggest language mistake was telling a friend “I don’t like your baby”. I wanted to say, “I don’t think your baby likes me” because she kept moving away from me. There is a one syllable difference in those two sentences. Luckily it was with a good friend who realized my mistake and just laughed.

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