How to Rekindle Your Passion for Learning English
(Lessons From La La Land)

Passionate English Coach

Abby Weng, English Coach & Consultant

I once wept at a Cirque du Soleil performance

It sounds strange, I know: who cries at a circus? To be fair, it wasn’t just any circus performance. The show that I saw was called Varekai, and it began with a jaw-dropping scene: in the center of the stage, suddenly, there was Icarus suspended in midair.

The passion of Icarus in Cirque du Soleil!

In Greek mythology, the flight of Icarus is a cautionary tale against arrogance.

As the story goes, Icarus’ father is a master craftsman who builds two pairs of wings so that he and Icarus can escape from imprisonment.

Despite the father’s warning against getting too close to the sun, Icarus is so delighted by his newfound ability to fly that he soars straight into the sky. The sun’s heat eventually melts the wax that holds everything together, and so begins the infamous fall.

In most versions of this tale, Icarus is swiftly sent to his demise

He is “punished for… his failure to recognize the limitations and precariousness of one’s human condition” (Contemporary Art and Classical Myth) — how dare he reaches for the sun!

But not in Varekai 

This beautiful Cirque du Soleil performance reimagines the popular myth. Instead of plunging to his death, the boy falls into an amazing forest where he begins an extraordinary journey.

“Varekai” means “wherever” in the Romani language spoken by the Gypsies, and according to the show’s description, “On this day at the edge of time, in this place of all possibilities, begins an inspired incantation to life rediscovered.”

The audience delights in the possibility that Icarus is rewarded for his courage

Though he does fall, he is not destroyed. He may not be meant for the sky, but he is given a chance to discover a new world that’s beyond his imagination.

To me, that scene of his reinterpreted fall is all about the beauty of the human endeavor. I find solace in the reminder that the universe ultimately responds to our tireless effort to reach for greater heights. Varekai is a poignant celebration of the pursuit of our dreams.

Do you still think it’s odd that I cried?

If, by now, you can understand how moving that moment was for me, you can probably also understand why my eyes were brimming with tears as the end credits of La La Land rolled.

In the same way, La La Land pays tribute to the human spirit by following an aspiring actress, Mia, and a jazz fanatic, Sebastian, as they pursue their seemingly impossible dreams.

If you are an English learner who’s encountered some setbacks, you will surely resonate with the characters’ struggles portrayed in the film.

For many English learners, fluency appears to be forever out of grasp, and it always seems to be easier to just give up. La La Land reminds us of the importance of keeping our passion alive. What’s more: it teaches us three important lessons on just how to accomplish that so we can have the strength to carry on.

Here are the three elements of nurturing passion:

1) Cling to a grand vision

2) Fall in love with the process

3) Surround ourselves with passionate people about my struggles

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1. Vision

La La Land‘s Mia and Sebastian are able to endure countless rejections and setbacks because they both have dreams that are much greater than their present difficulties. Our belief in a cause that’s bigger than ourselves allows us to keep going even when everything in our immediate environment may be telling us to quit.

We can laugh off a setback and try again because we are absolutely convinced that the final result is worth it.

I’ve always loved this line by Samuel Beckett: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Only a grand vision can justify this kind of tenacity, pushing us to move past the hurt we feel on a personal level to rejoice in what’s ahead.

The more specific that grand vision is, the more it can lift us up in times of trouble. For Sebastian, for instance, he has a very clear picture of the kind of jazz bar he would one day open. He has a name for it, and he has plans for all the activities that would take place inside his private kingdom. For him, the dream is miles away from realization, but at the same time, it is tangible in his mind. Remembering what all the hard work is for motivates him to get back up time after time.

As an English learner, do you have a grand vision that’s specific?

Most people say that they want to be fluent, but what does fluency mean? Being “fluent” is as vague as being “good”. These words can apply to so many situations that they have become meaningless until we give them our personal meaning by fleshing out a grand vision.

What do we want to do with your English at that level of fluency we so desire? Do we want to chat with a love interest, study at a particular school, get a certain job, start our own business or write our own song (to name just a few possibilities)?

Remember: developing a grand vision and clinging to it will keep our passion alive and enable us to make extraordinary leaps we may otherwise miss out.

While keeping the ultimate destination in mind can encourage us to continue our journey against all odds, falling in love with the process also makes a huge difference.

2. Process

The protagonists of La La Land are both madly in love with their art

While one dreams of becoming a renown actress one day and the other is determined to preserve jazz by opening a club, they share the same zeal for what they do. Acting lights up Mia’s soul and Sebastian, well… Sebastian is utterly crazy about jazz — he lives and breathes the music.

It may take years until they ever get anywhere near their grand vision, but until then, what they do on a daily basis can still delightful and even the minutia can be meaningful because they’ve fallen in love with the process in addition to the result.

As we have discussed, having a grand vision is important

Nevertheless, if that’s all we have, then we may end up treating every step along the way as a necessary evil when it doesn’t have to be that way.

John Milton wrote in Paradise Lost, “The mind is its own place and in itself, can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.” The poet observes that we have the capacity to turn heaven into hell and hell into heaven with our mind.

English learning can indeed seem torturous. I’ve met some learners who treat everything related to the subject as an enemy. However, it is certainly that if we learn to appreciate the language and treat the problems we encounter not as evidence of our deficiency but rather, opportunities for growth, the learning process can bring such joy into our lives

The same process can either be hell or heaven depending on our perspective 

But how can we learn to find fondness for the process if we just absolutely hate it at the moment? The search for an answer brings us to the final point: you must surround yourself with passionate people who can show you how to appreciate and even fall in love with your pursuit.

3. People

La La Land is all about passion

Human beings are social animals

As such, we are deeply affected by those around us. We can see the importance of surrounding ourselves with passionate people on multiple occasions in Lala Land.

In a pivotal audition, Mia recalls how her heroine jumped into the freezing river barefoot, totally carefree. Though the experience ended up giving the woman a cold for a month, she had no regrets.

That spirit on fire inspired Mia to become an actress.

In the song, “The Fools Who Dream”, she sings about how she will always “remember the flame”, which is her aunt’s passion, and how she traces everything back to that moment:

“Her, and the snow, and the Seine

Smiling through it

She said she’d do it again”

The power of other people’s passion can also be observed in the relationship between Sebastian and Mia. 

Not long after their meeting, Mia confesses to Sebastian that she does not in fact, love jazz. He is taken aback for a moment but then becomes determined to change her mind. As they listen to a live performance in a club, he explains the experience to her and his love for the music is contagious. Mia is quickly won over — she falls in love not just with Sebastian but with the music too. Suddenly, that “elevator music” becomes so much more; it’s rich with history and significance.

“People love what people are passionate about,” she says.

We, as the audience, also begin to feel a growing sense of appreciation for the music we hear.

Indeed, we are able to see something in a whole new light with the help of another. Other people’s passion can shed light on the dark alleys in our mind, helping us see beauty where we could not detect any before. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but what we see is largely dependent on what we know and how we think.

In the story, Sebastian is also the one who inspires Mia to start writing a role for herself. While taking a walk together, she jokes about how the world “doesn’t need more actresses”. He shocks her by saying “Fuck it. Stop compromising… If you don’t like the roles out there, write one for yourself.”

When Mia protests that she is no writer, he says, “Now you’re gonna make me cry. Louis Armstrong could have just played the marching-band charts he was given. Instead he made his own music. The rest is history.”

That conversation plants a little seed in Mia’s head

She eventually decides to write her own play. Of course, she encounters still more challenges on that path, but when she feels completely defeated and ready to give up, Sebastian is there once again, pushing her forward. She eventually lands a life-changing role because of his unwavering conviction that she can be all that she wants to be.

In short, not only can the passion of others help us discover new beauty, it can also remind us of the old beauty that we may cease to see as we become blinded by our struggles. The right people can inspire us to reach beyond our wildest dreams; they empower us to take risks and encourage us to persist. They help us remember our purpose.

We’ve covered a lot of ground here, so let’s rewind a bit

La La Land shows us the importance of passion, but more than that, it teaches us just how to nurture that flame. In this article, we discussed the three most essential ways to keep our passion burning strong:

The first way is to make sure that we have a grand vision.

To do something extraordinary, we have to set our mind on extraordinary goals. We have to be able to see our destination in high-definition detail, as if we’re already there. In fact, the more specific the image, the more power it has to lift us out of despair. Our grand vision is like a lighthouse in the middle of a storm.

The second way is to fall in love with the process.

Instead of seeing the journey as a living hell, we can learn to enjoy it. Of course, we won’t be able to love everything about the process, but it is important for us to find a way to appreciate and relish most of what we do — and trust me, it’s possible to do that

Finally, the third way is to surround ourselves with passionate people.

The beauty here is that if we surround ourselves with the right people, we will find inspiration both when we are defining our grand vision and when we are trying to fall love with the journey.

Do you ever feel like Icarus tumbling down from the sky?

At some point, we all feel disappointed by our apparent inability to reach that faraway ideal. In times like those, remember Cirque du Soleil’s “Varekai” (and of course, watch La La Land already)!

That Icarus is punished for his audacity is only one way to see his fall. My preferred version of the story greets the hero with a surprise: a whole other world opens up to him along with that fall, and in the end, he gets what he’s always wanted: freedom (even though it is presented in an unexpected way).

Whether you see your present setback as destruction or invitation entirely depends on the grand vision you have, the love in your heart for what you do and the people who support you.

Next Step

I created English Ever After, an online membership community, with the ambition to help people rekindle their passion for the English language. I am there to guide you every step of the way as you begin to uncover your grand vision, and I’m also there to show you how to fall in love with the process. Of course, we have a tight-knit network of brilliant members who will support and encourage you on this exciting journey!

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