Some Thoughts On Language Learning

This post has been a long time in the making. I have had many thoughts about language learning for the past two years or so, ever since I started learning Russian. My opinions have undergone many changes and will probably continue to do so. So, here are some thoughts I’ve had recently but have not expressed. It is this post written by Ewelina of English Focused that has inspired me to write this.

In general, you can’t learn a language in three months. Notice I said in general. I think that a native Spanish speaker could learn Italian or Portuguese or Catalan in three months, if he or she spent loads and loads of time doing so. But a native English speaker learning German or French or Russian in three months? Not happening. I speak from personal experience when I say that after three months, a native speaker of English will have learned only the basics of the Russian language. (In Russian, there is a saying that goes “The Russian language is great and mighty” and “great and mighty” often means “devilishly difficult”.) Oh, and if you’re a native Spanish speaker, feel free to dispute my earlier assertion, as I could be completely wrong.

You cannot become fluent in a language in a year, either. Again, a caveat: if you’re a native speaker of a Romance language and want to learn another Romance language, this might be possible. But in most cases, one year is not enough to become fluent in a foreign language. (I am defining fluent as having native-speaker abilities in reading, writing, speaking, and listening. Obviously this requires a high level of vocabulary and decent grammar knowledge.) One year after I started learning Russian, I thought I was really, really good. Now, after over two years of learning, I laugh at how bad I was when I had one year’s worth of learning. There was so much vocabulary I didn’t know and so many grammatical concepts I did not yet understand. And even if you are learning a language that has similar grammar and vocabulary to a language you already know, you need time to gain a sort of “feel” for the language.

The bottom line is that there are no shortcuts to language learning. In our modern society, many people seem to have forgotten the value of hard work. People seem to think that learning a few (often grammatically wrong) sentences in a foreign language make one fluent in another language. Do this in several languages, and these individuals feel entitled to say, “ZOMG I’M A POLYGLOT!” when in truth, they are not. Most things worth doing require hard work. You have to invest the time to reap the benefits.

I am not sure why this has caused such a stir in the language-learning blogosphere. Is it really a new and scary revelation that learning a foreign language takes time and effort? Is it really any surprise that people are going to be angry when they realize that you have been lying when calling yourself a polyglot? Is it really shocking that people who devote years to learning a foreign language feel like you have degraded their effort and achievements by saying that you did it in a year (but actually you didn’t)?

Seriously, false polyglots of the world: Волков бояться – в лес не ходить! [If you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen.] Also, people will respect you a lot more if you are both honest and open to criticism and dissenting opinions.