Many of you have heard me say before that the three keys to language learning are motivation, the time you spend with the language and your ability to notice what’s happening in the language.
Some language learners aren’t motivated, so they don’t spend the time or develop the ability to notice and they don’t learn. That’s to be expected. But there are many people who are motivated, who do spend the time but don’t succeed. They abandon their goals in frustration. Why is that?
I’ve given this quite a bit of thought. Here I am at age 70 and I’m having a great time learning languages. I can communicate with people in different languages and I have the goal of learning even more. I’m having a blast, yet I hear from people who are learning their first language or their second language and are completely frustrated.
What’s the problem?
Well, I think one major issue is that people who haven’t learned a second language don’t believe they can do it. It’s a bit like trying to climb a mountain if you don’t believe you’re going to reach the top. They don’t have confidence that they can do it and they don’t know how to do it.
There are a lot of things about language learning these people don’t realize. They don’t realize that you’re going to forget what you learned. You have to keep learning and forgetting, and that should not be a cause for frustration.
People get frustrated that they make mistakes, or that they didn’t learn that lesson and nail it down, but it’s impossible to do that. These are things that I tell people, but they don’t accept them. They seem to feel that if they put all that effort into learning and memorizing that somehow these things should stick with them. They believe they should be able to use these words, get their tenses right etc., but of course, they can’t.
I think people who have experience with learning languages are used to the idea that it’s a gradual process of getting used to the language. People who don’t have that experience want to see results. They want to be able to say something and they want to be able to say it correctly.
Maybe it’s our school system that makes us think along these lines – that because we study something we should learn it. If you’re studying for a test in Physics, for example, you’ve got to try to remember certain information, but language is different. Even if you understand the concept, you still won’t be able to necessarily use it correctly, and you won’t understand it when you listen time and time again.
Language is a matter of getting used to
This is a very important concept, that language is a matter of getting used to. As an approach to learning, it is in some ways quite Eastern. Even though in places like Japan, China and Korea they’re very much into the teacher, professor or master teaching the subject, if we look at their traditions, like the Zen tradition and the approaches to craftsmanship in Japan, it’s very much a matter of watching people, learning and getting used to something.
It’s not learning it theoretically from a book, but gradually getting used to it. The information sort of layers on to you and with each layer certain things become clear, and because these things become clear some other things become clear. But you have to have the confidence that this process, this layering process, this exposing yourself to the language is going to lead to your desired result. If you don’t have that confidence, then I guess it can be a frustrating experience.
So I think the question then is how do you overcome the obstacle of having never learned a language? It’s kind of like a catch 22. You can’t achieve that sense of transforming yourself into someone who can become fluent in another language until you do it. You have to have that leap of faith that you can do it, anyone can do it.
Now, granted, the more languages you learn, as in my case, the more used to learning languages you become. I’ve developed my techniques of learning.
How should a beginner approach language learning?
Well, it’s a matter of having confidence that you can do it because others have done it, others in different countries, of different cultural backgrounds and different ages. It’s not a matter of having some unique talent. If you go to Sweden, they all do it and they don’t all have some special gene. Anyone can do it at whatever age, so you have to accept that.
I think the other thing is to do things that are enjoyable so that the frustration of forgetting, making mistakes, the frustration and feeling that you’re very clumsy when you speak, those things don’t become the dominant experience. You have to do things that are enjoyable so that the enjoyable aspect of language learning becomes the dominant experience. That way you will put in the time, get enough exposure and become accustomed to a language.
What are those enjoyable experiences? That depends on each person. For me, as I’ve said many times, it’s listening to things of interest. It’s discovering countries through listening to political and historical content in the native language. That, to me, is enjoyable. Other people want to get out and speak early, fine. I don’t, for example, do grammar exercises because I don’t find them enjoyable, but some people do.
If you can focus on doing things you enjoy, the journey itself is enjoyable. You must accept the that language learning is forgetting, making mistakes, being clumsy, not understanding. It’s just the process of exposing yourself rather than trying to nail down a table of declensions of endings or conjugations, and if you spend the time with the language, gradually, your brain will get used to it and your ability to notice things will improve.
It’s difficult to notice
I’ve had it happen to me so many times that I don’t notice certain things in the language. Take the third person singular in the present tense in English, people are told you have an ‘s’ there. It’s “I go”, “you go” and “he/she goes”. People say yeah, yeah, I understand and then they kind of don’t really pay attention when they hear the language.
Where pronunciation is concerned, I’ve used the example many times of people who rely on how words or spellings are pronounced in their own language so a “word” becomes “ward”. Those people aren’t paying attention. They aren’t noticing. The more you learn languages, the more you learn a particular language, and the more experience you have with a language, the better you start to notice. These are all forms of experience that you gradually accumulate.
So a lot of people experience frustration in language learning because they have never achieved success in. But success breeds success and once you’ve done it once and realized that objective of becoming fluent in another language and how wonderful that is, then you have the confidence that you can do it again. Success breeds success.
Some people stay within the comfort of certain language families, romance languages or European languages, but I think the same applies to learning a language from a completely different language group, say Chinese or Japanese or Arabic. At first people are intimidated because they haven’t done it before, but once they do it and they’ve achieved that sense of success then they know they can do it.
I guess the message here is for those of you who do experience frustration in your language learning, you have to stay the course. Find ways to enjoy it, to climb that first mountain. Once you have climbed that first mountain, then you look out and you see all the other peaks, and you know that you can climb any of those other peaks because you’ve already done it. The hardest one is the first one. So I hope that that is in some way motivating.