Some people view language learning as this mystical undertaking that only a select few people can do. One of my coworkers used to say that he didn’t have any “natural language talent,” which to him explained why he was having trouble in the German class he took at night.
I just don’t buy it. I’ve seen people from all nationalities, educational backgrounds, professions, and intellects succeed at language learning. Yes, it’s difficult to get to the highest levels of a foreign language, just like it’s difficult to get to the highest levels of your own language. But I believe that excluding those with severe learning or developmental disabilities, everyone can learn a new language.
I mean, learning a new language is hard, but it’s not rocket science! In fact, there are five reasons why it’s easier than you think.
1. You’ve already learned a language once.
If you’re reading this, then not only have you learned English, but you’ve learned to read in English as well. Learning your native tongue is no small feat. You probably don’t remember the hours and hours of language exposure you had as a baby and preschooler, as well as the feedback from your patient caregivers. You might remember, however, sitting through grammar, spelling, and vocab lessons in school.
For most people, learning a second language is different from learning their first. But it’s not like everything changed completely either. It’s still your brain trying to make sense of how people are communicating with you, and in turn trying to communicate back coherently.
Think of it this way. Imagine that you’re learning a new language, and with it you got the same quantity of exposure, practice, and feedback you got with your native language. How could you not learn it?
2. No one says you have to become fluent.
A lot of people treat speaking a foreign language like taking a test, and the results are pass or fail. When I lived in Germany, a lot of my neighbors hated speaking with me, because it brought back memories of verb charts and oral exams. They thought I was going to judge them, when it fact I simply wanted to make friends.
But for a while, I was just as bad as they were. I was embarrassed about my lack of German skills, until I decided to stop obsessing about my mistakes and just try to communicate.
At the time of this writing, I am absolutely not fluent in German. But in Germany, I was able to hold basic conversations, shop, give taxi drivers directions, order food, and on and on and on.
Now that I’m back in the States, I think about people in my community whom I deal with who have less-than-perfect English skills. The guy who installed my cable was Czech, he had an accent, and he messed up a couple grammar points. But who cares? I wasn’t there to test him. We made small talk, conducted business, and he told me how to get faster speeds on my Internet connection. The point of our exchange wasn’t perfection, but communication.
My point is, it’s easy to get discouraged when you know you have a long road to fluency. But you can get so many of the benefits of the language with even very basic skills.
3. People have proven it can be done.
Over 50 million Americans speak a second language besides English, and this is in a country that isn’t known for its language prowess. And if you go overseas, to Europe or Asia for example, you’ll find that a lot of people speak English as a second language ,so much so that you can often find an English speaker in the most unexpected place.
Literally millions (and maybe even billions) of people have proven that learning a second language is possible. To me, this means that if you think you can do the same—well, that doesn’t mean you have a big ego. In fact, I think believing you can’t do something that humans are clearly capable of is the mindset that really requires a big ego.
4. There are plenty of free resources out there.
You don’t need to spend $100 or $200 on language programs, and you definitely don’t need to spend thousands of dollars on travel immersion courses. If you have the money and time for all that, great. Have fun. But if you don’t, then you still have plenty of opportunities to learn.
There are so many free sources of language learning information that can help you get to your goal:
- BBC Language Courses –Introductory language courses developed by professionals
- GLOSS – Language training modules from the US military
- FSI Courses – Public domain version of US State Department Courses
- iTalki – A website in which you can connect with others to do a language exchange, in which you speak with someone else who speaks the language you’re trying to learn, who’s also trying to learn your language.
- The Library – I’ve seen plenty of cool stuff at my local library, including Pimsleur courses, language software, textbooks, novels and kids books written in a foreign language, and foreign-language movies.
- Google Translate – I mean, despite its flaws, it’s still an awesome free tool that you can use to help you learn new vocabulary.
5. Your subconscious does a lot of the work for you.
The famous linguist Stephen Krashen said that languages are “acquired” and not “learned.” Acquisition is a subconscious process, while learning is a conscious process. This idea has been adopted by many linguists and language educators.
Now, I think Krashen’s theory undervalues the role of learning. I’ve seen people “learn” languages via diligent, conscious effort. But from my observation, this is because learning facilitates acquisition. You can learn something, and once it sinks in, you’ve acquired it. In other words, I believe that learning and acquisition are two different things, but they’re both on the same timeline.
Language acquisition takes time—months, even years. Unfortunately, this means that you can’t really rush things. On the plus side, acquisition means that your brain is doing a lot of the work for you while you’re relaxing.
If you’re taking a class, for instance, all you have to do is show up and pay attention. Then when you go home your brain is hard at work trying to make sense of that new communication. It’s like, languages sink in while you’re on the couch.
Even with everything I’ve said, I won’t go so far as to say languages are “easy.” They’re not. But if you devote a reasonable amount of time, go easy on yourself, and actually try to enjoy the process, you’ll see the fruit of your efforts faster than you think.