How Quickly Can You Learn A Language?
Adults often concern about how long it will take them to learn a foreign language, before they have even learnt a single word. This isn’t something you would hear from a child. So what is happening here?
I can understand that time becomes a critical factor when there is an important language exam coming up, and if you don’t pass, your future may be screwed. Or perhaps you are about to move to another country for work in a matter of weeks. And if you don’t quickly learn some basic survival phrases, you may potentially lose your job. But for many people, how often does this kind of scenario come into play?
So why are adults so inpatient when it comes to language learning? As an adult, I can easily relate to this type of mentality. Because these days, many people are living an incredibly busy life style. Beside working life, family activity, and holidays, there are also a gazillion of things coming before learning. And they are all desperately competing for our limited attention. That is why language learning is often perceived as something out of the “too hard basket”.
But deep in the heart, everyone still has the urge to learn how to acquire a foreign tongue. Because communication is one of the fundamental human needs. We want to be able to communicate with others wherever we go. Unfortunately, geological separation also produces the so-called “language barriers”. Maybe this is the reason some simply choose to stay where they are.
Now, getting back to our original discussion, how quickly can a person break this language barrier? Does it take weeks, months, years or perhaps a life time as many have felt that way?
Actually this is a terrible question which is difficult to answer. Because there are so many variables which could all affect the duration of this process.
Are we talking about learning a similar language to which the person already know? It will be much easier for an Italian to learn Portuguese than Chinese or Korean. Has the “language-learner-to-be” been conditioned enough for learning? It will take much longer for someone who hasn’t studied for years to get back to the habit of learning. What level of proficiency do you want to reach? Learning to carry out a simple conversation is much easier than acquiring a university degree in another language. I can just keep going with questions like this. Do you see my points here?
Nevertheless, I won’t say people can’t learn another language quickly. An English guy named Daniel Tammet in fact managed to learn conversational Icelandic in a week. but this is because Daniel is an autistic savant who can see numbers as colourful images in his mind. What he can do with his mind is just as impressive as the character portrayed by Dustin Hoffman in the movie “Rain man”. Unfortunately, most people don’t have such an extraordinary mental ability. So don’t expect to beat Daniel for the record.
For many language learners, the goal is just to reach the functional or conversational level of a foreign language. Because when they travel to another country, they want to able to ask for directions, order food, or simply have a pleasant chat with a local to find out something interesting about the place. This is by no means a lofty goal, which shouldn’t take years to achieve. The problem is that most people take on a “sporadic approach” to learn a language. What do I mean by that?
Let me explain. First of all, most people don’t know what they should learn. In other words, their goals are unclear. They may initially learn a few random words or expressions such as “good morning, hello, or thank you”. Then they carry on with their life and never revisit what they have learnt for months. Not surprisingly, next time when they resume their lessons, the language appears to be just as foreign as when they first started.
Secondly, they don’t have a plan to learn. Like anything challenging, when you don’t have a plan, you are planning to fail. Often they don’t know where to start. They may buy a study course for beginners, or pay for a few sessions of private tutoring. Basically relying entirely on what the course has to offer.
But not all study courses are created equal. Most will just teach so-called common phrases or expressions in the new language. But they don’t explain enough how the learners can integrate the new information into their existing frame of thinking.
I once picked up a beginner’s Mandarin Chinese book and saw a dialogue like this.
Sījī Nin qù năr?
Chèngkè Wŏ xiăng xiān qù Yōnghé Gōng, zài qù Tiāntán.
Sījī Qĭng shàng chē ba.
Chèngkè Nĭ néng bu néng xiān gàosù wŏ qù zhè liăng ge dìfang dàgài dĕi duōshao qián?
Even though Chinese is my native language, for a brief moment, this block of text looked like alien inscriptions, which might need a PhD in ancient Aztec language to decode. In fact, they were written in Chinese Pinyin to help with pronunciation. But for goodness, even a pair of well-read Chinese eyes are not trained to read something like this. Let alone trying to remember them all.
Thirdly, even though there are a lot of books or programs available teaching people how to improve their memory, many still don’t understand how to use their memory effectively. They rely on rote learning by repeating the words over and over either verbally or on the paper. Not surprisingly, learning a language this way can get boring very quickly. This kills off the last bit of motivation and sadly their learning progress comes to a halt.
At last, they don’t see language learning is more than just memorising a list of words. It is like acquiring a practical skill such as driving a car. There are components which needs be practised consistently at the early stage, so the learner can progress from a cognitive stage to the autonomous stage. If you know what those components are in a language, it is possible to dramatically speed up your progress in learning a language.
As you can see, the reason people don’t progress quickly enough while learning a foreign language is because they have asked the wrong question. It’s not a matter of how quickly you can learn a language, it is what you can do differently to the usual way of language learning to improve your chance for succeeding in learning a language.
I will explain how you should approach language learning in another post. Stay tuned!