So many today dream about learning languages. It almost became the most popular topic to discuss – “how would it be great to learn one more language”. To be honest, I was on the same path and in fact did try to learn 7 languages. After several successes (2 foreign languages) and failures (5 languages) I changed the philosophy about learning languages – languages should be learned in a very different way and I do not anymore believe it is necessary to learn as many languages.
Learning a foreign language is good, but most people do not want to learn the language, they want to acquire the skill to communicate in foreign language. There is a distinction between learning a language and learning (or acquiring) a skill to communicate. Learning the language is a much broader definition comparing to the acquisition of the skill to communicate in foreign language. Most of us need just to acquire the skill, meaning to be able to communicate in Spanish, Danish, Dutch, Chinese, Japanese with a native speaker. Most of us want to use the language in practice rather than learn it on paper. This means we need to learn not a whole dictionary, but it is perhaps enough to learn few words, few grammar constructions and go practice – talk and again talk to the natives, be corrected, see the reaction, give a try again, improve, get the real-time feedback and move on. Most often only practice can lead to the desired results. We do not need to know thousands of words and variations, or to know all the things about the culture and other small details when we study a language. It is sufficient to learn few hundred words and just go on the field to try.
This thought came to me after learning Danish for two years and still being not able to communicate with people on the street even in a very basic manner. I spent so long time exercising on a theoretical level instead of going to friends and insist to speak in Danish! This is a self inflatable bubble. I dream to learn the language without going to practice – this is so wrong. The same happened before with German and Greek language – I learned it in Lithuania for about a half year. I though I could learn it in class, but I was again wrong. It is so essential to speak with the native speaker. While Danish I learned in Denmark, and German and Greek in Lithuania, both things did not help. The same thing happened with a one year study of Spanish language. Again – leaning in class helped very little in being able to communicate.
Lets now consider more successful example – learning English. This language was again learned in Lithuania in a school for 8 years and then university for 2 years more. I got good or top grades, because memorizing and doing homework is often rewarded. By the end of studies I felt ready to go out and show language skills communicating with native speakers. However, the bubble exploded in USA, where I faced huge difficulties to communicate. I had nothing, but to improve, since my stay was termed to 4 months. After numerous talks with foreigners, finally it is on the satisfactory level.
Second example – strange pathway to acquire Russian language skill. It was enough to watch many movies in Russian language without any translation and the language somehow got into me. It does not mean I spoke Russian, because I could not test my speaking skills, but for sure I understood almost everything. It is important to note that this happened in childhood, when i was so hungry and open for new things. I had no filter, there was only desire to understand what is shown on the screen, what is the plot, why things are happening. Later on I selected Russian language subject in school, because i wanted not only to understand, but also read and write. This process of first learning by watching movies (in a way learning by practicing) and then studying the language in school was so much more useful than it would have been in reverse order.
My personal experience taught me the importance of practice and separation of learning the language (and culture) and acquiring the skill of communicating with native speakers. I believe we have tendency to go around and not straight to the point – we think languages are beautiful thing to learn, but do not want to go straight where we need to go – practice.
Understanding needs would help also to not be hypnotized by over popularized idea of learning many new languages. To learn or acquire a skill to speak other language is still a large commitment that would take hours of practice, difficulties, resistance and mistakes. Do we consider alternative time allocation – instead of learning a language (which we might happen not need) acquire some other skill? Learning a language takes time and more importantly – maintain the level. If you do not live in the country of the language you are learning and have no connection with the language, how learning this language can be more useful than for instance studies of the sleep?
Please understand me correctly – learning foreign language is important and useful. The question is only the way we learn the languages, how much time we devote to it, so that it would not take over the time of studying other important things. I thought of following sequence to consider when learning extra language:
- It is very wise to learn at least 2-3 foreign languages to enlarge your perspective and be able to communicate, read and write. Beyond this it becomes more like a passion, hobby, profession.
- These foreign languages better to be useful languages that would be useful in practice. For instance, by speaking Russian, you get a better access to understand and sometimes even communicate in many Eastern, Central and even Southern Europe, where countries belong to the Slavic language family.
- Start early on acquiring the skill of communication with the native speakers. Parallel to learning, it is crucial to practice as much as possible with the natives. Find a friend of foreign language. Find a person who wants to exchange the languages. Be in the environment where you could practice the language.
- Only after practicing a lot, we could decide to dive into learning the language in depth, studying the details, reading the books.
By learning 2 foreign languages you will be 1 language above the European average of 1 language (see the graph), by learning 3 foreign languages you will be 2 languages above. Some countries, such as Netherlands speak in total 3 languages and UK speaks 1.6 languages. It seems that the smaller the country is the more open it is to learn the neighboring languages.