My good Russian friend asked me today why so many people tell her they are studying Russian but then quit. I told her there were a lot of reasons people try to learn a language. But the two that stand out for me are the ability to know when foreigners are laughing at you, and the chance, if you are single like me, to meet more single babes.
Learning a foreign language is exotic. At first it doesn’t seem too hard. You learn to count to ten. Maybe there is an alphabet and you learn to sing the alphabet song. (Aleph, Beth, Gimel Daleth….) Or maybe it’s syllabic, like Japanese, and you learn to say the fifty different sounds, then you learn to read the symbols that go with the sounds. Whatever the case, there is the initial exhilaration that this is something you can handle, it’s not going to be so difficult.
Then the reality sets in. The first is when you start to understand just how many words are in a working vocabulary, and how many more words you have to learn to be fluent. You start to understand that native speakers don’t sing songs, make TV shows and movies, and generally speak slowly enough for beginners to be able to make out all the words. And they don’t pause between each sentence, so that you can translate the sentence into your native language in your head before they move on.
Also, there are local dialects and local pronunciations. And a lot of times people mumble and gloss over really common phrases so fast that you can’t really catch what they said. This is all unlike the nice practice tape that spoke so clearly and only used the standard dialect and pronunciation. You also begin to learn that some dialects don’t even use the same words. So now you have to expand your vocabulary another 1000 words. That means another three or four weeks learning vocabulary (or months for a pictographic language life Chinese or Japanese).
Some languages are not so hard to learn if they have similarities to your native language. For instance, there are five “romance” languages; Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, French and Romanian. English is actually a mix of many languages, but has a strong tie to the five romance languages, which are all derived from Latin. English also mixes in Saxon dialects and Greek, along a smattering of Arabic words and other loan words. So it’s not to hard to learn any romance language if your native language is one; and it’s not too hard to learn Greek, German or Gaelic if you know English. Russian uses an alphabet that is derived from roman, Greek and Hebrew characters, and a lot of Russian words are similar to English or German.
OK, you mastered the alphabet, you learned some vocabulary. You’re on your way. Then, suddenly, you run into an entirely new system of grammar. Some of these, like Chinese, aren’t so hard. Chinese has only one verb form, and the markers for present, past and future are few. But there are all sorts of rules about where in the sentence these markers should go. And there are all sorts of little particle words that change the meaning and must be in the right place to make sense. In English, we can say, “I went to the store yesterday” or “Yesterday, I went to the store.” In Chinese, no one would understand the sentence if you said it the first way. Russian is not as grammatically easy as Chinese, though. In Russian, the verb has a different ending depending upon present, continuing, past, future, conditional, person, number and gender. And there are different classes of verbs that take entirely different endings. But don’t think the verbs are alone in this. The nouns have different endings, too.
Adults often marvel at how fast children learn languages. But you have to remember that children depend upon communication for their very survival. (The real marvel of infancy is that parents learn to interpret the grunts and cries of infants well enough that they can survive until they can actually speak.) And children are more frustrated than adults at their inability to speak. That is why they practice it all day and into the night. That and learning how to walk are their only assignments. Think about it–if you could do nothing all day but practice learning to speak a language, how fast do you think you could learn it? Chances are you could learn faster than a child. Yes, children learn to speak in a year or two, and to master common conversations about the fundamentals in three or four years. But it takes them another eight or twelve years to be able to write and speak fluently. (In modern American cities, only a fraction of students ever get that far.)
What really motivates a lot of people, especially men, to learn a foreign language, is the prospect of increasing the dating pool. Years ago, I sent away for my free Russian bride subscription. The idea of striking up a conversation with one of those beauties kept me going for awhile. Now that the internet has exploded, international dating sites are everywhere. Being able to speak other languages give one an advantage.
That same advantage applies to business and other pursuits today. English, especially, is sought after by many foreigners who wish to attract American and English businesses to their locations, or who wish to secure a job in a multinational company. To a lesser degree, English speakers of multinationals find it smart to know the lingua franca of the people with whom they deal, since it’s easy to loose subtle meanings in the translation.
There are many reasons people begin learning foreign languages. There are also many reasons they quit. But time factors into all of them. It takes practice every day to improve at a language. Reading, speaking, hearing and writing are all important skills that must be mastered. And it’s not as easy as strapping on a pair of earphones and blasting the Mp3 while out for a jog. I used to try to practice conversational Chinese on the treadmill. But that kind of thinking uses a lot of energy, making doing both at the same time almost impossible. I discovered I could read and walk the treadmill at the same time and just barely survive. It takes a long time for your brain to be able to process spoken language. It takes even longer to get past the point where you need to translate a language back and forth from your native tongue in order to speak. In other words, fluency only comes as you begin to think in the language.
Learning the language well also involves learning the culture from which the language comes. Every language has its idioms that are based upon normal scenes of life. These go beyond the meanings of the separate words and created whole new meanings. Take, for instance, the phrase “doing the full Monty”. Most everyone who speaks English as a native language knows that this means to strip and walk around naked. But there are no words that actually describe disrobing or nakedness. Every language has these kinds of phrases that make perfect sense to those in the culture but are completely baffling to foreigners. This is why, even when I knew Russian and French fairly well, I could not do well at internet chatting. I was missing all the cultural signals.
Learning a foreign language is certainly not impossible. And there are many useful reasons for learning even a little bit. Certainly almost any people will appreciate and respect you more for at least trying to speak their native tongue. But learning a language well is a big commitment; the more distant the language, the greater the challenge. I mastered intermediate French in a year, because french is very close to Latin, which I learned in school. But Chinese is, grammatically, verbally, tonally and culturally, as far on the opposite side of the language spectrum as China is on the opposite side of the world from America. And, for my Chinese friends, English is just a hard to learn. In eight years, I have managed to finally speak in simple conversations.
If you feel like learning another language, go for it! But don’t expect miracles, unless you can really immerse yourself in it. For me, Chinese TV and films with subtitles have helped tremendously. The best thing, if you can afford it, is to go to the country whose language you want to learn and live with natives who don’t speak your language. Then you will be like an infant, forced to learn the language to survive. If you can only devote one hour a day, expect to take a decade or two to be fluent. If you can devote three hours a day, if may only take five or ten years. But you don’t have to be fluent to use you language. In most cases, you can get by in everyday situations if you can speak about 250 to 500 words well. You probably won’t be able to read the paper. And a menu may take the help of a phrase book. But you will be amazed how much more you can enjoy anything if you can speak a little.
For two months, I was not able to study Chinese. After two months, I did not even want to start again. The pages all looked foreign to me again. But, after two days, most of it came back to me. If you don’t use the language, you will lose it. But, on the bright side, each time you go back to it, it comes much easier. It just takes your brain a little while to put the words back on the front burner for easy access. (How’s that for an idiomatic phrase?) So, even if you’re like me and my Russian, and you haven’t done it in years, don’t be afraid to go back and give it another try. But wait till you have some time to commit to it. Crying children, deadlines and other commitments will make concentration too difficult, and you’ll only quit again in disgust.
One last tip. Write out the names of all the things in your house in the words of the language you want to study. Then tape these words to those items. Each time you use them, you will automatically learn the vocabulary. Why not learn three or six, or a dozen different vocabularies at once that way? If you have children, they can help you label everything. Then you can all learn together and have lots of practice partners. Next thing you know, you’ll be old and gray, and your foreign ambassador children will be calling you every day to chat in the languages of their adopted countries.