Learning languages can be an exciting, thrilling process. But it also takes a lot of time and, if you’re “in” for the long haul, you’ll have your ups and downs. Here are three encouraging truths to buck you up a bit next time you’re starting to flag.
Why you’re good enough to get fluent, even if others are better
If you’re anything like me, you may sometimes look at other people and wish that you had their language talents.
Maybe you know a great learner who has the natural ability to mimic accents.
Maybe you know someone with a superior memory for words and phrases.
It could be someone with more self-discipline…
…or a more outgoing personality.
But don’t let that be a cause of despair!
First, let’s remember that aptitude for language learning involves a bundle of skills.
Everyone’s stronger in some and weaker in others.
Second, you may be able to develop some of your weaker ones with the right training and practice.
Still, however much we compensate, innate differences will always remain.
And there’s nothing we can do about it.
It might not be fair…
…but it won’t stop you getting fluent.
That’s because the common-or-garden human brain is predisposed to recognise patterns, including the patterns that make up a new language.
This isn’t only true of children.
Today the specialists stress the importance of neuroplasticity: the ability of many parts of the brain to rewire to perform different or new functions; how the system as a whole can go on learning deep into old age.
The brain, I’ve heard neuroscientists such as Thomas H. Bak from Edinburgh University explain, really is a language learning machine.
What you have to do is to feed that grey matter with lots of material.
You have to give your language your effective attention.
You can greatly help things along with what’s called deliberate practice: focus on aspects of your language through interactive activities with constructive feedback.
Your engagement doesn’t have to be optimal.
It does have to be ongoing.
Sort that out and a big part of the trick to getting fluent boils down to patience.
You need to trust the process, trust your brain.
It may not feel like it, but actually, dear Language Learner, you’re an absolute natural!
Why “your pace” is fast enough
I’ve been wrestling with my advanced level languages for several decades now.
Thanks to that, I’ve got quite good at them…
…though not as good as I’d like, perhaps.
Anyway, one thing I’ve noticed over all this time is that, out there in the real world, these languages are always changing.
In French, Welsh, German and Russian there’s a whole new “internet” vocab that wasn’t there when I started.
A common feature of these and many other languages is that there are lots more loan words from English.
Even the British English that I hear in the UK has become more Americanised than it was in my childhood and youth, in the 70s and 80s.
But here’s the thing.
These changes stand out because they’re actually pretty marginal.
We can still read nineteenth century authors like Dickens or Melville, Balzac or Dostoevsky with our twenty-first century English, French or Russian.
At the start of the pandemic, just to get myself in the mood, I read Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year. It’s a fictional diary set in London in the year of the Great Plague (1665) and published in 1772.
Sure, some of the English seems pretty archaic, but I could still follow the action.
Go back a bit with some languages and you’ll find bigger changes.
Turkish vocabulary, for example, was extensively modified in the 1930s to “purge” the language of foreign influences.
But most of us won’t be learning a new language with the primary intention of reading literature from a century or five ago.
Yes, your new language is a big beast.
But it’s a slothful, lumbering one.
Keep going at a moderate pace and you’ll be the one who’s moving faster.
You can “head your language off at the pass”, no sweat!
Why you don’t need to worry about the judgment of others
Here’s a thought that’s actually much more cheery that it might, at first, sound:
Nobody cares about how good you are at your new language anyway.
Well, that’s not quite right.
I care, your teacher will care and you obviously care.
And, out “in the field”, using your language, you may come across the odd stickler who’s more than happy to correct you as you go.
But take any unsolicited feedback in good part.
As you speak, don’t let the fear (or the inevitable fact) of making lots of mistakes cramp your style.
After all, you’ll often be dealing with busy passers-by, train station staff or shop assistants.
They just want to “get” your message so they can give you directions, sell you that ticket or pass you your chosen loaf of bread as quickly as possible.
Other times, you’ll be speaking with colleagues or clients, with relatives or new acquaintances.
They’re more interested in your work, your background, hobbies and opinions.
So, let’s re-label our fear of making mistakes and our desire for perfection and put them in a box marked “language vanities”.
With a sense of relief, we can simply engage with others in our new language.
Yes, throw yourself into the fray with merry abandon!
Whoever you’re trying to connect with, be secure in the knowledge that they’re probably not paying much attention to your language prowess (or lack of it).
They might actually be more focussed on a humble loaf of bread 🙂
So, those are the three language learning truths:
You don’t need a special talent to get fluent. We’re all language learning naturals.
Languages change over time, but very slowly. Your pace is fast enough. You’ll catch your target.
People aren’t too worried about how well you speak. So cut yourself some slack, relax and use your language to get things done and to make connections.