The typical language-learning ad promises you will “Learn French in 10 Days!” I understand such impatience. When my airplane finally pulls up to the gate, I want to get off just as fast as the next guy.
But if you truly want to learn your next language, a better plan is to be a little patient—in fact, a lot patient—and adopt long-term goals. Think of it as the long and rewarding road that leads to your second language.
Our expectations about learning languages are, quite frankly, odd, and ads like “Learn French (or Spanish, or Galician) in 10 Days” pander to them. While these ads might help sell language-learning programs, they reinforce false expectations. The result? Many people give up and miss out on the grand adventure of language learning.
In interviews for my research on multilingualism in America, I ask people about their language-learning experience. The result is usually a frown, followed by something like, “I took Spanish for six years and can hardly speak a word!”
I’ll bet you’ve heard—or felt—similar things. Yet we never hear anyone say, “I played trombone for six years in school and can hardly play a note.”
But why not?
I did happen to play trumpet for years in school, and like all people who played an instrument for enough years, I learned what’s actually involved in becoming a professional musician. It takes lots and lots of practice. The well-reported 10,000 hours’ worth that Malcolm Gladwell described in Outliers is about right. Most professional musicians, even those who have been performing for decades, still typically practice several hours a day just to keep up their chops and to learn new things.
Using language well—with something like fluency—is something like being a professional musician.
Think about how much you practice English—nearly all your waking hours, every day of your life. Doing that, you log in about 5,000 hours each year. And because of this daily practice, you’re always reinforcing your hearing and speaking and reading and writing, honing your understanding of nuances and subtleties as well as learning new words—for example, selfie.
So why do we assume, with only a few hundred hours of French class—and those years ago—we’ll be able to jet over to Paris and engage in lively banter with our garcons? Do we expect to leap onto the stage in New Orleans and play a trombone solo with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band?
Such unrealistic expectations kill off the motivation that’s required to succeed in the long haul that language learning is. Don’t fall victim to them.
Instead, I suggest you commit to learning your next language for the rest of your life. Commit to loving it as you love your first language. Think of it as adopting a child: a lifetime commitment, with no less love than you have for a biological child.
When you adopt a lifetime perspective, it takes the pressure off. When you have those days, as you most likely will, when you’re terribly frustrated, when it seems you’ll never get it, when it seems just too much, you’ll know there’s tomorrow.
And when you shout with joy at having understood something and having others understand you, know that you’ll have more days like that as pleasure becomes its own reward. The language instructor Paul Pimsleur wrote, “That languages take time to learn becomes a plus instead of a drawback when one considers how much a long-range commitment gives focus and continuity to a period of one’s life.”
From language learning to language living
Often I hear monolingual Americans say, “I just don’t have a talent for languages.” While it’s true that people vary in their abilities, I wonder if the people who lament their lack of linguistic talent are being fair to themselves—whether they know how much time it really takes.
I’ll ask them, “How well do you speak English?” And with a surprised look they’ll say, “Pretty well, I guess.” And I’ll say, “Then you have the ability to speak a second language, too; it’s mostly a matter of time.”
If you’re one of those who felt traumatized by language classes, know this: Even the best classroom experiences—and there can be great ones—can only take you so far. To really learn, you need to live in your adopted language in the real world. As my Spanish instructor told me, “You don’t teach a language, you learn one.” She means that a successful language learner pulls in the language through desire, rather than waiting for it to be pushed into her head by others. (This is probably true of most real learning, when you think about it.)
Luckily, it’s never been easier to pull in languages outside the classroom. You can set your technology—smartphone, car, computer, ATM, airport check-in terminals—to your adopted language. While this was done to enable speakers of different languages to navigate technologies, it’s an absolute boon for language learners.
You can watch movies, TV, YouTube and TED videos in hundreds of languages.
And then there are books.
Brad Schmier, a molecular biologist living in New York City, lives part of his life in Spanish—not because he needs to, but because he wants to. He recently read two popular books on biology—books he wanted to read anyway for his profession—in Spanish: The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.
"I enjoyed reading these very interesting and important books for my field, and worked on my Spanish at the same time,” he told me in an interview. “I love doing that!”
How do you say sex in Macedonian?
And don’t think that Microsoft real-time translation and Google Glass will make learning languages obsolete. Learning and using a second language are just too much fun. They’re rewarding in a deeply human way.
While we can be lazy, we humans do the harder thing—by choice—all the time. We like to cook, when we could just buy frozen dinners. We like to garden, when we could simply buy all our vegetables. We like to walk when we could drive. We lift weights and jog and study and learn—because using our bodies and our minds just feels so good.
Perfect machine translation will no more replace language learning than artificial insemination will replace sex.
What better language technology will do is make language learning more efficient and fun. It already has. We can put the Google Translate App on our phones, and toggle between languages on our phones as we text, getting the help of predictive spelling as we go. We can delight in free or inexpensive language resources online. (Check out Duolingo, which has gamified language learning in a most magnificent way.)
Language-learning technology makes it more enticing than ever to live part of the rest of your life inside your adopted language, enriching your life greatly.
I hope it takes you forever
I used to walk by a travel agency in Cambridge, Mass., with a sign that said, “Please Go Away!”
In the same spirit, I say to you, “Learn French in 10 Years!” And I hope it takes you far, far longer.