Thoughts on language learning

While I was at DFDF, I noticed that some people who have spent more time than I have in Germany have more trouble with the language than I do. I don’t claim to be fluent at it, but I can generally understand people and be understood. Several years ago I reached the point where if I talked to strangers in German, they’d usually answer me in the same language instead of switching to English. That was a major milestone for me. At this DFDF, there was a workshop on translation. I was the only native English speaker there, so we used German, and I was invited to ask about anything I didn’t understand. I got through it understanding almost everything and participating actively. It was a thrill to be able to do that!

Why do some people get to a pretty good skill level at a language, while others put in just as much effort but still struggle? I haven’t done any scientific study on this, but here are a few thoughts from my personal experience.

1. Be bilingual before you’re six. This advice is certainly too late for nearly everyone reading this blog, but I think I benefited a lot from knowing some Greek from an early age. It got me used to the idea that there’s more than one language, to speaking with two sets of phonemes, to seeing relationships and differences between languages.

2. Use the language. Textbooks and language labs are fine, but the only way to make a language stick is to use it in real life. Look for publications that interest you, even if you can only understand a little at first. Join forums or mailing lists that are tolerant of beginners. If you have friends who know the language, exchange email with them in their language. I started talking to my cats in German. They’re very accepting of grammatical errors. It’s gotten to be such a habit that I now talk to cats in general in Katzendeutsch. I enjoy listening to science podcasts in German, learning something new while getting practice in the language. When you’re talking with people, you may have to push back a little when they switch to English; explain that you’d like the practice, if they can stand it.

3. Make mistakes. The only way to learn a language is to use it, and you have to be willing to get it wrong before you can get it right. Accept corrections. Get a little better each time.

4. Pay attention to grammar, but don’t let rules paralyze you. I see advice in a lot of places not to worry about grammar till you know the language well. This is the way children learn their first language, but it doesn’t work when I approach a new language. The advice may be the result of an excessive, paralyzing emphasis on getting grammar right in years past. Human languages aren’t like computer languages; you can’t apply a set of rules that will unfailingly tell you which sentences are right and which are wrong. But learning how sentences are put together and how gender, case, and number work is much easier than pure induction from examples.

5. Enjoy the language. If you think of it as a struggle, with a reward coming only after years of study, it will be a struggle. I think a big part of my success in German is that I enjoyed learning it, pulling out bits of comprehension, looking at strange books, making silly mistakes, and doing sillier things in it like talking to cats. Enjoy the ride, and you’ll get there.

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