A popular New Year’s resolution, along with “go to the gym” or “get organized” is “learn (insert language here).” If improving your language skills in 2014 is on your list of resolutions, and you’d like to know a little about a linguistic perspective on learning new languages, then read on!
First, I think it’s important to say that I always encourage people who want to learn a new language, no matter what age you are, or what level you’re starting at. Learning a second or third or twelfth language gives you access to new ways of thinking, of seeing and understanding the world and it’s people. It opens up your mind to recognizing that languages are arbitrary, that all cultures are valid, and that people are really happy when you at least attempt to speak to them in their native tongue.
But unless you spent the first few years of your life in a bilingual household, or at least were regularly exposed to another language on a regular basis before the age of about 5, then you should expect a few bumps along the path to fluency. This is because our brains, from a very young age, begin to hone in on the sounds associated with the languages spoken to and around them. In order to streamline this process to verbal fluency, connections that COULD be made in the brain but aren’t necessary are lost. Languages that rely on certain phonetic or semantic systems that aren’t present in your native language become harder to grasp. For example, in Mandarin, there are four tones that can be used when producing a word, and each of the tones changes the meaning of the word. That doesn’t happen in English (saying “ball” with rising intonation or falling intonation doesn’t change the meaning of the word itself), and so we’re not as adept as picking up subtle changes in tone at the level of an individual word.
This doesn’t mean that we can’t become fluent speakers of another language after kindergarten. It just means it will become more difficult, will require more conscious motivation, and a LOT of practice. But it’s possible: I have a friend who moved from the US to Barcelona, and learned not only Catalan, but also Spanish, in the five years she’s lived there. She candidly told me that the first two years were difficult, and this was with almost constant immersion outside her household, where her and her husband spoke English. But now she considers herself bilingual in English and Catalan, and an advanced Spanish speaker. IT CAN BE DONE!
So if you’re hoping to learn, and I mean really learn, a new language starting this year, here are some tips from a linguist:
1. Find a way to immerse yourself in the new language as much as possible.
It will be hard at first, and frustrating. But practice really does make perfect. Find a class that is taught in your target language (when I lived in Chicago, I took classes at Multilingual Chicago—they frequently offer discounts and special princing, or check out Groupon or other coupon sites for deals, especially this time of year!). Find a group that sponsors gatherings or movie nights. And watch tv and movies without the subtitles—you’d be surprised how much this can help with become familiar with the sounds of your new language!
2. Be patient with yourself, and don’t expect to become fluent right away.
My analogy for this one is: when you first move to a new city, it takes time to learn how to get around, the different routes, streets, neighborhoods, etc. As time passes, you get better and better, and it feels more like home, but you know that you’ll never be a “native,” with all the deep understandings of what it means to be from “(wherever),” like you do when you talk about your hometown.
Remember, when you learned your first language, you had years of near constant immersion, with many different people, some of whom loved you dearly, and who didn’t expect you to respond with full sentences for almost 4 or 5 years. AND your brain was at its peak for language learning! This time around it’s going to be very different.
3. When you start dreaming in your new language (and maybe even talking in your sleep), then you’re on your way to knowing your stuff.
The first night I spent in France last summer, one of my roommates (who was by far one of the most fluent French speakers in our group) came home from a bar, fell asleep, then woke me up in the middle of the night when she started mumbling in French. When I mentioned it the next morning, she didn’t remember doing it!
The idea behind this one is that there comes a point where you’re not translating every word or concept in your head, but instead have slipped into this mindset where the new language has become so familiar that this translation has become almost instantaneous or subconscious.
So good luck, and feel free to share any stories, frustrations, or questions in the comments section!