Sunday, February 12, 2012

Learning a foreign language

Learning a foreign language is one of those things on everyone's bucket list.  “Before I die, I'd like to learn German/Italian/Farsi/Hindi...”   Learning a language can be daunting, but success depends on one’s ultimate goal.  

I remember going to college, being surrounded by international students and feeling truly amazed and jealous at their ability to switch effortlessly between two languages.  At that time, I had four years of high school French under my belt along with several semesters in college.  I was somewhat proud of my ability in a foreign language, but nobody would have mistaken me for a native French speaker.

When living in Budapest for several years, I took a three-hour-per-day, five-day-per-week intensive course of study in Hungarian.  I was 25 years old when I started learning Hungarian.  It should be noted that Hungarian is my father's native tongue.  However, also worth noting is that except for a few polite terms, I learned almost no Hungarian from my father.

So, at the age of 25, I started learning a language which most seem to think is one of the most difficult in the world. From that learning experience and others since, I have come to some conclusions about learning a foreign language.

First, anyone at any age can learn a foreign language.  The simplest components of language are its basic sounds.  Sounds combine to form words, words combine to form phrases, and phrases  communicate meaning.  But many find learning to create a new sound daunting as an adult.  For instance, I had a difficult time rolling the letter ‘R’, and I don’t feel that I mastered it until my mid-20s.  However, regardless of where we are born, we all have the same tools for creating sounds -- basically our tongues, teeth, mouth cavity, and throat.  With proper instruction and practice, anyone can learn to make new sounds.

Second, when you start to learn a second language, you must define your end goal.  Perhaps I differ from many in not viewing perfection as an end goal.  Instead, I hope to communicate.  This means if I want to order a Bratwurst in a roll with a little mustard in German, I have the words and syntactic structure to communicate my desire, even though I may not know whether Bratwurst and mustard are feminine, masculine, or neuter, or which corresponding article to use to express something more complicated about Bratwurst and mustard.  

Here is why perfection is an unrealistic, even asinine goal:   Now, in my 30s, if I want to be perfect in German, perhaps I will compare myself to my native speaking German peers.  But this is unrealistic because they have been immersed in a Germa-only environment for 30+ years of their life.  Just to compare it to American students, each year of schooling in the US equals something like 10,000 new words.  I have met people who aim to overcome this vocabulary hurdle by learning 50 new words every day.  I have rarely seen this as a successful strategy.

Furthermore, you don't need that many words if your goal is day-to-day communication.  The vocabulary needed for daily spoken interaction amounts to far, far fewer than 10,000 words.  Think of the many people around the world who manage to interact successfully and communicate effectively, even though they only completed five years of schooling.  Still others have never completed even one full year, yet they speak a language sufficiently well to satisfy their daily needs.

So, when you start to learn a language, define your end goal realistically!
For example, I'm learning German now.

let's look at the verb 'gehen' which means to go.
I can now conjugate this verb in three tenses: Present, Perfekt, and Prateritum.

Ich gehe zu Hause.  I go home.  OR  I am going home.
Sie geht zu Hause.  She goes home. OR She is going home.

Perfekt is the past tense used for spoken interactions.

Ich bin zu Hause gegangen.  I went home.

Prateritum is the past form used for writing and reading.

Ich ging zu Hause.  I went home.

So, arguably, with just these three tenses, I can speak, read, and write in the Present and Past.
In many cases, one can also communicate in German in the future tense using the present tense construction.

Therefore, if my goal is being able to communicate day to day needs in spoken language, what more do I need than the ability to speak in past, present, and the future?

So, to sum it up --
You CAN learn a foreign language at any age.
You CAN learn to hear and make new sounds at any age.
You should BE REALISTIC about your goals.  If your aim is to communicate via spoken language successfully with others, you don't need nearly as much vocabulary or grammatical training as you think.

Therefore, if learning another language is on your bucket list, recognize that if you are reading and understanding these words, you already have many skills in your first language which will help you succeed in a second.

AND THEN... you can even learn a third.

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