Hope for the wanna be polyglot

One of my (not so) secret desires in life is to be able to speak more than one language fluently. Since I am not quite as young as I once was, I had pretty much written this off as being impossible for all the regular reasons... too old, live in an essentially monolingual country, maybe I don't have a 'gift' for languages, too old, etc. It's not that my younger self hadn't tried. I took four years of French in high school and four more years of French in college. For fun (because I had a lot of elective credits that I needed to use up to graduate), I even took intensive elementary Italian my senior year which was a two-hour, five day a week class. I never really mixed up the two languages I was learning, but did end up having some fairly bizarre tri-lingual dreams that year. It was the closest I ever came to my polyglot dreams.

I take that back, the closest I ever got was on the airplane returning from the month I spent in Paris between my junior and senior years in college and the French stewardess mistakenly handed my a French immigration form because she thought I was native speaker. This would have been way more cool than it actually was because I didn't really speak French with her. My sole word of French to her was, "Oui," which I had learned to say with a particularly good Parisian accent instead of an American one.

Since then, I have dabbled in learning Vietnamese, which it probably will not surprise you to learn is terribly tricky, what with six different tones and all, and a very small smattering of Mandarin. Very small. Though I can count to ten in Vietnamese well enough to pass muster with a native speaker. Trust me when I say this cannot get you very far in a conversation.

You can imagine that when I saw a review for the book, Fluent in 3 Months by Benny Lewis, hopes for a multi-lingual future sprang again. When I first picked it up, I was a little afraid that the title was going to be merely a marketing ploy. You know, as in, yes you can be fluent in three months if you were blessed with a particular gene pool and have nothing else to do, but all the rest of you better block out a couple of years. This actually didn't prove to be the case, but there was a little semantic magic going on.

Let's get the negatives out of the way first. (Though they aren't really negatives, but reality checks.) First the word fluent. Mr. Lewis is pretty straight-forward in asking his readers to think carefully about what fluent actually means. For him (and this makes sense), it means that a person can communicate with other people, in social settings, without the native speaker having to slow down or make extreme accommodations to the conversation. It doesn't meant that you can use the language perfectly or without an accent or have deep philosophical discussions. That doesn't mean you can't eventually become that fluent, it means it won't happen in three months. Secondly, it will mean a lot of work. No matter what, there will always be a lot of memorizing and practicing when learning a language. There are just no easy short-cuts.

Now to the hopeful parts. The author can converse in ~12 languages, yet he only spoke English up to the age of 21. (He did have some ineffectual school language experiences before that, but just enough to convince himself he didn't have a knack for languages.)

Hopeful thing #1: Age doesn't matter. People can learn a new language regardless of their age; it is more a matter of practice and diligence.

Hopeful thing #2: (And this is where I got stuck in my language learning.) No one can understand more than a couple of words per sentence when first speaking with a native speaker. I wish someone had told me this. I had the mistaken impression that if I wasn't understanding what others were saying, I was missing something. No one told me that with practice my understanding would improve. Looking back now, I realize that doesn't make a lot of sense, but once you get an idea in your head, it's hard to shake it. And like a child learning their first language, it is conversing with real people, in a give and take, over and over, that helps build listening comprehension. It is not a matter of being gifted it is a matter of practice.

Hopeful thing #3: Living in a monolingual country is not a life sentence to monolingualism, especially with the internet. There are always people around (especially if you live in a big city) who speak other languages. You just have to talk to them. And if there are not other people around, it turns out there are language learning sites where you can either hire teachers or exchange language conversations with native speakers. I know, when you stop and think about it, it doesn't seem all that surprising, but who really stops to think about it?

Pretty good, huh? There are some reality checks, though.

Reality check #1: If you want to become conversant in three months, you will need to put in at least two hours a day working on the language... memorizing vocabulary, speaking to people, speaking to people, memorizing vocabulary. It will be work.

Reality check #2: Shyness is not an option. This is probably the single biggest deterrent to learning a language, at least for me. It may not come across in my writing (writing is nice and safe and removed from actual people), but I am a recovering shy person. I can do and speak in public, and don't hate it. I do chat with strangers. I do not often come across as the painfully shy adolescent that I was, but it is a conscious choice on my part and takes effort. The idea of approaching someone and starting a conversation in another language seems a tad scary. Even speaking to someone I know in a language I'm really not sure of, but they are, seems a little scary. If I want to fulfill my polyglot dreams, this is one more area that I will have to decide to just get over. Sigh.

In general, though , the book has left me with the impression that actually being able to communicate in another language is possible. It turns out that some of the ways I went about my first language learning was spot on. I tried to think in the language instead of translating all vocabulary into English. I made mnemonics to help me initially memorize words. I made use of cognates. I practiced the language by thinking to myself in that language. I was going about it the right way it was the conversation piece I was missing. I just needed many more hours actually talking to other people (rather than myself) in that language.

If you've ever wanted to really learn another language and failed to do so, pick up a copy of the book. Highly recommended.


Anonymous said…
Have you looked at Duolingo? It's free online. I did some German before I realized I am not very motivated and it's really easy to progress :-)

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