Recently, my Chinese tutor was telling me about a TED talk presentation she listened to. The speaker impressively said he could speak 5 foreign languages. He proceeded to demonstrate by confidently saying a few sentences in each language. The last language was Mandarin, which is my tutor’s native language. She could not understand a word he said.
Part of the gist of the presentation (and many language program advertisements) was that a language can be learned in a few months, if the best method is used. My tutor wanted to encourage me that my progress was reasonable, and to warn me not to be discouraged by such claims.
My Chinese tutor learned some English academically in school in Taiwan. But when she tried to understand it or speak it in everyday circumstances, she realized she didn’t really know much about it. What she knew was the answers to a few test questions.
Since she really did want to learn English, she began making herself learn American songs. She later came to the United States as a college student, and found her communication skills were still quite limited. Even living in the college environment, she found she had to seriously apply her mind to learning the language if she wanted to pass her classes and talk to people. Forty years later, and after living many more years in Taiwan, she still makes it a point to read and converse in English, being convinced that such learning is a lifetime project.
She is currently also teaching herself Japanese and Korean, using the many resources and videos on the internet. It is as close to immersion as she can get while not living in the countries or with families speaking the language. Japanese is considered closely related to Chinese, even sharing many of the same characters. Still, she says it is hard work and takes time to learn.
While it is true that real immersion into a language is a useful way to learn, even that method does not guarantee success. I witnessed this with the foreign exchange students that came to live with us. One student had studied English in high school, but showed next to no ability to use the language. Speaking was rarely attempted and often incomprehensible. There seemed to be an idea the language could just be absorbed by being here. It didn’t happen.
Another student came who had studied in formal English classes, but to the point of fluency. The stay in America helped smooth out colloquial and cultural details, but didn’t change the student’s language skills much.
The Chinese tutors in Taiwan (not the same person who teaches me now) spoke nearly perfect English most of the time, in a way that would put many native speakers to shame. However, they would sometimes ask me questions about English to help them teach their English students (Taiwanese people signed up to learn English). Explaining things to them would teach me things about English!
I have written previously about my children learning to speak Spanish from the time they were toddlers, using a tutor combined with me (a non-Spanish speaker) coordinating and encouraging their studies. Now, native Spanish speakers and Americans alike get confused about where my children are ‘from’. But this took years, even for children, to be able to reach adulthood with the ability for this level of communication. And even with that, they go out of their way to practice and continue to engage with a wide variety of native Spanish speakers.
Maybe this was a long way of saying it takes a lifetime to learn any language. Some people don’t even use ‘their own’ language well, carefully, or effectively. You shouldn’t be discouraged because you can’t learn a language in three months. But you shouldn’t be discouraged about trying either. What endeavor is there that we pursue without constantly learning more, and by this increasing knowledge are able to keep increasing our enjoyment of and usefulness for the pursuit? Don’t believe you are ‘slow’ because someone else claims to have learned 5 languages in a year. Hold off on your evaluation until you have heard them successfully converse with a native speaker. They really may only know a few more sentences than you. And they might even be pronouncing those incorrectly.