Steven Pinker, for one, thinks the “language instinct” is lost somewhere around puberty. Children are linguistic geniuses, adults linguistic dolts. Pinker points out that Walter Kissinger (Henry’s younger brother) has no German accent, though sixty years after his emigration, Henry famously does.
They came to the United States at the same time, in the crucial years around puberty. Walter’s advantage, Pinker surmises, was being a few years younger than his brother when they moved. This allowed him to absorb more English and kick his accent. (According to Pinker, the accent is as much a part of the language instinct as is grammar.)
Learning a language in adulthood is difficult—nothing can replace the childhood environment, much less the childhood brain. However, with patience and persistence, it can be done. To produce a foreign language requires more than lips, teeth and tongue—it requires ears, eyes and mental agility. You must listen carefully and then imitate.
Language is like jazz: both are spontaneous compositions derived from a finite set of elements (notes or words). But the jazz analogy may compel people to think that they simply don’t have the talent. What they don’t realize is how obsessively John Coltrane practiced, repeating scales and arpeggios over and over again to build up the skills he would need to make that freeform composition on the stage seem so effortless.
It is exactly the same way when composing a foreign language.
I’ve learned Spanish, German, French, Portuguese and Russian—all post-puberty. And recently, I started Arabic—by far the hardest language I’ve studied. Though I was frustrated at first, now that I have a better teacher and a good textbook, I’m making rapid progress. Every student of language is different, but here are some strategies that have helped me:
Slow and steady
Regular practice is by far the most important element in learning a language. Students often try to cram as much into their heads as fast as they can which leads to frustration and fatigue. If taking a class, they are exposed to the language only one to three times a week, plus the time they spend on homework.
It is far more helpful to spend five minutes twice a day, every day, thinking, reading and talking in the language. Where and when, though? As you learn, practice out loud whenever you are alone. While you walk to the train station, or sit in stop-and-go traffic, review to yourself. Start simple: “I go to work. I am in the car. I live in New York.” Repeat these basics over and over, and then vary the subject. “Steve goes to work. Steve is in his car. Steve lives in New York.”
Repeat, repeat, repeat. You will then feel a thrill as you proceed to compound sentences, tenses, and modal verbs (should, would, must, may). “I am going to work, because I have to. I live in New York, and I love it here.” Those steps beyond baby talk are exciting.
Take a class
If you live in any medium-sized city, a foreign-language class is not hard to find. If you are in a big city, you will be spoiled for choice. New York University, for example, offers dozens of classes in a wide variety of languages from Norwegian to Yiddish to Persian, for around USD450 a semester.
Attending a class is the single best way to motivate yourself—the desire to impress a teacher and classmates will help keep you on task. If you have the means to get a private tutor, even better. But be sure to get a recommendation from a knowledgeable friend—not every native speaker is a good teacher.
(Illustration above by Markus)
Learning a foreign language all by yourself is extremely difficult—and probably not a good idea if it’s your first one. However, if you decide to go the autodidact route, make sure to buy top-notch books, audio CDs, and computer programs.
A good book can get you far in a language with an easy spelling system, like Spanish or Italian. I’ve found Routledge’s “Colloquial” series to be fairly good. But for languages with irregular spelling (French or Danish, say), or unfamiliar sounds (Chinese or Hindi), it’s better to get a book that comes with audio CDs. The “Ultimate” series from Random House has a straightforward, building-block structure, with practical vocabulary and lucid explanations.
Computer software has something to offer as well. But don’t expect miraculous results. I reviewed the Danish version of the widely marketed Rosetta Stone series here. Short version: you will learn grammar and vocabulary surprisingly quickly with this novel (and expensive) software, but you won’t learn practical stuff at all.
While focusing on grammar building blocks, the program sacrifices basic elements of conversation such as “hello” or “my name is” or “help!” Though you’ll be able to say, “There is not an elephant under the airplane,” I’m not sure you’ll ever have a reason to use this sentence in daily conversation.
Rosetta Stone has another drawback. Each lesson is structured exactly the same—identical exercises in the same order. This is bad practice—different languages pose different challenges. Also, many languages have structures Rosetta Stone isn’t equipped to teach: the Arabic dual number (words have singular, dual and plural endings), the Russian verbal aspect system, the Spanish subjunctive and so forth are all distinctive. Rosetta’s software does not address any of these eccentricities.
Whenever possible, bring the language into your immediate world. The “10 Minutes a Day” series of books is generally useless, as if written for not particularly bright six-year-olds, but they do come with small stickers you can attach to items all around your house. This is an excellent vocabulary-building technique. If every time you reach for your coffee mug you see chashka (Russian for cup) and you say the word to yourself, it will stick in your head.
Nearly every language in the world can be found on the Internet. The BBC, in fact, broadcasts everything from Spanish to Bengali. (You can check out their 33-language menu here).
As you potter around the house, listen to the day’s news in your language of choice. You don’t need to understand everything, but this will both help you feel the rhythm and become accustomed to the accent. You’ll get a crucial psychological boost when you can make out a few words, then phrases and sentences, in a row. Do this every few days and you’ll be surprised by your progress.
BBC.com also has written material that you can practice with. The news stories in each of those 33 languages are written in a clear, simple style for a worldwide audience. When you’re ready, try to read a news story a week, especially about something you’re familiar with.
This is crucial—reading an article about unfamiliar material is distressingly complex. But if you know the subject, it can be pleasantly easy, since you’ll be able to guess many unfamiliar words. You’ll need to start out with a dictionary, but once you learn frequently-used words, you’ll be able to go without it and guess most of the things you don’t know.
You can also read books that have been translated from English into your chosen language—all the better if it’s a book you know. I have a copy of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity in German, for example. Hornby’s clear English is translated into similarly clear German, without some of the convoluted sentence structures many native Germans use. I know the original book and movie, so I myself can zip through it.
When you are ready to move to the next level and read unfamiliar books in this language, ask a native which authors write in an easy, clear style. If you were helping a foreigner try to learn English, for example, you would suggest Hemingway, not David Foster Wallace. Similarly, someone learning German would do well to start with Kafka rather than Thomas Mann.
Find a friend who speaks the language
This is obvious, but practice with a native speaker is enormously helpful. If you’re lucky enough to have a good friend who is a native speaker—or best of all, a girlfriend/boyfriend or housemate (someone you see all the time)—take advantage of him or her. Don’t wait until you feel totally comfortable, or you’ll never start. Make it fun, make it a routine, and do so early.
The biggest hurdle to learning a language is psychological. If you’re nervous about blundering through a new language in front of strangers, the best way to relax is to start slowly. At a local coffee shop staffed exclusively by young Polish blondes, I take my muffin and coffee away with a “dziekuje.” (Thank-you.)
My pronunciation isn’t perfect, but it never fails to win a slightly surprised smile. Next step? I’ll order the coffee in Polish, too. Then, I’ll try “goodbye.”
When you’re ready and have the chance, smile and try speaking with your teacher in the corridor, your cute Russian co-worker, the man who sells you cigarettes, or the waiter at your favorite restaurant. See that grin? Most people love to see you make the effort, and they will be happy to see you break out new vocabulary and longer sentences.
If you kick yourself for every little slip-up (and you’ll make many), you’ll never progress. If you relax, simply communicate, and most of all enjoy, you can, with patience and effort, learn any language you want.
By Robert Lane Greene*
*Lane Greene is an international correspondent for The Economist: he writes on American foreign policy and international politics for www.economist.com. Reprinted with permission of www.janera.com