There are over 6,000 languages in the world. Some are more important than others, not better or more advanced, just more important. Why? Because they are spoken by more people, in more countries. That does not mean that Finnish is not important to the Finns, and Maori is not important to the Maoris. It is just that these languages are not so important to the rest of us.
On the other hand, Mandarin Chinese is spoken by over one billion people. Chinese origin words account for 60% of Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese vocabulary. Knowing Chinese will help you learn these languages too. It helped me. Chinese culture has influenced the world for thousands of years with its art, philosophy, technology, food, medicine and performing arts. Today China’s economy is booming. Chinese seems well worth learning.
Spanish, French, Italian and Portuguese are essentially dialects of the same language. If you learn one, you can learn the others. I did. If you learn Spanish, you open the door to the culture, music, history and possible business dealings with 800 million people in 60 countries, including the US and Canada.
If you get ambitious you could try Russian, as I have been doing for the last two years. Once you have Russian you can probably communicate with other Slav speakers.
But hold it here! Before getting carried away, let’s look at the present situation of language teaching. According to one Canadian survey, after 12 years of daily French classes, only one high school graduate out of 147 (0.68%) achieved “intermediate” proficiency. Another survey of immigrants learning English in the US showed that “classroom instructional hours” had little impact on progress.
If we cannot teach our own official languages in North America, what hope is there for other languages like Chinese or Spanish, let alone Russian, Arabic or Hindi?
As a speaker of 10 languages I know the benefits of speaking more than one language. We simply have to change the way we go about teaching languages. To start with we need to dispel seven common misconceptions about language learning.
1. Language learning is difficult
It is only difficult to learn a language if you don’t want to. Learning a language takes time, but is not difficult. You mostly need to listen and read. Believe me, it is that simple. I have done it many times. Soon you feel the satisfaction of understanding another language. Before you know it you start speaking. It is the way languages are usually taught that makes language learning hard to like.
2. You have to have a gift for learning languages
No you don’t. Anyone who wants to, can learn. In Sweden and Holland most people speak more than one language. They can’t just all be gifted at languages. Foreign athletes in North America usually learn to speak English faster than people in more formal learning environments. In language learning it is attitude, not aptitude, that determines success.
3. You have to live where the language is spoken
Some immigrants to North America never learn to speak more than halting English. Yet we meet people in other countries who speak flawless English. In 1968, I learned to speak Mandarin fluently while living in Hong Kong, where few people spoke it. With the Internet, language content is available to anyone with a computer, and you can download it to your iPod and listen. Where you live is not an obstacle.
4. Only children can learn to speak another language well
Recent brain research has demonstrated that our brains remain plastic well into old age. Adults who lose their eyesight have to learn a new language, braille, for example. Adults have a wide vocabulary in their own language and are better language learners than children. I have learned 4 languages since the age of 55. Adults only need the child’s willingness to experiment and desire to communicate, without the fear of ridicule.
5. To learn a language you need formal classroom instruction
This is the crux of the problem. Classrooms may be economical to run and a great place to meet others. They have the weight of history and tradition behind them. Unfortunately, a classroom is an inefficient place to learn a language. The more students in the class, the more inefficient it is. Languages cannot be taught, they can only be learned. Theoretical grammatical explanations are hard to understand, hard to remember, and even harder to use. Drills and exercises are annoying to most people. A majority of school kids graduate unable to communicate in languages that they study for 10 or more years.
6. You need to speak in order to learn (and I have nobody to speak to)
Speaking the language is usually the goal of language learning, but speaking can wait. Once you have acquired the language, you will find the opportunity to speak. When you are learning the language it is more important to listen. Trying to just pick up a few “handy” phrases to say is likely to just get you into trouble. If you meet a native speaker, you will inevitably spend most of your time listening unless you already know the language. You do not need to speak in order to learn, you need to learn in order to speak.
7. I would love to learn but I don’t have the time
How about the time you spend waiting in line, commuting, doing things around the house, going for a walk? Why not use that time to listen to a language on your iPod? Once you get started, even 10 or 15 minutes a day will soon grow to 30 minutes a day, or one hour. If you believe you will achieve significant results, and if you enjoy doing it, as I do, you will find the time.
This is the first in a series of three articles on language learning by Steve Kaufmann. Steve is a former Canadian diplomat, who has had his own company in the international trade of forest products for over 20 years. Steve founded The Linguist Institute Ltd. in 2002 to develop a new approach to language learning using the web. The new LingQ system for learning multiple languages is now available. Steve also maintains a blog on language learning.