Foreign Languages: How I learned to stop worrying and love the struggle

Nobody knows exactly how or when, but once upon a time there was a person who thought that “maybe it would be cool if we could refer to things using words and speak using the air in our mouths”. Though undoubtedly primitive at first, this technique would over time develop into sophisticated patterns of speech that everyone seemed to agree to. Until perhaps one day some people started to disagree with these patterns and decided to speak in a different way, or maybe not, who really knows? What is important, is that for these distinct groups of people to interact and understand each other, they now have to cross a certain obstacle we call the language barrier. Wouldn’t it be great if we could cross this barrier and talk to a lot more people than we could before? Think of all the opportunities in life that would become available to you. They say that learning a new language changes your thoughts and perception of the world. It not only allows you to communicate with new people, but also understand their views. If you already have a language in mind, how would you tackle it? How would you succeed at such a huge project, preferably with the least amount of work? Advertisements will have you know you can become fluent in Mandarin within just one or two years, imagine how intense that must be! Who would go on the internet and spread lies? There has to be some secret technique I’ve not been taught and have never heard of!

Contrary to popular belief, studying a new language shouldn’t be daily done for hours on end. What if I told you that as little as five or ten minutes a day is already enough? Your memories are like plants and if you decide to water them enough from time to time they will grow independently without having to manually tend each separately. You could absolutely spend more time daily if you’d like, but it’s key to keep the bigger picture in mind. If you would study for two hours long today, would you study less tomorrow? Or perhaps the day after? Hence I advise you to give yourself a somewhat strict schedule, as some kind of guideline to help yourself remember the bigger picture. This time could be spent in any way you’d like, from learning words or grammar to watching a video or online tutorial. There are a lot of alternatives to books on the internet like Duolingo, Memrise, Hellotalk or Fluencia. Hellotalk is an app built for chatting to strangers in a language exchange, you teach someone your native language and they teach theirs. The only problem is that most of the times people are too lazy to correct you over and over again because they don’t want to hurt your feelings or discourage you. This is the reason why these apps should all be used in conjunction to one another or as support of a trustworthy source like a website or mentor/personal friend. This way you can ask questions when you’re not sure and someone can give you advice, otherwise you will end up making the same mistakes over and over without actual progress.

Any aspiring polyglot goes through similar problems. They are mostly quick to learn words and consume media in their target language, but after a certain amount of time has passed they are still unable to make the language “click” in their heads and wonder when it finally will happen. That is the moment the curtains open up and they are able to understand the language at a deeper level. When they no longer have to accept words, expressions, cultural influences and such at face-value and are able to work with it with their own input. Sadly, this is the point where most stop or move on to a different or “easier” language, only to find out that they run into the exact same problems but in a different coating. What are they missing? It worked out at first when they were young and were still learning English, so why doesn’t it now? They overlook the single most important element in learning a foreign language, one most prefer to skip because they dread the thought of it; they neglected the grammar. Differences in grammar are key to understanding your target-language, especially if it contains a lot of differences from your native one. Go ahead, try all you want! Study the entire dictionary if you’d like, but without grammar, the binding agent of all languages, you will never be able to communicate with natives.

Another one of such differences is the different rhythmic divisions between languages. Languages can either be stress-timed, syllable-timed or mora-timed. The English and Dutch languages are stress-timed, it is said that they contain a “morse-code” like rhythm. Syllables may last differents amounts of time, but the amount of time between consecutive stressed syllable is generally considered to be constant. If you’re having trouble listening or speaking Spanish as a native English or Dutch speaker, you will encounter problems because Spanish is considered to be a syllable-timed language. In languages like Spanish, every syllable is generally pronounced with the same duration, commonly called a “machine-gun rhythm”. Lastly we still haven’t discussed the mora-timed languages, which European equivalents are Slovak or Ancient Greek. Mora-timed languages are “mora”-timed rather than syllable-timed, moras are hard to explain but are similar to syllables. The Japanese word “hanbun” (meaning: half) is a good example for this, it contains two syllables (han and bun) but as many as four moras (ha, n, bu and n)! Japanese is probably the largest of all mora-timed languages as well.

When you’ve already made the choice to study a certain language, you’ve probably made it with the knowledge that it would be hard, but also fun, right? Though you are right, the single biggest obstacle between you and attaining fluency is yourself. No, this isn’t some weird eastern philosophical dilemma I’m throwing at you, but rather the biggest boobytrap for a future polyglot and one that I still struggle with today. The real problem is that when you begin learning a language you will feel that innate sense of curiosity. You are exploring foreign concepts in a very personal and intimate way. You are immersing yourself into a world that is yet unknown to you. What will you do when this feeling goes away? When the world you stepped into, like a newborn baby, is becoming more and more familiar and you are tempted to dip your toes in other languages because you are bored by your last one, like a true language casanova. Therefore you will have to be persistent until you have achieved your goal.

Whatever you do, don’t let these difficulties deter you from studying your chosen language. Now that you know the fine details to fixate your attention to, you are able to learn languages better. My solution to finishing these big personal projects is to simply stop worrying and enjoy the struggle. Learn everything in your own time and on your own pace, letting the frustration just flow over and away until it becomes second nature. New information doesn’t always make sense at first glance but will, gradually, in due time. Knowing what you’re up against, you are able to understand that the problems you will be facing will keep you on your toes to improve for as long as you refuse to let them cease your efforts. You might not understand everything in one go, weeks or even months, but sooner or later you will because of the snowball effect. And when you are finally able to read that book, watch that movie or listen to that one song in the language you wanted to understand for so long, you will feel a sense of accomplishment that will drive you even further. That feeling of achievement will make it all worth it. When you look back to those days when you were almost about to give up or change your goals, you can feel proud of yourself and prefer the struggle as an experience. What if you could learn a language instantaneously by swallowing a pill or link yourself to a computer in some weird futuristic way? Then you would’ve never done it all by yourself and you will never have known the lengths of what you are capable of. Don’t limit yourself to artificial timetables like attaining fluency within just one year, think of yourself and think big!