Learning Languages – Quality or Quantity?

Languages are one of my big life passions. But I don’t speak very many of them at all. My current count is a paltry two and a half (three and a half, if you count Bavarian, but that would be cheating 😉

I guess we’re all different when it comes to our language learning objectives. Some value being able to ‘get by’ in as many languages as possible. I can see the merit in this approach, especially for travelling purposes. A basic-to-intermediate knowledge of just five languages – English, German, French, Italian and Spanish – can get you all the way through Western Europe (and through a fair bit of Eastern Europe as well) without suffering too many miscommunication disasters.

Whether it’s cake or languages – I want all or nothing, me!

Thing is, I don’t just want tourist vocabulary. Or work vocabulary (bloodless “International English” springs to mind – yeuch!!). Or drinking vocabulary (“Una cerveza por favor…”) siiiigh.

I want the full bandwidth. I want to read novels without sobbing into the dictionary, watch a soap and cringe up all my innards over a corny line, understand a 92-year-old granny’s incoherent warblings. I want to FEEL what I’m saying, give it nuance, zest and, if appropriate, a bit of humour, not just run my brain’s equivalent of Google Translate. I’d rather speak three languages competently than be able to order a pizza and side salad in twelve. It just doesn’t satisfy me. It’d be like a lifetime of eating nothing but starters, without ever getting to the main course or the best part, aka dessert.

I’m not there yet with my Spanish. Trying to read books is still positively painful, and hell, what I wouldn’t give to understand my accountant! I just shuffle him a pile of papers every three months, sign on the dotted line and pray. I expect to be amassing a formidable repertoire of prison slang when I get done for accidental tax fraud.

I read polyglots’ blogs half in wonderment, half green with envy. OK, I can completely see how somebody might end up speaking ten languages fluently, if they’ve grown up in a trilingual household, and were continually shunted from one corner of the globe to another by their diplomat parents.

I’ve also come across people who claimed to speak a second language, but then got busted. Many moons ago, while working for a financial services company in the UK, I interviewed a young woman for a position that required speaking to German customers over the phone. The girl gave me a well-rehearsed speech, like one of those a 16-year-old might regurgitate at the start of an oral exam when prompted to “talk about yourself”. But when I asked her some non-technical, work-related questions in German, she drew a complete blank. What was she thinking, applying for a job that was all about offering assistance to people who had just been robbed of their bank cards and other valuables in a foreign country? That “My name is Julie, I grew up in Shrewsbury, I have an older sister, and my favourite subject is history” would placate them?

Now, I’m by no means above launching a half-baked attempt at learning a language. I’ve dipped into Russian, Japanese and Chinese. I did Russian at school for a couple of years, and Japanese and Chinese as an adult for about six months each. Although I never went beyond beginner’s level with any of those three, it was a real eye opener to see how differently they work in comparison to Germanic/Romance languages. With the Asian ones, I just love the concept of verbs that don’t change (Spanish, take heed!), and also the nifty thing about just sticking ‘ma’ or ‘ka’ at the end of a sentence to turn it into a question, without having to fiddle with the word order.

Japanese is the one I’d quite like to pick up again at some point. What puts me off, though, is the thought of the time and gruelling effort (not to mention money and…. PAIN!) it would take to reach even intermediate speaker level – never mind cracking the writing system! Part of me is thinking, what’s the point of even trying, when I’m never going to be able to read a novel in Japanese?

Anyway, the next one on my list is Portuguese. The Brazilian kind. A friend of mine is also keen to learn it, and she wants us to kick it off together at the beginning of 2013. I’m a bit nervous about it. I feel that I’m not quite ready, and that I ought to fully apply myself instead to filling the gaping holes in my Spanish. On the other hand, Portuguese and Spanish are quite similar, and so progress should be comparatively swift.

My overall aim is to master five languages at (close to) native speaker level. I’m half way there, and, barring being run over by a bus or dying early of cake poisoning, I’ve still got about half my life in front of me. So, I reckon I stand a fair chance of accomplishing my goal. It’s definitely quality over quantity for me. Now, if only I could stick to that policy on the cake front…

You may also be interested in my specialist language blog, see here: http://multilingualbychoice.blogspot.com


8 thoughts on “Learning Languages – Quality or Quantity?

  1. Anonymous

    I hope you’re not counting Spanish as your half a language! Tish. Why not have a go at the Portuguese? You might find it easy now. And as for Japanese… do you have to be able to read a novel? I’m wondering if it just might be an interesting foray into what some of that beautiful calligraphy means, and how to form it. Like an art class : )


    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      It is a “half”, although I’m no longer a beginner. You’ve got to be realistic about your own skills… have not hit the ceiling yet, though 😉
      Calligraphy?!? Do you know me???? I think you do!


  2. Loving Language

    I hear you when you say you want to get deep into a language. But it’s way hard. You have to get past that intermediate plateau–past beginner language, before comfort. I admire your perseverance. Keep working even when it’s painful. You’ll eventually get there, as you say.


    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      Thanks for your encouragement. It is hard… and that intermediate plateau seems to be stretching into eternity! I’ve done this once before, and got there a lot quicker, and that’s part of why I’m finding it so frustrating right now. Am not giving up, though 😉


  3. Kristin

    I couldn’t agree more. I also find it unsatisfying to be able to get by but not getting the nuances of a language. However, I keep wondering whether it is possible to dive that deep into a language as an adult, to really get a feeling for those tiny things.
    Sometimes people compliment me on my Spanish, and yes, I get by, I even can read crappy novels (Eat, Pray, Love…) that are far from being literature, but I couldn’t read “real” books, I mean, books that are actually WORTH reading. (No offence, eat-pray-love-fans!)
    I can eat cake in all languages, though! 😉


  4. aiyshah2014

    I admire your passion for wanting to completely nail a language, if you are learning as an adult there is a lot already in your database (brain!), to get muddled up with, and to be able to also catch those intricate nuances?…..You have a life quest ahead of you! Personally I think it really helps to have another reason also to learn a language, (e.g. work, study etc) that puts the pressure on for the details….just my thoughts…


    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      Motivation is important, and most people only learn another language because they HAVE TO, i.e. they are forced at school, or later if they move countries for work/economic/family reasons. It can work the other way around, though. I love Spanish, so I moved to Spain, and now being here, I have a real NEED to get on top of it in order to participate fully. Once you step into that new world, for whatever reason, necessity is created.



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