“Have you heard? Dave’s moving to Egypt.”
“Does he speak Arabic…?”
“No, but he’s good with languages, he’ll just pick it up!”
I take it we’re all familiar with this conversation.
OK, let me hand it to you straight: A language is not a bunch of keys you’ve just dropped onto the floor or a box of washing powder. Nor is it a venereal disease. You do not “just pick it up” by casually passing through a supermarket or someone’s bodily fluids.
The harsh truth is this: Learning a language is darn hard work. There are days when you just want to hammer your head against a pebbledashed wall.
A widely held – and wildly unhelpful – misconception is that one must possess this magical quality called a “talent for languages” to learn a second language in adulthood.
Let me tell you this: Talent is hugely overrated. To succeed at something, to acquire any kind of advanced skill, what you need is an incentive and a strategy for staying motivated. Unlike passing a driving test, just focusing on the end goal is not enough when it concerns a skill that takes years to attain. The learning process has to be peppered with enough bouts of gratification to see you through the dry stretches.
Languages do take a long time to master. The same is true for playing musical instruments, lacemaking, professional level sports, etc. I read once that a bunraku (traditional Japanese puppet theatre) puppeteer needs a couple of decades before he can competently operate the puppet’s left leg.
In my observation, the difference between somebody who succeeds at something and someone who doesn’t is down to plain old perseverance and determination. A high aptitude, aka “talent”, might push an individual’s performance above the average, but it’s not a prerequisite, especially where languages are concerned.
I do want to stress this: we all have an innate aptitude for verbal communication, proven by the simple fact that the vast majority of us is able to speak our native language with a fair degree of competence. It’s an inherent human quality, we are social beings and we have to communicate with others in order to survive.
Yes, sure, the world is littered with freaks. Like uncle Fred, who, despite puffing his way through three packs of cigarillos a day, was as fit as a fiddle until he conked it aged 95 after tripping over the dog bowl. Or that gap-toothed kid next door who can take one swift look at a jar filled with beans and know exactly how many of those you’d need for making a string long enough to circle the moons of Jupiter. Mozart started composing aged five. In the language realm, I’m sure we’ve all gawped in mute impotence at YouTube clips of “hyperpolyglots”, reeling off an interminable list of things they like to do in their bedrooms by themselves in 35 languages.
Having said that, even those who are considered bonafide geniuses didn’t get to the top of their game by watching Prison Break re-runs. There’s a famous quote by Michelangelo: “if people knew how hard I worked to get my mastery, it wouldn’t seem so wonderful at all.”
So, it would seem that he didn’t just tumble out of bed one morning, and, after dispersing his hangover with a hearty breakfast of salted oat gruel and mutton fat (or whatever the Mediterranean equivalent is), took the chisel to a block of marble and, by lunchtime, a luminous David emerged in all his titchy-wienered glory.
Now, let’s bring this back to my original point: No pain, no gain. Sure, if you’re actually living in the country where your target language is spoken, certain things, like the appropriate greeting for the time day, as well as handy vocab for daily living, such as “special offer” and “not drinking water”, do sink in without having to strain one’s grey matter all that much. However, being able to discuss the environmental merits of drip irrigation, or why annual badger culls may not be effective in controlling TB in cattle – or any topic that requires the ability to argue a technical point or opinion to a fair degree of sophistication, are not going become part of one’s conversational repertoire by mere osmosis.
Perpetuating the myth that “you’ll just pick it up” does nobody any favours. It makes those, who’ve not managed to get to grips with a language after several years abroad, feel stupid, when there’s really nothing wrong with them, save for lack of dedication, and it belittles the dogged tenacity of others, who have accomplished their fluency goal by constantly pushing themselves further and further out of their comfort zone.
I’m guessing that at least three quarters of the people who stop by my blog regularly have first-hand experience with this, or some sort of an opinion at least, and I would sure love to hear what you have to say. I’m still developing my (half-baked) theories, as you can probably tell. I hereby declare the comments section (indefinitely!) open. Get to it! 🙂