Recently I posted an introductory video on YouTube. It’s rough, and I’m new to making videos, but I want to talk about languages, why I like languages, and why it’s so important to me to spread the message about languages. It sounds weird to say “spread the message about languages,” like it were a religion or something, but honestly, learning languages changed my life. Learning languages opened doors for me made, made me happier, and gave me excitement and hope for the future.
I think that there are lots of people who want to learn languages. If you don’t care about learning languages and you don’t see the point of it, this blog is not for you, so feel free to move on and read something else. However, I know that there are many, many people who really, really want to learn languages but don’t know how. Maybe they tried for years, spent lots of money, and yet think, “I just can’t do it. It’s impossible. I don’t have the ‘language gene.’ I’m not smart enough. I don’t have enough money,” or something like that. In fact, learning a language doesn’t require any special brainpower; it doesn’t require you to be particularly smart—even I can do it! It requires time and dedication, and it requires you to get out of your comfort zone and talk to people, but the process can be fun and exciting.
I once lived in Japan as an exchange student and I couldn’t speak Japanese. It wasn’t for lack of trying. I had taken Japanese classes at my university for a year, and that was after having taken Japanese classes at a private night school for a year while I was in high school. I got to Japan and I realized I could barely speak Japanese. I couldn’t understand anyone, I could barely make myself understood, and I was not happy. I couldn’t figure out what I was doing wrong. I went to class every day at eight in the morning and I sat in my classroom with lots of people from all around the world like China and Indonesia and Vietnam and Belgium, and we had Japanese class where we recited phrases from a book. I thought that if I just went to class enough and if I just read enough books about Japanese, I would someday be fluent. However, that day didn’t seem to be getting any closer.
Then one day on the Internet I discovered a website called All Japanese All the Time (AJATT). On AJATT a guy named Khatzumoto talked about how he had taught himself Japanese. I thought, How could anyone teach themselves a language? But this guy had done it, and he had gotten real results when he had gotten no results through traditional methods like classes and books. Classes and books can be a good thing; they can help you, but they’re like a side dish when the main course is language. If you keep eating the side dishes you fill up before you ever get to the main course, and you think, “Well, I’m eating,” but you’re not eating the real thing.
Say you want to learn how to play soccer (aka football). Say you want to learn to play piano. They are both skills that require a lot of practice. If you wanted to learn piano or soccer, what would you do? Would you go sit in a classroom and listen to an instructor describe a soccer game? Would you go and find somebody who had just started to play piano last week and try to play piano with them? Would you pick up a book about soccer moves and try to figure out how to do them? If that sounds ridiculous: good. That’s absolutely not the way to learn soccer or piano. I’m sure you know, the way to learn soccer would be to go and find an experienced soccer player to teach you as a coach. To learn piano, you go and find a master piano player and have them tutor you. We recognize that soccer and piano are physical skills that we cannot learn from a book or a classroom. Why then do we fail to recognize that language is also a physical skill? (See Benny Lewis’ blog for an article by Idahosa about kicking your visual addiction.)
Language is first and foremost an auditory experience. You start learning a language in the womb as you listen to the voices of people around you. It’s been shown that babies even in the womb can distinguish the sound of their mother’s voice. Now, I’m not going to tell you to learn a language like a baby. That doesn’t make any sense; we are not babies, we are adults, and we can use adult methods to learn languages. Don’t let anyone tell you that adults cannot learn languages! The anecdotal evidence of thousands of people online contradicts the idea that adults cannot learn languages. In fact, adults are better at learning languages than children. Kids can only learn a language if it’s spoken all around, and they can only learn by listening to it and picking it up. However, adults can learn languages even if they are surrounded in a language completely unrelated to the one they are learning.
Benny Lewis, who writes the blog Fluent in 3 Months, learned Egyptian Arabic while living in Brazil. Let’s see a little kid do that one! You might wonder how in the world an Irish guy living in Brazil learned Egyptian Arabic. The answer is not textbooks or classes: the answer is the Internet. By using the Internet he found people online with whom he could speak Egyptian Arabic. He talked to Egyptians from day one even when his Egyptian Arabic was poor. He quickly learned the phrases and expresses that he needed to communicate with those people and memorized those specific expressions. He didn’t worry if his grammar was bad or his Arabic handwriting was bad or if he didn’t know certain words. The point was, he wanted to talk to Egyptian people in their language. If you want to learn a language to read ancient texts then maybe this isn’t the method for you, as Benny points out in his TEDx talk. However, if you’re like Benny and what you really want is to communicate with the people who speak that language, then the only way to learn the language is to talk to those people and to memorize the expressions that are the most common and useful.
I have a lot of personal experience in learning foreign languages. I made a lot of mistakes, but precisely because I made a lot of mistakes I want to share my experience with you, so that you can learn languages faster and better. To be honest I don’t think that being multilingual is all that impressive. In fact, it’s the norm in most places in the world outside of, say, America and England and Japan. About all of my Chinese friends speak another dialect in addition to Mandarin, and sometimes that dialect is completely mutually unintelligible, like Cantonese or Shanghainese. Of course, multilingualism is a fact of life in India, China, and elsewhere.
So what do I offer you? I want to give you inspiration and information. I think that what I’ve done is not impressive in that I can speak several languages. The key is that I learned—as an adult—to speak several languages that no one around me in my childhood spoke, and both of which were languages of cultures in which I chose to take part. As Dr. Tim Cross at Kyushu University once said, “Culture doesn’t ask for your passport.” I think that just about anybody can learn a foreign language, even as an adult, but most people don’t know how. I hope that I can help you learn smarter and learn faster so that you can get out there and start communicating.
Until next time!