It may seem like the last thing you’d expect to read on a blog that discusses language learning so much, but I don’t actually like learning languages.
It’s quite an oddity in language learning circles, because if you talk to linguists and read many other language learning blogs and forums, you can feel their passion about this learning process flow out of them. I’ve had some very interesting dialogues with and learned a lot from some of the more open minded among them.
Sadly, some others see what I’m doing (attempting to speak a language as quickly as humanly possible) as an insult. If you are passionate about languages themselves, or if you’ve personally taken your time to get where you were, you’d say that language learning should be savoured and enjoyed. Of course when you enjoy the learning process itself, someone who dislikes spending time on that is going to have a lot to say that you’ll disagree with.
But we really are talking about very different things.
It’s one reason that I generally don’t tend to socialise with people who talk mostly about language learning. It just doesn’t interest me – the same way I have no interest in talking about stamp collecting or fashion trends in high heels. I prefer to use my languages to talk about other things.
This is why you’ll see my Youtube channel filled up with videos about dancing, local culture, online tools, life as an aupair, France/Quebec cultural differences, lots and lots of singing, huge festivals and even hiking a volcano. I used a foreign language to help me in almost every one of these videos, and most of them are actually viewable entirely in a foreign language.
When I make most videos in a foreign language, especially those I’m fluent in, it’s actually for natives to watch rather than for language learners or to prove my level to people who may think that I’m faking all this. I take this aspect very seriously and because of this my (Italian) Burning Man video was shown on National Geographic Italy, my (Spanish) Hike to the peak of Mount Teide video has been used by the Canary Islands tourism board to promote the island’s culture, and my Spanish “What is RSS” video got on page one of Menéame (something along the lines of a Reddit page in Spanish). None of these had any kind of language-learning spin on them.
One thing you don’t see me talk about in any of these videos, is language learning. This is a pet peeve of mine – using a language almost exclusively to talk about the process of learning languages. I’ll do that on this blog, or in a course specifically about that topic in English, but when I shut off my computer and walk outside my house I prefer to discuss the many other things in this big world that have nothing to do with conjugations and vocabulary.
As I start to socialise in Mandarin, I’ve been able to force myself to expand on that – for example, this evening I was using my Mandarin to explain to a native about the annoying (and ultimately expensive) procedure for a foreigner to arrange a visa for mainland China from a country that has no Chinese embassy (or consulate), since it isn’t recognised as a country by China. This is just an example of something that I happened to want to talk about.
I’ll make an exception to this next week, and upload a spontaneous chat with my Mandarin teacher about how I’ve been learning the language so far, since she’d have a very valid point of view to share on that and since so many people are curious to see my progress and current level. Although my priority will be to make almost every video I upload in Mandarin about something that I’d consider more interesting, as I’ve tried to do already.
If the video doesn’t seem relevant from a language learning context… well, that’s kind of the point!!
A language is a means to an end
The interest and passion for the learning process I see that so many people have is great and all, but there is one simple reason why I don’t care much for spending endless years learning languages:
I see languages as a means to an end – nothing more.
A language is your tool to communicate with one or more other human beings better. If you are passionate about how that tool works, the history of it, how it relates to other tools, what’s going on in people’s brains when they use the tool etc. – that’s great! Science and the quest for knowledge is a wonderful thing. But knowing all of this can not necessarily help you use the tool better. Some of it definitely does, but I see this as a very roundabout way of getting to the point, and one reason people learn slower than they should.
I’m not passionate about learning languages but I am passionate about using them. Communicating with as many people as possible on this tiny little speck has been filling my life with joy for most of the last decade. My whole language learning approach stems from this. Use it or lose it. Studying alone will never help.
So when I’m learning something from a book or podcast etc., I only want to know one thing: can this help me speak better right now. The reason I absolutely insist that people should be “more in a rush” is something I’ll discuss in the next post, (since justifying my obvious focus on learning as fast as possible is a question that comes up a lot) but for the moment just know that all my energy is going into an incredibly practical way of looking at the language. I discard anything that I see as irrelevant, or something that would be better suited to learning later when I’m in final-tweak mode.
But the problem when you absolutely love a language is that you don’t want to “treat it badly”. “Butchering” it with your mistakes and daring to speak when you won’t be using the right word. This perfectionist paralysis can do you no good.
On the other hand, I have no respect for languages and will bend it and shape it to my will. The only people who tend to get offended by this are perfectionists, not the natives that I socialise with.
As I said, it’s a tool – it’s like telling someone to stop banging that hammer and to appreciate its craftsmanship and to go to hammer school to learn how to use it precisely the right way, when the person using it is more interested in building something right now. “OK, tell me how to hold it better if that will help, but then get out of my way!” It seems ludicrous to suggest the idea of a “hammer school”, but this is how I view most academic approaches to language learning. If the school isn’t immersion based, it’s generally overanalysing the language and doing anything but actually using it.
Communicative-focused learners are more pragmatic. Not passing some test created by academics for academics and not saying something perfectly when they’ve only just started learning the language are quite acceptable when the goal is to simply use the language as quickly as possible and then to improve to a higher level from there as quickly as possible.
I’m not suggesting that you stop loving your language, no more than I would suggest that you stop appreciating a work of art. But just remember that the best artists in history are the best because they did something with their art, not because they knew the history/science/components about art.
What do you think? Could seeing a language as a tool more than something to be appreciated, savoured and respected work for you? It certainly has been for me…
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If you enjoyed this post, you will love my TEDx talk! You can get much better details of how I recommend learning a language if you watch it here.
This article was written by Benny Lewis
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