About Languages

[This is based on an unpublished article I wrote in July 2017.]

I wish to address the topic of languages, and the challenging relationship an overwhelming majority of aspiring language speakers share with acquiring a new language. I am familiar with many of the language myths surrounding the process, having been myself a believer of them at a younger age. However, I find surprising and upsetting that in spite of the abundance of very accessible and readable ‘demystification’ resources online, the overall language-learning stigma as I perceive it has hardly changed. In this article I want to explain from personal experience why I believe the process of effective language development to be extremely straightforward. Not easy, but straightforward. The process demands consistency and discipline, but is hardly mystifying.

My Languages

I presently wield five languages: English, Russian, Spanish, Portuguese, and Polish, each to a different, but satisfactory level of proficiency. Specifically, I can express myself in each of these languages at least as well as reasonably established immigrant in the respective country, speaking with occasional lapses in grammar and vocabulary, but perfectly understood, and often as good as a native speaker who perhaps spent too long abroad and may erroneously substitute a foreign word at times. My listening fits a similar paradigm - at worst, I may ask the speaker to slightly slow down and repeat, which, by the way, happens even with my best language(s). However, I’m unlikely to be trapped in a conversation, nor is my conversation partner ever likely to become frustrated with the rhythm. See my self-assessed analysis of the different languages by category below.

Language Formal Informal Pronunciation Listening Reading Writing
English 10 7 8 10 10 10
Russian 8 9 10 10 9 8
Spanish 7 8 7 8 8 7
Portuguese 7 8 8 8 8 7
Polish 6 7 9 8 7 6

The table above ranks each category from 1 to 10, but these don’t correspond to percentages in the direct sense. For example, a listening score of 8 out of 10 in Polish doesn’t mean I understand 80% of what I hear, which would render the language not practical to solely rely on. Rather, I understand everything crucial in about 80% of the conversations, and in the other 20%, an element of uncertainty might exist, which, by the way, can easily be remedied by virtue of a clarifying question, a situation common to languages of even the highest skill in the category. The score in the writing category, on the other hand, I consider to correspond roughly to how you might be ranked in that category on a formal language exam, although your informal writing (social media, short emails, text messages) might already have reached a satisfactory level, which, in many cases, is the sole aspiration.

Note the categories Formal Use and Informal Use. The former refers to the capacity to wield the language to the limit of it’s depth, aesthetically, philosophically, and technically, or rather, the capacity to lecture, inject subtle insight into the conversation, carry out scientific conversations, but most importantly, deviate from standard forms of speech and improvise in clever ways. This category almost directly impacts the capacity to wright, since we must leverage formal language in order to create content of, let’s say, publishable quality (subjectivity noted). The latter category, on the other hand, I personally consider most important in daily use for someone not aiming to reach any highest echelon in the respective tongue, but rather, simply communicate on a daily basis. Every one of my languages beyond English and Russian I have undertaken with this being the priority.

My formal and informal skills not only don’t correspond to each other, but carry an inverse relationship in the extreme cases. For example, with respect to informal use, I ranked myself at least an 8 in most languages other than English. Russian earns the highest ranking of a 9 because for at least the previous 8 years it has become the generic language of my subconscious and the most proficient language to carry out the most naturally sounding down-to-earth conversations, despite the obvious gap in the formal category.

I abstained from assigning a 10 to Russian, not so much because of any infrequent grammatical oversights committed, which I attribute more to the formal category, but largely because having a personality inclined towards cultural disparity, I lost the yearning to speak in a manner considered most informal or purely native to any region. English, despite the formal prevalence, I ranked 7 in the informal category, since I have long ago lost the interest as well as appreciation to carry out simple conversations in this language, with every such attempt deviating towards formal speech. I even receive feedback, sometimes in the form of criticism, to the respect of sounding like a professor in a context that does not warrant such an approach. Personal conviction, or lack thereof, can largely impact each respective language category.

Pronunciation, interestingly enough, can carry an immense secondary influence to the development of other categories, especially speech. Incidentally, naturally-sounding pronunciation convinces your listener that you wield the language better than might otherwise be the case. It also tends to sustain longer, undisturbed conversations, and stimulate the internal input/output feedback loop, which causes the speaker to not only feel a greater sense of gratification, but to also develop quicker. My Polish pronunciation, for example, sounds fairly natural (because I experience much ecstasy in speaking it), to the extent that I progressed my informal use of the language fairly quickly, in a matter of several months, without hardly dedicating any notable time to the more formal or even grammatical elements.

The Reading category, I consider more of an indicator to read formal language not only in simple publications, but also literature. This has been my secondary focus in all languages since reading literature has remained one of my few consistent hobbies since adolescence. A score of 7, I consider sufficient to undertake even more profound literature and comprehend mostly everything, at least by context, with infrequent aid of a dictionary. I have even read several novels in Polish, lowest-rated in this category, although mostly translations of other previously read material. Lately, however, I finished the not previously read Franz Kafka’s Castle (Zamek), surprisingly without too much difficulty.

Reasons

I included the above table mainly to illustrate the possibility and the likelihood of directing attention to different aspects of the language in the process of its development (or decline.)

The main reason I observe why someone fails to make progress or even initiate the language acquisition journey, is lack of clearly defined reasons and goals. Let’s start with the reasons. Why do you wish to speak the language? Better yet, what do you find inadequate with the language(s) you already speak? Ideally, you should devise several responses, but at least one must be exceptionally strong. To help throughout travels? Experience suggests that lack of the target language will rarely devastate your travel plans. What have my reasons been for each language?

The more reasons you can devise, the more likely you are to proceed. After you progress to a sufficient level, however, even as some of the reasons diminish, the momentum will carry you forward and insure the language remains present in your life, if you so desire. The polish language, for example, simply became one of my languages even as I no longer live in Chicago. I love the aesthetics, and I love listening to myself speak, something I can leverage in many settings outside of Chicago or the country of Poland. The Spanish language, even if initially an eradication mechanism from my then present language frustrations, now exists by its own nature.

No matter what array of reasons I usually experience from unsatisfied language practitioners, they never seem to provide the one strong reason. They are typically much content with the culture that surrounds them and feel no linguistic gap. Likewise, the craving of integrating into another culture is not fully realized. As such, without some external motivating factor, they cease to advance.

First, I have noticed and been surprised that many people don’t actually desire to speak the language, but are content to mainly highlight that they are capable of the deed. Example: ‘I studied French for 5 years.’ If the goal of generating potential energy without converting it to kinetic sounds worthwhile, then no need to proceed further. If, on the other hand, you wish to presently speak the language in the world we occupy, you must refine the goal further because you will otherwise lack direction.

What aspect of the language do you wish to develop? Do you wish to communicate in daily informal situations? Master technical vocabulary? Read simple online publications? Read literature? Listen to conferences? Relish music? Perhaps all you desire is a touch of listening comprehension and have no need to vocalize yourself? The more concrete your domain, the more straightforward the process. If your goal is daily informal communication, what is your expectation? Are you a pedantic perfectionist? In this case, you may as well not even proceed. Or are you at piece with the reality of achieving a basic communicative skill-set in a tiny fraction of the time (months), and spend years ‘perfecting’?

As explained earlier, my main goal for most languages stemmed precisely around this daily informal communication with a palatable accent, and I was perfectly content with making many mistakes in the initial stages (and later). And this goal of oral and listening proficiency I achieved to the desired extent. Reading comprehension, by nature of my endless fascination with literature, even as a secondary goal, always developed in parallel. In Spanish I had specifically yearned to read Gabriel García Márquez, and ultimately attained having read not only a few of his works, but also those of Allende, Benedetti, Cortazar, and others I had not previously even been familiar with. My personal goal with Spanish also involved technical communication, allowing me to employ the language in the workplace among native speakers. This too, I achieved, albeit not perfectly. I was simultaneously minimizing the extent to which I needed to communicate in English, an always inherent parameter.

In the context of the polish language, I lacked a clear secondary goal, so my expertise remained mostly informal, although I read some literature, as I’m typically inclined to, (mostly translations of previously read material) but this was a bonus. Portuguese, on the other hand, was an interesting and a unique case where I developed interest in music and lyrics from the early stages, so I invested much energy in enjoying and decomposing Brazilian songs. Shortly after arriving in Brazil, however, I almost immediately undertook the reading of Incidente em Antares, by Erico Verisimo, with my previous reading experience revolving almost entirely around blogs and podcast transcripts, but finished the novel after a few months with an infrequent dictionary reference, and seemed to capture most of the content. I suppose the Spanish language also serves as a powerful reinforcement agent, especially in the written Portuguese, but my presence in Brazil throughout this period certainly provided much fuel.

Constraints

Before I explore the different strategies I prefer in achieving expertise in one or more languages, I want to eliminate certain artificial constraints that are entirely debilitating to approaching any language.

Resources and Strategies

Below I list the different types of resources and tactics I relied upon for developing expertise in the various languages, roughly in the order of decreasing emphasis I placed on each, although this need not necessarily be the case for others. My emphasis is maximal immersion in the language, minimizing the usage of any other language in the process, regardless whether you reside in the country with that language as the primary spoken.

The rewarding aspect of such an approach, or any variant thereof leveraged by most polyglots, is very quick progression, in a matter of months, acquiring the language in a way that’s naturally joyful, and avoiding traditional theoretical approaches such as textbooks, endless grammar practice, classrooms, rigorous pedagogical drilling, and what I find most malignant, learning the new language by way of your native language. Their dreadfully slow progress, their dry nature, usually don’t result in actual language conversation, not in a way that’s natural, not without additional immersion, by virtue of which, you might as well have avoided the entire traditional, theoretical approach from the beginning, as you will here.

Almost everything required here is entirely free, with some infrequent exceptions (discussed shortly.) I personally prefer not to pay and proceed more rapidly, in a matter of months rather than years, despite the likelihood of some initial stress, at least for those more accustomed to the traditional classroom/textbook setting. I also cannot emphasize enough that many of these methods can, and should be applied in parallel.

The more actively you leverage the above strategies in your daily life, in parallel, the quicker you will find yourself communicating, regardless of physical immersion.

How to Start

How can you begin to listen to podcasts entirely in the target language if you have little to no prior exposure to the language? If you accept the previously mentioned idea that there is no precise point at which the language is considered ‘learned’, you realize that all levels of proficiency are sufficient to extract utility. If you have either prior experience in the language or in a one that’s similar, you should already understand 20-30% from context alone. Otherwise, you may recognize very little, but be mindful that after even mere weeks of familiarizing yourself with rote theoretical details of a completely new, unrelated language, you should already recognize something, be it as little as 5%. Otherwise, you are not listening.

A few steps to initiate the process:

The above steps can encompass as short as a few weeks as you start to develop momentum.