I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few years thinking about how I learn languages.
Or rather, how I should learn languages.
I should use Anki. I should write out wordlists by hand. I should read. I should listen. I shouldn’t talk until I’ve learnt 2,000 words and had hundreds of hours of exposure to the language. I should talk from day one. I should learn for fifteen minutes per day. I should learn for hours per day and still expect slow progress. I should learn to write. I should learn to type. I should, I should, I should…
There’s a lot of advice out there. Some of it’s not for me. And there’s a growth period, I think, where you have to separate the wheat from the chaff, in terms of what works for you. Of course, just because you work that out once, it doesn’t mean it’s always going to be the same. You’ll change. Your methods will change. Your ideas will change.
When I first started learning, I didn’t think about any of this. I didn’t know you had to. I didn’t know you could. My concern through school and university was getting good enough marks and learning enough that I could muddle my way through the occasional in-country trip.
But then things shifted. I spent more time online, and although I think those online communities are still good on the whole, there was a lot of this idea that if you wanted to be a serious language learner, you’d learn one or two languages to a high level. Sure, there’s someone over there learning seven or eight languages, but they’ve got this or that or the other going for them. You should just learn the one. Maybe two. Maybe three, but don’t learn them all at once!
Jack of all trades, master of none.
So, I tried to focus. My degree was in German and Mandarin. I’d learn those, and I’d learn them well, and one day I’d be fluent in both of them.
My German is good now. Very good. I still make some silly mistakes, but I’m more confident using it than I’ve ever been. If you dropped me off in Germany or Austria tomorrow, I think I’d be okay.
I know, too, that I’m never going to be one of those second-language speakers who sounds like a native. I’ll be even better than I am now, as time passes, but I don’t know if I’m going to spend an extended period of time in a German-speaking country again. It’s not off the table. It’s not planned, either. My German is fine.
My Mandarin sucks. I remember more than I give myself credit for, but less than when I graduated, and I’ve barely studied in years. I start from the beginning over and over, stuck in some kind of self-fulfilling prophecy where I’m never going to improve because if I try and stretch, I feel like I’ve forgotten things I learnt a long time ago.
This idea of depth has contributed to holding me back. Don’t get me wrong – despite what I’ve said about this being a community issue, I know no one is stopping me but me. No one is living rent-free in my head. But I need to commit time. Lots of time. Thousands of hours of time, maybe. How can I learn when I want to work on my German, too? When I want to read in English, write in English, spend time on other hobbies I love as much, just in different ways?
You can’t learn Mandarin in 15 minutes per day, right?
Except, slow ≠ impossible.
Slow just means slow. And what’s the rush? I’m not going to China tomorrow.
My Spanish has been a long, slow journey. I started learning it for the first time at school something close to 18 years ago. I’m still probably at an A2/B1 level if I had to guess – and I’m probably being generous. But I’m not getting worse. As time passes, I feel better about using it. It’d be nice to get it to a high level, but I don’t feel the same kinship with Spanish as I do with German; I just want to be able to talk to people, and maybe read a book.
(Spoiler: I can do that already. And I can get better at it!)
I’ve started learning Polish. I began in a frenzy. It was interesting to see how much I could learn in a short time if I really dedicated myself to it.
It was also boring, after a while. I was learning too much too quickly; some of it didn’t make sense because my foundations were weak. I got shiny-object syndrome. While I still wanted to learn Polish, my motivation was dwindling, and why do I have to be super disciplined? This is important, in that I think languages are important and communication is important and I’d like to be able to speak Polish, but also, for me, it’s not essential.
And I have this bucket list of languages. Loads of them. But when will I get to them when the thought of learning other languages makes me think about the fact that I’m not learning them, I’m not learning enough, I’m not at a high enough level… and it’s another vicious cycle that makes me stop.
I went to my first online language event in 2020. I’d debated going to the Polyglot Gathering when it was in Bratislava and I was living in Vienna, but I didn’t want to go alone. But now it was online, and I was going for work anyway, and it was a bright spot in the middle of a very grey and confusing year. I remember sitting out in the grass in my mum’s backyard and watching all these people talk about learning languages and why they did it and – most importantly – forming relationships with each other because of this thing we all had in common.
As I go to more and more events, I notice something similar. There are people there who are polyglots. Respected polyglots. The kind of people that you mention their name and someone will turn around and go ‘oh yeah, they know about this or that’ because they do, they’re interested in languages and passionate about them and that shows.
We get name tags, at these events. Name, country/place you’re from (in general or right now, pick what you want) and the languages you speak, usually at which level. People have opinions about that, but it’s useful, especially when you don’t know anyone.
I noticed, this time, how many of these polyglots have such a range of languages in their bottom tier. Their A languages. That’s where most of them are. And if you talk to them, they’re like, ‘yeah, I knew this once,’ or, ‘I know a few phrases’, or ‘I’ve just started learning’. They’ve got a few at B level, too, and then some at C.
Maybe it’s silly. But it was a bit of a revelation for me. They’re all dabblers, too, because they know languages are functional. That’s what language is. Functional. A tool. And even if that tool is sometimes flowery, that’s because that’s also a function of it, to help you communicate in the manner you wish to.
Jack of all trades, master of one – better than being master of none.
I want to be able to chat. That’s growth. I’m an introvert, but I can be outgoing if the situation is right. I just need to rest every so often. We all do, right? I had my first stilted Polish conversation at the Gathering this June and I want to be able to keep doing that.
I want to be able to get around. I don’t travel as much as I used to, but knowing you’ll never be stuck sucks some of the anxiety out of it. Paying attention while I’m travelling has helped me understand more of what I need to communicate. I don’t need to be fluent. I need to be able to string a bunch of words together and pick out a reply. If I learn more, fine. If I don’t, fine.
I want my languages to be functional. I don’t want to just know the theory of grammar (though it’s interesting, and I love it!) – I want to be able to use it. And this functionality can come at any level, so long as I’m strategic.
And if I’m not strategic? Oh well. This is a hobby. It’s meant to be fun.
My English has a lot of depth. It’s my native language, sure, but I read and write daily. I love English. It’s expressive and adaptable and changes in exciting ways literally every day. I’d like my German to have some more depth, too. I’ve been learning and speaking German for far longer than I haven’t, now. It’s always going to be a part of me.
As for the others?
I’d like to be able to use them. There’s always something to learn about a language, even the one you hold closest to your identity, so instead of getting hung up on what I can’t do, I want to focus on what I can. What can I learn? What can I do? What can I understand?
It’s fine, too, to decide a language doesn’t work for me anymore. To drop it and pick up another. Will I forget things? Sure. But I’m not getting stuck in the sunk-cost fallacy of spending time on something that doesn’t serve me in the way it used to. If I come back to it, I’ll remember something. In most cases, it’s very hard to start from zero again.
Are you aiming for breadth or depth? I think we’re all looking for a little bit of both, truth be told.