One of the biggest hurdles travelers experience is the massive language barrier between you and locals. For those of us who get excited about breaking that barrier down by learning a foreign language, here’s a bit of a reality check.
Before I begin, I should give myself more credibility by saying that I have a master’s in Second Language Acquisition (an area of Applied Linguistics that focuses on how people learn languages). I’ve spent the last two years finding out the do’s, the don’t’s and the reality of what goes into making you the next bilingual superstar. Here’s what I’ve learned.
You’re not going to learn another language in a summer. Well, never say never. But language learning is something that simply takes time. It’s taken me over a decade to only be OK at Spanish, and I’ve even lived in Spain for two years. However, the time it takes for you to learn a language is largely dependent on your aptitude.
Aptitude is your brain’s innate ability to learn a language, and since it’s something you’re born with, it doesn’t change. I like to think of aptitude as the dementor of language learning. For the majority of us, it is a soul-sucking life force. There are a few, however, who were born with some Harry Potter-like finesse who seem to have language learning dialed in. If you’re not one of those people, the good news is that aptitude is broken down into various skill sets. So for example, you could be extremely able in at least one area, like phonology (sounds in another language) or grammar, etc… It’s very uncommon to see someone excel in all areas of language aptitude. When you do, they usually end up on the news as one of those amazing freaks who knows 15 languages, including Zulu where clicking noises actually mean something.
Another controversial topic among the language community is whether you can actually ever reach a “native” level proficiency in your second language. The consensus at my university is… no. So all these years of putting ‘native in Spanish’ on your resume, means you’re
probably lying a wee bit. Unless you started learning the language before puberty, then it’s unlikely you’ll ever be truly native. In fact, the cut off age after which you no longer have the potential to be native (aka critical period) is at age 3 or 4 according to most researchers. So start your kids young!
Don’t expect much from studying abroad if you’re a beginner. I mentioned that I did my first year abroad in Spain. A number of my fellow classmates there were very much beginners in Spanish. Of course they were able to pick up a bit here and there, but their time abroad was largely fruitless. They returned to the U.S. with the same amount of knowledge as the students who stayed behind and took courses on campus. This is also supported by research.
The real impact of studying abroad is not gained until you’ve already reached an intermediate level.
If you’re going for the cultural immersion, then please be my guest! However, if you think spending a semester in Spain or elsewhere will magically increase your knowledge in that language, then I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed.
If you want to increase your chances of learning a language, the best way to do so is by increasing your input. You don’t have to be in Brazil to hear Portuguese often, you have Youtube! This may seem contradictory to what I said above about studying abroad, but it’s not. The experience you get when you study abroad can largely be replicated at home in US college courses. Unless you have higher ability, you won’t be out and about communicating with monolingual locals, so just hold off a few years. Anyway, seek out input in anyway you can. Listen to podcasts, the radio, movies, interviews, Youtube videos. I’ve done and still do all of these in Spanish and Portuguese. It’s incredible what a difference it makes when your consistent with it. This practice will really develop your listening skills.
If you want to be able to produce the language, you have to practice speaking! Don’t worry about your mistakes. Studies have shown that those who are more conscious about their mistakes will learn at a slower rate. Stumble through the words, make errors, no one cares! You’ll learn better this way. However, there are two important things I should warn you about. The first is that, while it’s important to practice and allow yourself to make errors, at some point you need someone to correct you. Otherwise, you’ll go through life never knowing what is incorrect. This is especially true if the language feature is non-salient. What I mean is that if a subtle language feature is not important to understanding the point of what you’re trying to say, often no one will tell you that you made a mistake. Make them tell you! Otherwise you will end up as a fossil. I’m making a lame linguistics joke. The term fossilization means that you become stuck making the same errors again and again, even though you’ve learned the correct form a hundred times. Most people become fossilized with advanced aspects of grammar. The best way to avoid this is to have people correct you from day one.
There are a number of other things I’ve picked up along my language learning journey. If you’re curious for more facts or have questions, contact me and I’d be happy to answer!