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Language Learning for Deeper Goals

It's terrific to learn the basics, but there are levels far beyond.

So there’s this guy, Benny the Irish Polyglot. He’s got an angle where he tackles a new language several times a year, aiming to get to a moderate level of fluency in the target language within an approximately three-month period. He’s not quite that rigid about his timing, but that’s the basic idea. Rather fittingly, the site where he blogs about these projects is called Fluent in Three Months.

There are a great many things to like about Benny and his approach. I think he’s dead-on correct in thinking in that if you’re going to spend a decent amount of time in a country, it makes sense to be able to have reasonably solid conversations with people living in that language and culture, and it’s just not that hard to buckle down and learn some enough of the language to be somewhat proficient. He wants to spend three months traveling in Egypt, to take the example that is current as I write this, and he is just wrapping up a three-month cram session to gain what I’d call low-level fluency in Egyptian Arabic while hanging out in Brazil (a country and culture he finds congenial and where, not shockingly, he speaks the language).

He’s found a local Arabic speaker or two. He makes use of Skype to talk with native speakers on the other side of the world. And he is absolutely digging his way in, working like crazy at it. He makes a huge deal out of not being so afraid to suck at speaking the new language that you don’t actually speak the new language.

All good stuff. He keeps returning to this idea that you can learn a language in three months. For the level he’s out to achieve, he’s more or less right. Dig in, study like hell, and spend a *lot* of time speaking the language with proficient speakers, and you’ll make enormous strides.

Other good reasons

All that said, people learn languages for different reasons. Indeed, they learn different languages for different reasons. Sometimes one learns a language because one is unexpectedly landed in some foreign spot by the vagaries of politics and economics. Or one might want to be a world traveler, as Benny does. Perfectly good reasons, but not the only ones. One might, for instance, want to develop a real connection with a particular culture and gain enough background and depth to enjoy as many of its nuances as one can.

It’s this last bit that I think Benny glosses over. I don’t mean that, actually, as a criticism of what he’s doing. He’s out there meeting the world head on and I think it’s splendid. Nor do I think he’s so one-dimensional that he won’t, over time, really dig into his Mandarin or his Portuguese. I suspect that for him, right now, the mission is about breadth (and no one is doing it better than him), but eventually he may find his way to depth. I have no quarrel at all with that.

But I’ve also been reflecting on what it means to really learn a second language, to be able to fully live in it.

So, because of Benny, I recently found myself on a site called It’s a site for language learners, one of a number of interesting sites out there on the Web these days, but the reason it’s interesting to Benny is that you can very easily find people who will, for relatively small money (or sometimes simply as a one-for-one exchange), spend time speaking your target language with you on Skype. I went and took a look at it, taking a few moments to poke around at the three options it facilitates for these interactions. First, there are conventional teachers who have years of experience and various sorts of certification. Then there’s a second tier where you can hire native speakers to practice with you. Finally, there’s a tier for people who want to exchange practice in your target language and in theirs.

Without really having thought it through, particularly, I wound up chatting very briefly with a French speaker who was working on English. I haven’t been working on French lately and, to be honest, I’d sort of gotten intimidated by French. I think most Americans who’ve learned French beyond a certain level have struggled with the fact that understanding the rapid-fire speech of a native speaker is harder than it is in languages where there are more glottal stops. In German, to take the example I know best, it’s generally easy to sort out where one word ends and the next begins. That’s far less the case in French.

But, without having really thought it through, I wound up speaking with a mid-twenties woman by the name of Anna. She is tackling English as if her life depended on it and we’ve since been trading conversations, one day in English, one day in French.

All of this, and particularly the fact that we were spending rather a lot of time at it (generally our conversation each day—and we’ve been talking daily--runs about an hour long), forced me to ask myself what I really wanted with French in the first place. I mean, here I was spending as much time working on this French business as I spend time on just about any other single thing these days, except maybe exercise (I’m dividing different aspects into my work into separate categories here, to be sure, or otherwise work would be the big winner on time).

So, why French? A few years ago my family and I spent a year in the south of France. And for that, of course, we had to dig in and get going with the language (my wife already spoke it very well, making the transition considerably more straightforward). I learned a tremendous amount of French in that time, but since then I haven’t particularly had any need of it. And while it’s certainly possible that it might come in handy in some kind of business capacity, and we’ll certainly be back to visit France on occasion (and in fact I was in France for a couple of days with one of my kids earlier this year), while all of this is true, it’s not like I really need any kind of mastery of French in any readily foreseeable way.

(Why did we happen to spend a year in France? Strictly for the experience, both for us and for our kids. And I wouldn’t trade it for the world.)

So, other than the fact that this twenty-something is an interesting interlocutor and she gives me a glance back into the south of France (she lives in a different corner of France, but still in the south), why am I bothering? And why do I feel like it’s a rather different enterprise than what Benny has in mind when he tackles a new language? This is what I’m trying to sort out here.

It's the nuance, stupid

I take enormous joy in the subtleties of English. When something is said just right, with the right nuance layered across for good measure, it broadens the experience of being alive. When I think about people who are learning English, who must needs focus on the essentials and the broad strokes, it makes me a little sad to think about how long a road it will be before they can participate in this higher level.

But of course there’s nothing unique about English in this respect. It’s just that I’ve read enough, thought enough, had enough discussions with smart people, over what’s beginning to seem like a few too many years, that it’s the language I’ve got mastery of sufficient to this higher-order task. What’s been interesting is getting far enough along in German to be able to follow some degree of this kind of interplay in that language. I won’t pretend to get much of that higher layer, but I get my glimpses. I can tell when someone speaking in German is using the language beautifully.

And I’d like to participate in some measure in that level of German. I’d like to be able to write comfortably in German, for instance, with much the same level of confidence (if not the same abilities to range far and wide) that I have when writing in English. I’d like to “get” more of the clever turns of phrases. I won’t pretend that I’m going to get it all. But I have enough under my belt to sort of see that I could, over time, drag myself up the worst parts of the ascent.

And that’s what the bulk of my language learning is about these days. It’s not all of it. I’ve spent some time over the last few months, for instance, learning Mandarin characters. I have no compelling reason to do it, but I’ve found that it has sharpened the acuity with which I can sort out cultural information about Asia. I was struck by the degree to which my ignorance about how Mandarin works was total, and thus it was great to learn the most basic sort of things (how do Chinese speakers type these characters, for instance?). But for German and French, for me, the object is entirely different.

Pnin had started taking lessons at the Waindell Driving School early in the year, but “true understanding,” as he put it, had come to him only when, a couple of months later, he had been laid up with a sore back and had done nothing but study with deep enjoyment the forty-page Driver’s Manual, issued by the State Governor in collaboration with another expert, and the article on ‘Automobile” in the Encyclopedia Americana, with illustrations of Transmissions, and Carburetors, and Brakes, and a Member of the Glidden Tour, circa 1905, stuck in the mud of a country road among depressing surroundings. Then and only then was the dual nature of his initial inklings transcended at last as he lay on his sickbed, wiggling his toes and shifting phantom gears. During actual lessons with a harsh instructor who cramped his style, issued unnecessary directives in yelps of technical slang, tried to wrestle the wheel from him at corners, and kept irritating a calm, intelligent pupil with expressions of vulgar detraction, Pnin had been totally unable to combine perceptually the car he was driving in his mind and the car he was driving on the road. Now the two fused at last.

If you know your way around native literary English, you know that this passage has a slightly stilted, slightly affected town. In fact, it’s kind of rotten writing, but in a wonderfully pleasing, can’t help but chuckle at “expressions of vulgar detraction,” sort of way. I would give my eye teeth to be able to sort those narrow tolerances in the fine tooling of a language other than English. And then, too, there’s the other dimension here: that Nabokov was writing in a language other than his native Russian, but was good enough to be able to write with a knowing ear in English. If you don’t know Nabokov, you’ll have to take my word for it that he knew the difference between this and less affected style, though of course there were corners and crevices of American usage that puzzled him (and his character Pnin is, among other things, the butt of an extended joke about the difficulties of having this level of comprehension of a language….I have no idea how to talk about the “butt of a joke” in either German or French, though what I do have that Vladimir didn’t is instant access to the Internet).

The required reading for a deep understanding of a language, understanding at a high literary level, is, well, reading. I’m pretty sure of that much. I think you have to read with facility and then you pretty much have to read your way through a small library branch full of books. This is what most of us who love literature and complicated turns of phrase did when we were children, only we did it in our mother tongue. I don’t think you’ve got to plow through several thousand books to reach a high level of cultural comprehension of, say, German, but on the other hand there’s only so much of a shortcut that being an experienced reader and choosing your books wisely will get you. You’ve still got to plow through the books, even when it’s hard going, as of course it will be early on.

Lurking somewhere behind this is the tandem requirement of writing enough to write fluently. I have a very hard time imagining writing a long daily journal entry in German, or a blog entry perhaps, but I suspect the rewards would be huge over time.

Table stakes for either the reading or the writing is a basic command of the language and, upon reflection, Benny and I may be on the same page where that’s concerned. The thing that lends speed and earnestness to the process of learning a language is speaking it in meaningful situations with native speakers. Most native speakers are almost freakishly unable to simplify their language past a certain point. They may want to help the beginner to their language, but within a laughably small number of conversational turns their normal accent will be back in full force, at full speed, and any attempt to restrict the vocabulary will gradually crumble. And this is even more the case for better educated, articulate speakers. And it’s a good thing, but it does mean you’ve got to suck up a lot of anxiety early on and just dig in.

I do think there are ways to lesson this anxiety and I think some of these approaches might well yield better results over the long haul than the way Benny goes at it.

My first encounter with French was a college course where we were taught using the Rassias Method. This made a huge impression on me, at least for that portion of the course when I was working as hard as I should have been. I don’t claim to be an expert on the Rassias Method, but one of its core concepts is high intensity drilling where what might be called the “shapes” of basic phrases become second nature to the student. My French right now is a right mess, but it’s not nearly as halting as it might be because a lot of it really does flow automatically (and does so even when I’ve, say, screwed up the conjugation).

So I’d suggest to Benny that possibly speaking to non-teacher natives from day one is possibly not the absolute fastest method. Better, I think, to get a bunch of basic patterns really drilled into one’s head. Interestingly, there are a couple of things Benny does that are interesting in this regard—he starts by learning phrases from a basic tourist’s phrase book. That makes sense to me, but I think it could be taken a step further—and indeed I think that’s more or less what the Rassias Method tries to do. So I’d say maybe a month of serious study structured around rapid-fire phrase drills might be the shorter route to conversational fluency in a Benny-style three-month-to-fluency gambit.

When Benny is hitting his marks, he can pass a C-2 exam after his three months (at least in Western languages—more like C-1 for Mandarin). And that’s a great result. I think for me the question is what happens thereafter. Because C-1 proficiency will make a hell of a capable tourist out of you, but you won’t have meaningful discussions with your neighbors at that level, not in most situations.

Robert Richardson is the chief nomad at ModeNomad.
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