Language learning never stops, and that’s why I’ve stopped (for now)

Photo: Langenscheidt/DAAD

Photo: Langenscheidt/DAAD

I remember I came home one day in Yaroslavl, after another idyllic day spent eating cabbage pies in the mid-April snow, to find my flatmate at the kitchen table buried in a pile of grammar books with sheets of vocabulary written out all around her. I asked her what on earth she was doing – the test wasn’t until Monday.

She shot me a wearied look and told me “Alex, language learning never stops. No matter how much vocabulary you learn and how well you do in any number of tests, there’s always more to learn. And our final exams are only two years away.”

At the time I laughed it off and went back to my room and switched on 4OD. But a year and a half later, and what she said has stayed with me ever since. When is the point that you can just close your books and say that you’ve learnt enough? When can you confidently say that you really “speak” Russian? I started to doubt whether this moment ever comes.

This isn’t a particularly easy post to write, but I feel I owe an explanation for my long silence over the past few months. You may remember my enthusiastic announcement that I’m learning Japanese, but unfortunately since then I haven’t been, and I’m not now. The main reason why is that I don’t have time: I have to prioritise other things, and for the moment that means my other languages.

Polyglots are often accused of ‘feigning’ fluency in their languages, when they might only have a relatively small vocabulary and a proportionately incomplete knowledge of grammar considering the amount of time they have spent on them. But this criticism gets out of hand, and I’ve seen outrageous comments on forums and, of course, our beloved YouTube, making personal attacks on prolific language learners, and trying to make out that they in fact don’t speak any of the languages they claim to apart from their mother tongue. One particularly offensive example of this forum trash that sticks in my mind was the utterly baseless assertion that one well-known polyglot’s arguably patchy knowledge of Chinese was proof that “native English speakers can never get past conversational fluency in any languages other than English.” It amazes me that people with this kind of ridiculous attitude get into language learning in the first place, which to me is innately a way to broaden your mind through communicating with different people and learning about their cultural backgrounds. But I suppose the world is, after all, a strange place.

I can’t help but think that the nature of the +1 Challenge unintentionally brings these kinds of opinions to the surface, though, and actually I can understand why. Brian Kwong’s project is a fantastic idea that has brought over 100 people from all over the world together to motivate each other push their learning capacities to the limit. Just by following all the videos that have sprung up over the last month, undeniably the progress that people have made in all directions is truly inspiring. I do regret not being able to take part in it more actively. But what seems to get people’s backs up is the time criterion. We all know that learning a language is a long and drawn out process, and that there is no real substitute for dedication, patience and hard work, so I feel that critics might misunderstand what these time challenges are really about. Of course you can’t achieve in three months what someone else has in several years, and what you can do in that time in no way rivals or undermines the years of dedicated study that others have put in to their languages. However the point of the project is to show that you can still achieve something – perhaps even quite a lot – if you do spend three months learning a new language and have the confidence and conviction to see it through.

The “what is fluency” debate is nothing new, and it irritates me too when people come back from extended periods abroad and feel like they rule the world because they worked out how to use a French post office or mastered the art of small talk in German supermarkets. But that is a trap that we’re all in danger of falling into, if we’re too quick to boast about our language skills.

Getting to a stage where you can blag your way through most situations in a foreign language is an achievement, but unfortunately it’s barely half way there. The dilemma between picking up another new language and leaving the rest to stew, or just focusing on two in particular to get as fluent as possible but not ‘adding to the list’ in the meantime, is especially tricky to navigate when there is so much pressure on you to ‘perform’. As we keep seeing, quantity wins over quality every time when it comes to the headlines. Ultimately, travelling the world and ordering in restaurants in 15+ countries seems cool, but if you sit with your books and study complicated idiomatic structures and registers you look like a geek. But for me at least, the latter brings with it a completely different kind of satisfaction than the numbers game, and is a totally different achievement – one that you might not be able to show off so easily in front of your friends.

I’m not a language collector, and I’ve always made that clear. Of course I’d love to learn Japanese, but I could never find the motivation to commit to learning a language just for the sake of it. My focus at the moment has to be on progressing with my German and Russian, and I resent the snobbery that aspiring to learn these and other European languages can attract from the “everybody should learn Mandarin” crowd, amongst others.

Next year I would like to go abroad, either to Russia or Germany to work or pursue post-graduate study, and that means that I need far more than just supermarket German or Russian. In two years time I could be writing my 30,000-word Masters thesis, in German. There’s my motivation, there’s my need, and at least for now, there’s my focus. I’m afraid that for the immediate future, the number of languages that this “hyperpolyglot” speaks isn’t going anywhere. But this is by no means the end, it’s just the start of a very different kind of challenge.

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