I’ve always wanted to learn another language. I love the sounds that English makes. I love piecing together just the right words to convey just the right meaning in just the right way. Tone, cadence, and impeccable grammar make my heart soar. So the idea of being able to enjoy these simple pleasures in a different language just tickles me pink.
But, despite my love of language, I’ve never learned a second one. Oh, I’ve tried. I’ve spent hours scouring the internet, finding the best systems, learning the best techniques. I’ve dug up quite a few resources to pour through. But before I got around to actually learning a language, something stopped me.
It wasn’t until recently that I realized… at least 60% of the time I spent “learning” another language was actually spent trying to find the best way to learn said language.
Which is better for comprehension: Pimsleur or Duolingo? Should I be focusing on grammatical correctness or just vocabulary? How many words should I know before I try to speak to a native? How have other people learned languages? Did they like it?
These questions make sense to me. Before doing something new, you have to know how you’re going to do it. It’s not like I’ve never learned a language before.
Or have I?
It was during one of these recent re-attempts that something caught me in my tracks. The speak-a-foreign-tongue bug had bitten me once again, and before long, I found myself pursuing my normal routine—scouring Google for something, anything, that would teach me how to learn a darn language—when a thought occurred to me.
I have done this before. It was just a very long time ago, when I learned English.
Humans Are Natural Learning Machines
When I was a baby, I didn’t care that much about rules. The whole world was new to me, and I soaked it up like a dry sponge.
I wasn’t interested in finding the best English language course. I didn’t care about what a preposition was or whether I should end my sentence with one. I wasn’t writing down vocabulary on flash cards, or crawling back and forth along the carpet madly babbling memorable phrases to myself. (Actually, I may have done that last one.)
All I knew was I was suddenly in a big, wide world that was a whole lot smarter than I was. And it was my job to keep up. I didn’t have a system or a teacher guiding me. All I had were my eyes and ears.
So I listened. I watched.
For my first years of life, I remained entirely silent (unless you count my various renditions of “BA BA BA PFFFFT”). I soaked up everything I could—my parents’ banter at the dinner table, what puppets said to each other on TV, other childrens’ attempt at competent speech. I had no idea why my special human caregiver kept smiling at me and repeating “mama,” over and over, but I had to admit it looked like fun.
So, one day, I tried it.
Then I began to master more words, and I learned that words were a special form of magic! Reaching out my arms with the simple plea, “mama,” turned out to be a useful way to get picked up and snuggled. “Food” got me a snack when I was hungry. And “no”? That word was absolute power.
Eventually, I became smart enough to understand the system and use it to my advantage. “Please” was more likely to get me what I wanted than “I want,” so I tailored my language accordingly. I wasn’t smart enough to know why this worked, but I didn’t need to be yet. I didn’t need a system to teach me the finite points of grammar and courtesy.
I just needed to keep engaging, and eventually, I would learn.
I don’t remember the day I learned to talk. Probably because there wasn’t one. It’s not like I walked across a stage and received a certificate of speaking in my native tongue. All I know is, at some point early on in my life, I could successfully command the English language. And I did it without a system.
Are “Systems” Overrated?
A common theme in education today seems to center around teaching methods. What’s the best way to learn? How can parents ensure their kids are prepared for college? How can college students ensure their classes are preparing them for their careers?
Sure, systems are helpful for organizing and disseminating complex information. Learning about astrophysics is a bit more abstract than picking up a language, after all. But even then, is mastery of astrophysics accomplished by picking the best system? Or by continual engagement with the topic?
As we’ve said before on this blog—no one can teach you. Learning is entirely up to the student.
So why spend so much time fretting over finding the perfect system? The perfect curriculum? The perfect college? If your baby self can learn an entire language by babbling, surely your adult self can learn whatever your heart desires just by getting started.
It’ll be hard at first. Overwhelming. But on day two you’ll know a little more than you did on day one. And that’s all it takes.
Maybe we should stop spending so much time worrying about “how” to learn and spend more of it actually learning.
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A former student counselor and Unbound student, Abigail is passionate about empowering others to achieve their goals. When she’s not dreaming with her friends, you can find her reading or singing Broadway songs. Loudly.Read more by Abigail