How Language Learning is Like Learning Any Skill

As I write this blog, I think more and more about learning, in general, and learning as it relates to languages. It seems like many people who write about language learning think of languages as special cases, unlike learning to play tennis or to play the guitar. This is true to a certain extent: You are never going to walk into a doctor’s office and be expected to show off your serve before you can get your broken arm looked at – although if you’re living abroad and you break your arm (this does happen, folks! although never to me) you will need to bust out your language skills to get it taken care of.

But in many ways, learning a language is like learning many, many other things. Here’s how:

You Need Practice

Great guitar players practice all the time; masters of a second (or third, etc) language use the language all the time. In the famous study of Julliard violinists, the best violinists practiced considerably more than the mediocre violinists. Most interesting, though, is that there wasn’t any substitute for practicing. I think that’s the same with languages: There are no shortcuts, just ways to make practicing more fun so that it appears that you’re spending less time.

Practicing does mean using the language, actively. You’ll also benefit from reading and listening (just like a guitarist would benefit from listening to other musicians, especially those playing the same type of music), but what you really need is time practicing – speaking, writing, conversing, etc.

You Need Feedback

There undoubtedly are complete autodidacts, but most people need someone else – an expert – to tell us how to improve and what we’re getting wrong. In fact, most people who we would consider completely self-taught still got a lot of informal instruction and coaching from friends, family or private tutors they hired. It’s extremely hard to learn anything well without coaching and help from someone who has already learned it.

This is true for language learning, it is also true for tennis and playing the guitar and even cooking.

How is Language Learning Different?

If you’re learning a language and you’re not living in a country that speaks your target language, I think your experience learning a language would be essentially the same as learning to play the guitar. You set out a specific time to work on the language, you might practice with friends as well, but otherwise you go about your life and you’re not forced to play a tune when you order a meal in a restaurant or buy a bus ticket.

If you are living abroad, the obvious difference is that you do have to play a tune for every interaction with other people – that is, you have to practice your target language in countless mundane interactions every day. You’re now practicing while going about your daily life. That, in my opinion, is what makes going abroad so useful for learning a language: The practice is built in to your everyday life, doesn’t require willpower to keep to and your language level will take off.

My favorite quote about getting things done came from a New Yorker profile of Nora Roberts. When asked how she manages to write so much (she writes a lot), she answered, “ass in chair.” Luckily, if you’re living abroad your ass doesn’t actually have to be in a chair to be learning a language, but the sentiment is the same: If you want to succeed, you have to put in the time.