When we’re going through a tough spot in learning a language, it’s hugely important to remember that it’s entirely possible to learn a language and to learn it well. In fact, in talking to people about language learning, a surprisingly large number of people think say that they don’t want to learn a foreign language because they think it’s an impossible task.
If you ever feel bogged down, like learning a foreign language is a Sisyphean task, it’s useful to think about language role models. These are people who speak the same native language as you, and have completely mastered your target language. It can be someone you know personally or a celebrity or blogger who you don’t know.
I have three language role models.
The first one is a friend of mine, Allegra, who speaks amazing Spanish. The second one is a French-English interpreter I worked with once, whose French was absolutely accentless and who adopted French mannerisms so perfectly that I couldn’t tell if he was American or French – except that he also spoke perfect English and switched to being “American” when appropriate.
My third pick, for Chinese, is former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd. Does that seem like an odd choice? When I was researching a story about Westerners and Chinese names, Rudd came up and I clicked on an interview he had done in Chinese. Not wanting to watch it immediately, I paused and went about my business. The next time I used my computer, the YouTube video started playing automatically while I was doing something else. I assumed I had clicked on some Chinese news video, because both voices seemed perfectly Chinese to me. So I was shocked to see, when I clicked on the video tab to turn it off, that it was the Kevin Rudd video. WTF?!?! Anyway, I was impressed.
What do these people have in common?
First of all, unlike me, they have focused all of their energies on one language, not on six different ones. They all put in a lot of time learning the language, too. My friend Allegra has lived in Mexico, worked as a Spanish-English interpreter and is married to a Mexican man. The interpreter I worked with lived in France for 10 years and spent years studying phonetics and linguistics and drilling his pronunciation to get it perfect. The same goes for Kevin Rudd.
Unfortunately, learning a lot of languages makes it much more difficult to learn any one language really well. For most people that’s not a huge problem, because their goal is to learn one language, not many. For people like me, it’s a challenge to overcome and to be aware of.
Secondly, they put in a lot of time. I don’t think it takes a huge amount of effort to reach a basic level of competency in any given language, but getting to mastery takes time and deliberate practice – that means instruction and corrections. Most people are unwilling or unable to put in that much work.
Take a minute to think about your own language idols. How did they get to where they are? Are you willing or able to follow in their footsteps? If not, do you have an alternative plan, or are you willing to settle for results that aren’t quite as spectacular?
We know what it takes to master a language. The question is if any particular person is willing to take the necessary steps. Are you?
Photo by Jack Pease Photography