Some 30 years ago I was asked to author an article for a little-known inspirational magazine in the US on the topic of teaching yourself a foreign language. I’m reminded of this every year around this time when language learning websites are in promotion overdrive, targeting people who resolve to take up a foreign language.
The popular press also plays into this, and the London Times recently ran a piece about a language learning guru who spoke seven languages and claimed to go from nothing to ‘fluency’ in three months. This polyglot, Benny Lewis, defines fluent as ‘up to a conversational level.’ By this definition, I’m fluent in French and Italian – which I am not. I can manage certain types of conversations in both languages, but still stumble speaking to my French neighbours in Nice about problems with our building’s finances or with an Italian about politics (I know there is a joke in there somewhere about a country with 70 governments in 50 years). I simply don’t have the years of exposure to these languages and their cultures to be fully ‘conversational.’ Anyway, fluency is a slippery word that linguists avoid using. David Crystal, the popular linguist, once noted that while he is a native speaker and fluent in English, in a room full of physicists talking physics he would struggle to communicate.
Lewis does speak sense when he talks about ways of learning languages. On the topic of Duolingo for fluency he says that it’s ‘just never going to happen. Simple as that. It will get you started, you’ll get your little trophies, and you’ll feel that sense of achievement. It’s better than doing nothing.’ I agree completely. Duo is fun, but it relies too much on translations and that doesn’t help a person to think in the language. It also uses mostly language out of context – sentences and little paragraphs – and that makes it difficult to retain new vocabulary. Having said that, I’ve been using Duolingo everyday for the past 670 days – not to boast, but I’ve got a streak going and am into the Diamond League (whooo hooo). But I use it for languages, like French and Italian, for which I already have some proficiency. It helps me to practice the grammar through repetition, but I’m not learning new vocabulary or interacting in a meaningful way.
Since I wrote my article 30 years ago, self-taught language learning has come a long way thanks to the internet. Through YouTube, I watch news in Italian and documentaries in French, and I have language partners who chat (and correct me ad nauseum) via Skype and Teams. As for that article, as it was never digitalised, it’s in the dustbin for lightweight features – and just as well. When the editors discovered that I was female (they had assumed a Dr of linguistics was male), they denied me my by-line for the reason that their predominately ‘businessmen readership’ wouldn’t ‘respond well.’ Unforgettable words.
A piece of advice on learning languages from this female linguist is to simply experiment and discover how you learn languages best. I’m an auditory learner, so I learn more from listening than reading and more from speaking than writing. How ironic you might think given that this blog in my native English language is all about my life as a reader and writer.