A friend of mine recently shared this short article, “Why I taught myself 20 languages — and what I learned about myself in the process“, which was written by a teen polyglot who apparently had a quick run of fame in 2012.
Normally, I avoid articles that seem to be ‘selling’ (for lack of a better word) a method of language learning, particularly language learning on a fast track, or language training in bulk. For one, because the inevitable comparisons (‘he did it, why can’t I?’ or, ‘he did so much faster!’) are maddening. But also because in the end, I think that language learning is a really personal process that an individual needs to tailor for herself based on her own personal goals, needs, and learning style. So what works for That Guy may work extremely well for him, but it may not work for me at all. It’s not that I’m not open to suggestions or tips ‘n tricks or guidance, because I am—that’s why I’m not studying Icelandic in a cave in the middle of nowhere. But people’s brains work differently, people’s circumstances are different, and there really isn’t one go-to, foolproof way to learn a language, let alone become fluent in it.
If this all sounds redundant, I protest. I think the world of learning languages is actually pretty competitive in its way and I have often found that talking about the process with other learners—particularly if you are complimenting a person on their skills—will generally lead to a lot of advice being given, whether you’ve asked for it or not. I’m sure I’ve been guilty of this myself on occasion, but I try to avoid it, because it always irks me. Particularly the idea that if I had just never spoken English upon my arrival in Iceland, then I would be at a native-level of fluency by now. Maybe the people who passionately advocate for this approach are right (although I fail to see how you can ‘speak’ a language before you have any vocabulary at your disposal), but this hasn’t proven to be a terribly practical or doable approach for me, and I’m managing just fine.
But clearly, I’ve digressed.
Anyway, I typically avoid articles that quantify language learning, but I was intrigued this time. And I think this young linguistic whiz has a pretty measured understanding of what it means to learn a language, and furthermore, what it means to become fluent. And I found this very refreshing. For instance:
When I was beginning to discover languages, I had a romanticized view of words like “speak” and “fluency”. But then I realized that you can be nominally fluent in a language and still struggle to understand parts of it. English is my first language, but what I really spoke was a hybrid of teenage slang and Manhattan-ese. When I listen to my father, a lawyer, talk to other lawyers, his words sound as foreign to me as Finnish. I certainly couldn’t read Shakespeare without a dictionary, and I’d be equally helpless in a room with Jamaicans or Cajuns. Yet all of us “speak English.”
My linguistics teacher, a native of Poland, speaks better English than I do and seems right at home peppering his speech with terms like “epenthetic schwa” and “voiceless alveolar stops”. Yet the other day, it came up that he’d never heard the word “tethered”. Does that mean he doesn’t “speak” English? If the standard of speaking a language is to know every word — to feel equally at home debating nuclear fission and classical music — then hardly anyone is fluent in their own native tongues.
Language is a complex tapestry of trade, conquest and culture to which we each add our own unique piece — whether that be a Shakespearean sonnet or “Lol bae g2g ttyl.” As my time in the media spotlight made me realize, saying you “speak” a language can mean a lot of different things: it can mean memorizing verb charts, knowing the slang, even passing for a native. But while I’ve come to realize I’ll never be fluent in 20 languages, I’ve also understood that language is about being able to converse with people, to see beyond cultural boundaries and find a shared humanity.
Just the fact that he straight out says that he’ll never be fluent in 20 languages is, I think, interesting, given that he’d been promoted and ‘advertised’ as having done just that already. Anyway, lest I continue rambling, here’s the link again. It’s a quick read (a short page), so check it out, if you’re interested.