“Speaking” a language: a long and personal process

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.

6 thoughts on ““Speaking” a language: a long and personal process

  1. I think it’s sensible not to try and follow the internet’s many claimed ‘best ways’ to learn a language, but at the same time I do think here’s a lot to learn from looking over them. Language learning is, as you say, definitely a personal thing, but sometimes it helps to have someone point out ideas that might work for you

    That final point where Doner says he will never be fluent in 20 languages also definitely is interesting – the whole question of what fluency actually means is a big one. I don’t consider myself fluent in German or Chinese, but I can speak them…but given that, what even is fluency?

    Sorry for the ridiculously long comment by the way – thanks for the article!

    • Hi, Tim-

      Thanks for your comment! I want to clarify that I’m not saying that I (or other language learners) can’t learn something (be it useful tips, linguistic tricks, grammar pointers, etc.) from other, more fluent or more accomplished speakers of non-native languages. Just that oftentimes, I find the advice to be either very specific or a bit magic potion-y.

      By the looks of it, though, you’re well on your way to becoming a polyglot yourself. I’m curious how you came to pick the languages you’re studying. German to Chinese to Arabic seems like a very wide linguistic net to be casting—maybe harder than starting with Spanish and Italian or Swedish (which I see you’re working on) and Norwegian.

      All the best…

  2. Hi there, I hope I didn’t come across as too bossy or anything earlier then – it wasn’t the intention at all! I think I know what you mean by being magic potion-like – a few famous names and books come to mind…although I admit I learned one or two tricks from such books.

    As for the languages I’m learning, firstly thanks for the interest! also a mid-post apology for making an even longer comment….

    German was simply what I learned at school, so it was my introduction if it were to language learning. Because of that it has a special place in me that won’t be replaced by another language. Swedish was the next, and that came round because Stockholm was the first place I had been abroad for about 7 or 8 years, and I ended up with a huge love of the place, the language and the culture. Scandinavia in general has become a bit of an obsession of mine really! Then Chinese because I got the unlikely opportunity to teach in the far west of the country a year before I started university. A year there really opened up language learning and everything surrounding it to me. I’ve completely changed how I study languages now because of that experience. Arabic is a bit more complicated. Basically in the far west of China a number of the minority groups use arabic script (the languages themselves are turkic languages). Seeing this every day and occasionally hearing the languages spoken made me want to at the very least learn the script, so when I got to university I took a module in Arabic.

    Sorry for that psuedo essay there…

    • What an interesting linguistic path you’ve taken! And I have to admit, I had never heard about minority groups in China that write with Arabic script. That’s fascinating. I’ll look forward to reading more about your studies and language-learning process on your blog. I bet I’ll pick up some handy tips, even 😉

  3. Thanks for sharing your friend’s article, as well as your thoughts on it. I enjoyed the read! I especially connected with the end of the article, about transcending cultural boundaries and our shared humanity. Ultimately, I think that’s what linked together my past studies of language and anthropology, and it’s part of why I continue to enjoy learning languages (even the ones I don’t even aspire to fluency in).

    • Hi, Rachel-

      I’m glad you found the article interesting. (I don’t actually know the author—it was just shared with me by a friend.) I thought the point at the end was touching, too. This idea of learning language as a way to transcend boundaries is interesting, I think, since the nature of language learning often means that you can’t fully express yourself or find yourself stumbling over various linguistic and cultural barriers/norms/unspoken cues when you’re trying to communicate. So trying to speak a language that isn’t your native tongue often pushes you right up against these boundaries, but then in finding small ways (sometimes not even spoken or linguistic…I’m a big fan of body language) to get over those hurdles, you can communicate on a much more integral level, I think.

      By the way, I saw on your site that you’re a certified translator. What kind of translation do you do, and from/to what language(s)?

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