The Top 5 Questions About Learning A Language

When students arrive in person in my classroom, they seldom ask questions about learning languages (unless they’re here to earn a degree in a language). That’s because their degree requirements include some language courses (which they have to take and pass). Few of them worry about actually learning a language. Only learning a little bit, but mostly about passing the courses and fulfilling the requirements.

But the questions asked randomly on forums have nothing to do with degrees or requirements. Here’s what they want to know.

  1. Can anyone learn a foreign language?

    However, we have to define “learning a language.” Can anyone learn a foreign language to the point where they will be mistaken for a native speaker?
    No. Not everyone.
    Can anyone learn to communicate in a foreign language enough to travel to a foreign country?
    Yes. Definitely.

  2. How long does it take to learn a foreign language?

    First, see above. How well do you want to learn the foreign langauge?
    Second, how much time a day are you willing to devote to language learning?
    Third, have you any experience with language learning?
    Those are only a few variables. There is no set time. It’s like asking how long it would take someone to become an NBA champion. For some, it will be never. A very few will make it. Some won’t ever manage to get the ball in the basket.
    Why? Well, I don’t care to spend the necessary time to practice. It’s not my thing.
    Could I learn? Maybe. I just don’t care.
    Language learning is like that. How much you care, how much time you devote to it, are as important as whether you’re good at studying.

  3. Is “language x” difficult to learn?

    The objective answer is that a language that’s close to your own is easier to learn than one that has nothing in common with it.
    Languages come in families. European languages are related, but some are close cousins, and others are very distant (some are only connected by geography and don’t seem to have any family ties at all).
    Theoretically, if you know English, German or Dutch would be easier to learn.
    If you know Spanish, French and Italian would be easier to learn.
    If you know Polish, Russian, Czech, or Bulgarian would be easier to learn.
    But knowing any of these languages won’t help you with Chinese or Arabic or Japanese.
    In reality, how easy it is to learn a language depends a lot more on whether you want to learn it and whether you are passionate about the language, the culture, and the learning of it.

  4. What is the best and/or fastest way to learn a language?

    Just do it.
    There are no shortcuts.
    To really learn a language you need to acquire 4 skills: reading, writing, listening, speaking. Which means that beside passive knowledge (reading and writing), you need active skills (writing and speaking), which require contact with actual people.
    The best methodology is the old and proven one: a textbook, a teacher, some fellow students to practice with. It could all be in cyberspace or in a brick-and-mortar classroom, but language is about communication, so you need some people to communicate with (fellow students), and someone to facilitate the communication (teacher). This means repeated practice.
    Indeed, there are rare geniuses who can accomplish this swiftly and on their own. But they are Eisteins and Hawkings of language acquisition. Unique individuals.
    For us ordinary linguists? There are no shortcuts.

  5. Can you learn more than one foreign language at a time?

    Is it easy, and/or recommended?
    That depends.
    Remember the time commitment? It will be split between the languages you’re trying to learn. You will learn more slowly or not as well. Or else it will be doubled: you will learn as fast, but something else will suffer.
    But it’s not impossible. It’s not even not-recommended. It depends entirely on how you approach the learning and what your goals are.


There are no simple answers to any of these questions. I mean, I can give you simple answers, and I’ve done so, facetiously. But you can see that they’re not satisfactory.

That’s because answers about language learning are not absolute. There is no manual for language learning. The textbooks are guides that help you navigate the progressively more complex aspects of a language.

Let me ask you a question now: do you feel that you’re completely done learning everything about your own native language? Is there nothing that surprises you anymore? An expression you hadn’t heard before? A new word? A different way of pronouncing something?

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