Learning a language is hardest the first time

I am often asked which language was hardest to learn. In a way I guess I should say it was Chinese, with all the characters and the four tones etc. Yet I learned to read books and newspapers and speak on a variety of subjects in less than a year.

On the other hand, it took me more than 12 years to reach that level in French, through school and university. Most things are hardest the first time. We are afraid, apprehensive, not confident we can do it. We can’t visualize ourselves speaking another language. We do not believe in ourselves. Once we learn one language, we break through a barrier. From then on, languages may be difficult, and even seem impossible at first, but they are all learnable. The learning becomes easier.

What has been the experience of others?

How to speak like a native? with feeling.

I wanted to feature these comments from Jean-Paul on the issue of speaking like a native. I am interested in your comments. I largely agree with Jean-Paul on this.

( Getting close to a native accent means) Immersing oneself, plunging deeply and irretrievably into the new sounds, falling in love with the rhythm, melody and tonality of the new language. Listening, but as a lover would to the Beloved, not as a biologist watching a dying frog. Embracing, cherishing, breathing in every word, sigh and whisper of Her (or Him).
The more languages you know the easier it becomes to hear the sound structure of a new language, to compare it with known ones and to absorb it. And I find that detailed phonetic descriptions are initially invaluable: e.g. retroflex dentals in Hindi or Punjabi? Curl tongue back against upper palate.
Acquiring native (or almost) pronunciation fundamentally requires a conscious change of identity. The new language becomes “Language”. Your thought patterns switch over. All internal dialogue is transferred over. Music, movies, TV are all switched over. You are not an estranged, tentative foreigner trying to communicate; the new language is as much yours as your own body. This – for me, at least – is a deeply felt and consciously made decision. I went through this process as a teenager and have done my best to replicate it several times since.
If I needed two word to describe the greatest requirement it would have to be “??nconditional Love” (for the object of your linguistic affections): hopeless, mad love. (Throw in a pinch of unmitigated obsession if you like.)

Yes it is possible (to speak like a native), but it requires a complete and fierce decision to become part of the new language: on all levels – internal dialogue, communication, intense study, social contacts, media. Nothing short of absolute engulfment – conscious or unconscious – will yield this result in a typical person. The time-frame is individual. It happens magically fast in younger children.
Experience tells me – having watched this process for decades – that if you are going to acquire native-sounding pronunciation and effortless syntax/vocab command in a new language, it will occur within a short time (a few years). A (usually unconscious) decision is made by an individual HOW MUCH to integrate and shed his/her old ego-persona-language for the new one. If the new speaker hangs on to the phonetic structure and syntax of the old country, these habits will usually fossilize and the passing of decades will only reinforce them. Comprehension could be flawless but output development will be permanently arrested.(A good linguistic coach could change that.)
I believe that native command of a new language is be achieved by living in a country. (I’m sure there are exceptions.)

How do best get close to a native accent?

Jerry Dai is a young immigrant to Canada from China. He came to Canada in his twenties. Click on his name to hear his short video. His English is like a native or pretty close.

His technique for mastering English pronunciation was to listen to the same CD, the same limited amount of content,?? thousands of times. (Might be a good idea, but who has the patience to do it?)

When I was learning Chinese, I used to listen to a cassette tape of Xiang Sheng comedian Hou Bao Lin, over and over, while working out or doing things, even when I did not understand most of it. I credit that for improving my tones and Chinese pronunciation (such as it is). But then I did not listen thousands of times.

Here are some observations from my own experience.

1)I have never learned the International Phonetic Accent since It was another group of symbols to learn.
2)I felt that if some sounds of the new language were new to me, these symbols were not going to help.
3) When I have bought a language learning starter kit for a language (like Teach Yourself or whatever), I avoid the detailed introduction to the sounds.
4) Through listening and reading I learn to relate the symbols I am reading in the new language to the sounds I hear
5) A lot of listening to content I like, with accents and voices I like, gradually makes me more and more in tune with the language.
6) I find that what seems impossible to pronounce at first, eventually becomes easier, following this process.
7) I do not worry about pronunciation at the beginning, or at any stage. I just expect my pronunciation to gradually improve.
8) At LingQ we have created special short content items, read slowly and at normal speed, that concentrate on problems like “th”, “r” and “l”, consonant clusters and the like, for repetitive listening.

What has the experience of others? What advice do you have?

Can we learn to speak a foreign language like a native?

In a lengthy comment to a previous post here, Billy the Kid had this to say.

It is emphatically not impossible to become native-like in one’s second language, even if one doesn’t come in contact with that language until adulthood”

Is it realistic to expect to speak like a native in a foreign language, if we start studying as an adult?

My answer is no. I think there are very few people who achieve this level of fluency in another language. I have probably dealt with thousands of people speaking a foreign language. I would have trouble remembering even a handful who spoke “just like a native”. There are people who speak well, but almost always they can be identified as foreign. And so what?

No only is it not realistic to expect to speak like a native, it is not necessary. We learn languages either to enjoy them and the related culture, or to communicate with the natives of that language, for pleasure or work. None of this requires us to sound like a native. The native speaker is the model,?? the ideal which we seek to emulate, just as we may try to?? emulate Tiger Woods if we are a golfer. But we do not realistically expect to play golf like Tiger Woods, nor should we expect to speak like a native. The natives do not expect it either.

We can try to get as close as possible to the ideal, to speak with as few mistakes as possible, to continuously improve. But if we fall short, we can still be satisfied. The thousands of people of all nationalities whom I have met, who had effective and practical control of English or other languages,?? achieved their language goals without sounding like a native.

Non-natives can be better than natives in some aspects of the language. Joseph Conrad apparently had a pronounced Polish accent and yet was an outstanding figure of English literature. A highly educated non-native speaker can be more literate than some of the less well educated natives, or , in the case of English, spell better and even be more grammatically correct. But even the semi-literate native speaker will sound more native than most of these highly educated non-native speakers.


Why input trumps output in language learning.

Some arguments in favour of input. I am sure there are many more.

  • We need to understand before we can speak.
  • I would rather understand well and stumble when I speak than the reverse.
  • If we can produce intelligible phrases and do not understand the answers, our conversations will not last long.
  • Passive vocabulary is powerful, necessary, and always much larger than our active vocabulary of the words we like to use.
  • The more we understand, and the more words we have, even passively, the more interesting our interaction with the language and the more words we can acquire.
  • If we understand most of a text, or conversation, it is easier to pick up the words and phrases we do not yet know.
  • The acquisition of passive vocabulary through input, is like putting the pieces of the jig-saw together. Gradually the picture becomes clearer.
  • Input is easy to arrange. We can listen and read anywhere and anytime.
  • Input is interesting, if we choose content that is meaningful to us.
  • If we develop the habit of input learning we become independent.
  • Input learning makes it easy to review our languages, and maintain them.
  • Through input learning, especially with authentic content. we learn not only the language, but many more things.
  • At any time in our input learning activities, we can decide to speak or write, to practice what we have learned.
  • Of course we need to speak a lot, in order to speak well, but our progress in speaking will be smoother if we invest time in input, and continue doing so.
  • Our interaction with any language, including our own, is mostly as listeners and readers.
  • If we are good listeners and readers, our output skills will have a sound base.

One of my goals in any language learning project is to read a full length book in that language. Getting there is a powerful moment of achievement, an Everest.

I could go on….

Authentic content versus graded readers – some thoughts

Graded readers are widely available for learners of English and to a lesser extent for other languages. Beginner content is also a form of graded reader. How long do we need to say in the sheltered world of using content, audio or texts, that is written for learners? How soon should we move to the real thing, the content created by natives for natives?

Generally speaking we should be wary of too many “shoulds”. Our world is full of recommendations of what we should do. We are told we “should” not eat eggs because of cholesterol, should not consume too much salt, we should drink x litres of water every day, etc. and then it turns out that much of this is not true. We have to make our own decisions based on what works for us. Here is what works for me.

  • I like to get to authentic content as soon as possible.
  • I prefer authentic interesting content over content that is “dumbed down”.
  • I like to have a month or two of easy content, which I listen to repeatedly, just to get me going.
  • When I start on authentic content, I feel a great sense of achievement, almost like getting airborne.
  • I had the greatest need for graded content in Chinese, because of the characters.
  • LingQ lets me start on graded content much earlier. In Russian, I was doing literature with over 50% new words after 2 months at one hour a day.
  • If I took up a language that was related to one I knew, I would start with authentic content from the beginning.
  • I will do newspapers, podcasts and literature in Dutch, and Czech, once we get these languages at LingQ.
  • With Arabic I think I would need graded material.
  • Graded readers are easier, obviously, but knowing that they are dumbed down takes away from the sense of achievement and success, which we need.
  • Graded readers can improve fluency, help you review what you already know, and increase reading speed.
  • At LingQ I tend to choose the authentic content with the lowest percentage of new words, but authentic content.
  • I also occasional read easy material for review.

I could go on, but I think the main point is that the content must be meaningful and enjoyable. What constitutes meaningful and enjoyable will depend on each individual. Long before the Internet, finding appropriate content was always a major part of my learning activity. If learners are in charge of deciding what to learn from, the mix of authentic and graded will depend on the tastes and opportunities of each learner.