Why We Fail Miserably at Learning Languages


If you have spent time in other cultures or traveled a lot, not in cars by yourself, but on trains, buses, and ferries where you are compelled into human interaction, or better still, on foot through bustling cities or from village to village, then you will have experienced several times the delight of having intelligent conversations with people who barely share a language with you. Solely from recognizing a few words, from being able to interpret facial expressions and gestures, and above all from being intensely interested in your interlocutor and her world, it is possible to communicate quite deeply with a stranger. I have fond menories of almost falling in love with a German girl I sat next to on a ferry; we talked for four hours in an almost nonsensical mash of German and English. When I taught in China, I noticed that many longtime students of the English language could hold only faltering, fearful conversations in English — whereas some businessmen and scientists who had never formally studied English could have interesting conversations with me about politics or philosophy, because their English had expanded through their curiosity in favorite subject areas. Their English would be far from perfect and always thickly accented, but they were capable of understanding and making themselves understood in discussions of deep, significant matters. In traveling, you also enounter shopkeepers and food-vendors who can conduct their daily business effectively in multiple languages; they have an urgent practical interest in doing so, and while they may not be able to discuss philosophical notions in all those languages, it is probably fair to claim that many of them are more confident and effective linguists than many people who have studied one of those languages formally for years. 

   Most people in the world are comfortably functional in two or three languages or dialects. In polyglot societies, it is common to hear multiple tongues simultaneously going at a single restaurant table. In Malaysia, among my own family, I have heard one person asking something in Cantonese to two other people who replied in Hakka and English, while interacting with the waiter in Malay; and I have also heard a sentence that began in Cantonese, continued in Hokkien, and ended in English. In such a society there is an astonishing ease and freedom with languages, a lack of anxiety coupled with a willingness to improvise. One of my uncles, who is proficient in four languages and functional in about six others, has told me his secret to learning a new language: just write down the fifty words that are most useful to you, look up how to use them, go out there and spend a few days using them, and over the weeks add to this store. This really works — but it requires not so much courage as recklessness, a deliberate abandonment of caution and an enjoyment of learning through failing. 

   In contrast, I think of the many years I have spent studying a language academically, through textbooks, dictionaries, tables of nouns and vetbs, drills, exercises, and tests, only to freeze up when addressed by a native speaker — or able to read a book but not a newspaper, to ask and answer questions but not have a lively conversation. This paralysis results from an excessive sense of responsibility to the language, a feeling that I have to be correct all the time and make only complete, well formed utterances. Experienced this way, a language is a thing, a defined object with fixed rules and standards that have to be conformed to; and its thingness is embodied in the grammar book and dictionary, which purport to contain the entire language. Now, there is an undeniable power to this view of a language. In the case of dead languages, which are “complete” in the sense that they are no longer evolving and are therefore “done,” it might be compelling and attractive to condense all the patterns of a language in one book; for example, it is a miracle that the whole of Sanskrit can be summarized in the 150 pages of Gonda’s Sanskrit grammar, and downright unbelievable that the great ancient grammarian Panini gave us the essential generative grammar of Sanskrit in fewer than 20 pages. Any grammar textbook of a language aims at doing something similar: grasping and presenting the underlying essence of a language in a way that makes it efficient to master, because the entire structure can be conceived theoretically by one who has studied the whole book. Classical linguists are so familiar with the deep structures of a group of languages that when faced with a new one, they can find their way quickly because they already have a map. It is like a zoologist who has spent decades working with the anatomy of rodents and mustelids: when given a cat to dissect, he will know where to find the heart or liver. 

   I myself am very good at the analytical study of language, but I know that only relatively few people have the aptitude for this kind of study. It requires the capacity for long hours of mental focus and retention, and an abstract, rational turn of mind that quickly and rigorously seizes underlying structures and is skilled at memorizing. People who excel in learning languages in this way pay a price for it; they tend to be socially shy or awkward, happier at desks than at human gatherings, and consequently not at ease with the flexible, fluid ways of living languages in spontaneous human interaction. The problem is that people who have advanced credentials with languages and who are good at the scholarly approach tend to be the ones who write language-learning materials. Moreover, an expert in a language generally teaches others the way he was taught (after all, why change the winning team?), and this way usually presupposes that the language is a thing with a fixed structure that can be taught through books and a classroom, independently of a living context. 

   However, it doesn’t work for most people. The effect of our conventional methods of learning languages is to create a monoglot — someone who is only comfortable in one language and is terrified at the prospect of having to be functional in more than one. Perhaps it is more than an effect; perhaps the intention is to create a society of monoglots. After all, the idea of a national language grew with the development of print culture, which enforced a standard range of prose for published texts. The culmination of this was the great age of philology and lexicography in the 19th century, in which authoritative reference books set down the official standards for a language. If a word isn’t in the Oxford English Dictionary, it isn’t English; and if you are unsure of a point of grammar, you will consult one of the standard references in grammar and usage, such as the Oxford Guide to English Grammar. The essence of a language is thus treated as something that lies outside and beyond its particular speakers in particular times and places, and that is contained in books that have authority to declare if any given utterance is English or not. When we speak English we have to be obedient to such centers of authority; and when we attempt to learn French we have to be obedient to other centers. No wonder we are paralyzed with anxiety when we are called to speak. We have been shackled by shadowy, artificial authorities. We are lucky to have learned one language as children, before we received the gift of viewing languages as things outside of us.

   Official languages are nation-makers, hence also monoglot-makers. The many rules of a language — all those inflections, and then idioms and exceptions — are meant to make it hard for outsiders to join the group. If languages were solely for communication, they would have the simplicity and malleability of Esperanto. Instead, languages as we know it are used to create Us and Other, and the thorniness of the Other is reflected in the fearsome difficulty of speaking the Other language. Thus, we have succeeded in making the learning of languages hard and unpleasant. We have reified our languages, turned them into intimidating objects outside of ourselves that we now have to struggle with, instead of what they really are in our lived experience of them — dynamic, changing, growing, intimate aspects of our particular being in history.

   In a recent essay in the Scientific American (“Evidence Rebuts Chomsky’s Theory of Language Learning,” September 7, 2016), Paul Ibbotson and Michael Tomasello argue that over the last few decades evidence has been mounting that our capacity for language does not emanate from an underlying “universal grammar” that we all have inside us. In other words, language may not be fundamentally a thing that precedes and causes all individual instances of speech. Just as the capacity for language itself may not need a hypostatized universal language, a Platonic form of language, in the same way a given language does not require a substratum or essence that stands apart from particular utterances. Uninhibited by ideas about language, children learn languages by freely engaging them with multiple parts of the mind, which in approaching languages is like a Swiss Army Knife: a “set of general-purpose tools—such as categorization, the reading of communicative intentions, and analogy making, with which children build grammatical categories and rules from the language they hear around them.” However, as we grow up, we abandon the Swiss Army Knife and strive to rely on a single tool for everything.

   We are living in an age of more complex relationships with different cultures and languages, but also of more vehement resistance to difference — hence the bigotry that manifests as nationalism, of which one face is rigid monoglottism. Listening to a group of people speaking an exotic language in a public space, how many people now become disturbed, uneasy, suspicious? — how many become even angry and indignant, and would consider reporting these strangers to the authorities? If our educational systems deliberately create a nation of monoglots, they are also tacitly creating an atmosphere of hostility towards other languages and their speakers. Reification always cripples the ability to relate.

   There is a place for the scholarly approach to a language through formal grammar and lexicon; it can give a valuable analytical account of a language, but does not necessarily express what the language is. Consider Chaucer’s dazzling creation of English through the audacious assimilation of French words and syntax, Shakespeare’s many shatterings and reforgings of the language, the King James Bible’s weird and beautiful Hebrew-English, Milton’s even weirder Latinate Hebrew-English: fortunately for us, our greatest writers never experienced their language as a thing, but as a process of formation boiling with possibilities, including the possibility of being wholly permeated by other languages. This is how we should be experiencing language, and the way we learn languages should reflect this dangerous, thrilling play at the limits of expression. Can we transform the way we study languages and become more open, more creative, more free? It seems that we are already beginning to, in the various new digital language-learning programs that emphasize living interaction; many of these start from an insight that the conventional approach is “boring” and ineffectual to most people, but do not go so far as to say that they fail because they are built on fallacious ideas about language. I hope nonetheless that the new “hands-on” approaches will percolate into our classrooms and shake us up.

   When we find ourselves on that train trying to explain ourselves to the attractive and interesting stranger, and reaching into the unknown to fathom what he is telling us, we find ourselves working at the very borders of what we know — and enjoying it, fuller for it. All language study should be like this — maybe even all study. A bilingual friend — who is not bilingual in the way a George Steiner is bilingual, namely as a superman-scholar type who can write polished prose in four languages, but rather is bilingual like my Malaysian relatives are multilingual, capable of rapidly ricocheting between several languages with easy functionality and no commitment to formal correctness — once remarked to me that being bilingual is “a bit like making out in the dark”: not everything is lit and seen, we struggle tentatively across spaces to make contact, and we learn to be bold and trusting in the unknown. This is indeed how we do language — venturing perilously into the new, not just memorizing and applying predetermined patterns in a safe, warm web approved by the best scholars. 

   

  

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28 thoughts on “Why We Fail Miserably at Learning Languages

  1. I completely agree with this! Whenever I meet non-native English speakers who speak English very well, they’re always the ones who learned it through meaningful interaction with the language, for example by doing their hobbies in English, talking to people or using it at work. The ones who don’t speak it well always complain that they learned it for years at school but it didn’t work. Learning about how a language works is fascinating, but it doesn’t necessarily help us use it. Thanks for the interesting article!

  2. This is quite good. I think you can make the same argument with classical languages. They’re only “dead” if we make them so. Just like the KJV and Milton, if we are bold enough to let a classical language transform a modern language, then it is in fact still a living language

  3. Wonderful article! I’ve always wondered if the English Only movement was fueled not only by xenophobia but by a fear of our own inadequacy. After all, most of us took at least two years of a foreign language in high school and utterly failed to learn it. Maybe we fear that we are just not smart enough to keep up.

  4. I will share this with my French students! TPRS (Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling) is a great new methodology to teaching and learning languages in a way akin to the train conversations you describe in this article. I tried mostly the “peace corps” language model of lots of repetition but I really like this storytelling aspect. It offers hope to us language teachers in a monoglot society such as ours. Thanks for sharing!

  5. Cher Monsieur Venkatesh,
    Je pense que votre article est intéressant. Je sais seulement une langue et quelques choses que vous avez écrit sont vrai. Vous avez écrit, “The effect of our conventional methods of learning languages is to create a monoglot — someone who is only comfortable in one language and is terrified at the prospect of having to be functional in more than one”. Je pense que vous avez raison parce que dans les États Unis, les langues étrangère ne sont pas bien appris.
    Je suis en d’accord que la seulement manière d’apprendre est pour une personne à l’expérience de la langue. Vous avez aussi écrit,”We are lucky to have learned one language as children, before we received the gift of viewing languages as things outside of us”. Je pense qu’une problème avec les langues étrangères est que les écoles n’eduquent pas les langues étrangères pendant la jeunesse. Merci pour votre article.
    Bien cordialement,
    Kaitlyn âge 17

    • Merci, Mme. Kaitlyn. I can read anything in French but my written French is slow and terrible, so I apologize for responding in English. Your thoughts are helpful and interesting to me. The situation in the USA is much worse than in Europe. Even though the nationalist enterprise of identifying one nation is equally strong in most Western countries, at least in Europe it is impossible to escape other languages! Do you get TV in several languages where you live? In the US it is only English.

  6. Cher Monsieur Venkatesh,
    Je pense que ton article était très intéressante. Il est vrai que nous sommes mauvais en langues étrangères parce que à l’école nous seulement utilisons francais parler a les camarades de class. Je ne parlais jamais à une personne qui parle francais dans le monde réel. À mon avis, je pense que il est possible étudie les langues plus libre et plus créatif. Je suis d’accord avec le phrase que tu dit, “I think the many years I have spent studying a language academically through textbooks, dictionaries, tables of nouns and verbs, drills, exercises and tests, only to freeze up when addressed by a native speaker- or be able to read a book but not a newspaper, to ask and answer questions but not have a lively conversation.” Je peux apprendre les choses de étudier le livre mais je pense que, si nous pouvons parler francais avec autre gens qui parlent francais dehors le class, nous pourrons parler mieux. Je suis aussi d’accord avec le phrase, “If our educational systems deliberately create a nation of monoglots, they are also tacitly creating an atmosphere of hostility towards other languages and their speakers,” parce que nous allons regarder les gens qui parlent une autre langue différemment si nous avons l’habitude de seulement écoutons notre langue. Il est possible que nous allons penser que les autre américains qui ne parlent pas anglais est différent et je pense qu’ il est une problème.
    Bien cordialement,
    Sarah âge 18

  7. Cher Monsieur Venkatesh,
    Je pense que votre article est vrai et tres bien. J’ai seulement parlé avec une personne francais parfois, et je ne suis pas bien. Je vais à une école ou nous sommes une “block schedule,” et nous sommes classe francais tout les autres jours, donc il et difficile à practique. Tout les gens que je connais qui parle autre langues ont appris avec lecture et autres médias. Je ne parle jamais avec les personnes francais. Je pense que aller tant de langues différentes peut causer la xénophobie. J’aussi pense que le phrase, “If our educational systems deliberately create a nation of
    monoglots, they are also tacitly creating an atmosphere of hostility towards
    other languages and their speakers” est tres vrai, et nous devrions faire plus attention en tant que société.

    Bien Cordialment,
    Jack, age 18

  8. Dear Mr. Venkatesh,
    I thought the article you wrote was very interesting and also eye opening to different aspects of learning new languages that I had not thought of before. In my opinion, I believe that we can expand on the way we study languages. I could not agree with you more when you stated, “This is how we should be experiencing language, and the way we learn should reflect this dangerous, thrilling play at the limits of expression.” I believe we should make language come alive in the classroom setting and experiment on how we can learn best and see how far we can get with trying new learning techniques. Making use of the technology that we have today is smart because it helps bring the language to a level that teens can understand and learn better from. Being more open and free for the way we study language can be as simple as just trying new ways to study the language, such as playing games or having a laid back conversation in that language. We need to also expand our comfort zone in learning new languages and to not to be held back in fear on messing up. Constant practice is needed to learn a new language, as well as patience, persistence, and having fun learning it!
    Sincerely,
    Hannah, age 16

  9. Cher Monsieur Venkatesh,

    Je pense que ton article est tres intéressant. J’aime le secret de ton oncle; je pense que c’est une excellente façon d’wpprendre une langue. Je suis d’accord avec le phrase que vous dites, “This paralysis results from an excessive sense of responsibility to the language, a feeling that I have to be correct all the time and only make complete, well formed utterances”. Je suis d’accord parce que, pour moi, alors que j’apprends le français j’ai sentais cette façon. Quand je raconte la langue à ma vie, je trouve qu’elle est plus facile d’apprendre. Je pense qu’il m’aides être plus intéressé dans la langue. Tout le monde ont besoin de trouver la meilleure façon d’apprendre une langue pour eux-mêmes. Merci pour cette article!

    Bien cordialment,
    Alexis âge 17

  10. Dear Mr. Venkatesh,
    I think that many people need to read this article. I am taking a french class and I have been studying French for about a year and a half now. I am going on a french trip in March and I am a little nervous. I am nervous because I can read the French that I know, but listening is hard for me. Having a lively conversation is even harder since I do not know a whole lot in French yet. I am always hesitant about what I am about to say and I am afraid of not being grammatically corrrect. I can relate to when you said, “In contrast, I think of the man years I have spent studying a language academically, through textbooks, dictionaries, tables of nouns and verbs, drills, exercises, and tests, only to freeze up when addressed by a native speaker – or able to read a book but not a newspaper, to ask and answer questions but not have a lively conversation.” However, I have not actually talked to a native speaker yet.
    From my experience of trying to learn a new language, I have learned that it takes a lot of focus and consistency. If I do not use the french that I know as much as possible, I will easily forget it. Learning a new language takes a lot of dedication. For me personally, learning from just a textbook does not work. I think that we need some more active ways to learn new languages. Not everyone learns the same way. Hannah est vrai. L’article est intéressant.
    Sincerely,
    Katie, âge 15

  11. Cher Monsieur Venkatesh,

    J’agreement avec votre title, nous sommes tres mal à les langues étrangers. Pour moi, je parle Francais soulement parce que j’aime le langue et le culture. Aussi, parce que j’ai voyagé a France deux fois maintenant et cette été je voyagerai à france. Votre phrase, “the thorniness of the other is reflected in the fearsome difficulty of speaking the other language,” est tres vrai. Pour le pluspart, les americains ont plus effrayé de les autre langues que tous les autre nationalites. Ce que le probléme avec notre pays. Je pense que Sarah as raison quand elle dit qu’elle agrees avec votre phrase, “they are also tacitly creating an atmosphere of hostility towards other languages and their speakers.” J’aime bien votre article, merci pour le perspicacité.

    Bien cordialement,

    Clayton Arnold, 17

  12. Dear Mr. Venkatesh
    When reading your article I found it very interesting and I could not agree more with much of what you said. One main thing that stuck out to me is when you said “If our educational systems deliberately create a nation of monoglots, they are also tacitly creating an atmosphere of hostility towards other languages and their speakers.” I believe that almost all people feel extremely uncomfortable around people of different dialects. Most feel uneasy of what they are talking about and feel like that people from others places are up to no good, but I believe otherwise. To me when I hear someone speaking a different language I get intruiged about that language and wonder what they find interesting about the English language. I am very interested in the way people communicate and think. I think that people should be more open to other languages and want to learn how to communicate with other people. Schools do not help with this, I think that schools should require more language or at least highly suggest it. Also in my opinion schools should also give students more oppertunities to be around people who speak a different languages and give them an oppertunity to speak in that language with a native and experience how they use the language. I feel that if our generation had more chances to experience a different language that we would feel more comfortable around people of different dialects and much less hostile.
    Thankyou for writing this article I very much enjoyed reading It!
    Sincerely,
    Benjamin, age 16

    • Thank you, Monsieur Benjamin. I wholeheartedly agree with you. I don’t understand why it is so hard for this country to raise everyone bilingual, considering how many different ethnic groups there are here. People need to see that it is actually fun to speak more than one language and to have the whole world open up to them when they can understand other cultures better.

  13. Cher Monsieur Venkatesh,
    J’aime votre article, c’est tres intéressant. Je pense que nous sommes mauvais en langues étrangères. Nous devons apprendre langues étrangères avec aller a les pays. Si nous allons a la pay de langues étrangères, nous apprendrons plus bite. Je suis d’accord avec la citation: “If our educational systems deliberately create a nation of
    monoglots, they are also tacitly creating an atmosphere of hostility towards
    other languages and their speakers”? Nous ne comprenons pas les autres pays avec seulement une langue. Je suis d’accord avec Kaitlyn, que les écoles n’eduquent pas les langues étrangères pendant la jeunesse. ce nest pas un accent dans les langues étrangères. Merci pour votre article
    Bien cordialement,
    Holly
    Age 17

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