What is “learning” a language?

A sensible question raised after last week’s post was: what does “learning” a language mean?

This is, of course, quite similar to the question: what does “speaking” a language mean?

As with so many things on matters linguistic, there is no concrete answer to it. It depends from circumstance to circumstance.

Nevertheless, there is a question that anyone should ask before embarking on learning one: what is the purpose of learning this language?

Language learning is a surprisingly under-researched subject. Nevertheless, one thing which is clear (and intuitive even without research) is that a prime indicator of success is motivation. So, as with anything, if you do not know why you are doing something, you are less likely to succeed in doing it.

Then there is the need, having established the purpose, to be realistic about the goal. As established in my “speaking a language” post, native proficiency is not a realistic objective for an adult, even if resident in the country where the target language is spoken. This in itself may put many people off; but that would be a little like saying you should not take up a sport aged 39 because you will never be an Olympian. That is not, surely, the purpose.

Clarity about the purpose is important for anything, of course. So, are you trying to “learn” Italian so you can get by when ordering a meal or reserving a hotel room while there? Are you trying to “learn” French because you have seen a university course there you want to take up? Are you trying to “learn” Dutch because you want to try your luck seeking employment in the Netherlands or Belgium?

Then it is necessary to assess what exactly that means, given not just the level to which you wish to “learn” the language, but also the socio-linguistic situation.

For example, with a fairly widely spoken language such as Italian, it will be relatively easy to find a course and a phrase book to “learn” it to be proficient enough to go there on holiday and have a clearer idea about what is going on around you. (A course or a phrase book may not be the best way to achieve this, however!)

With French designed for use on a university course, you will want the basics but not necessarily much more than that as you will be able to “learn” once there through immersion (for many people, this is the best way). Many evening courses will deliver such an outcome; online courses or tapes are also possible, although they may in fact focus too much on vocabulary.

If you were to approach a language like Dutch, however, the socio-linguistic situation becomes very pertinent. A comfortable majority of people in the Netherlands and Flanders, particularly in the services industry where you may be seeking employment (as per the above scenario), speak good to excellent English. This is a serious problem, not just because it denies you the chance to practise (and “learn” through immersion), but also because it takes away motivation. If it becomes apparent that you may be able to get by without Dutch, then that becomes a tempting option over making the effort to “learn” it. That this denies you the chance to immerse yourself fully in the local culture may not be such a big issue, given in any case there is no sense of loss because “you don’t know what you don’t know”.

For all that, no matter what is meant by “learn”, there are a few universals which apply to “learning” at any level for any purpose. For example:

  • you will make mistakes, and indeed they are necessary to “learn” (just as you would if you took up a sport or any other sort of hobby);
  • it is good to know the socio-linguistic situation of the language compared to your purpose (a little like the New Year gym subscription, ask yourself honestly: are you really going to make the effort?);
  • it is good to establish if (and how) the target language is related to any other language you know (this may make it easier, and of course familiarity breeds motivation – I would happily have a go at Portuguese given my knowledge of Spanish, but Polish is rather more distant and Chinese is hopelessly unfamiliar);
  • it is good from the outset to establish the character of a language – whether it has a preference for noun phrases over verb phrases (as with German v Spanish); whether it places adjectives before or after nouns; whether it likes to end words in vowels or (certain) consonants; what sort of differentiation between tenses it makes; what intonation it uses (this is hard to explain in writing, but listen to a French person, a Swede or a German speak English and you will hear the different intonation from their native tongue); etc etc;
  • music (with lyrics in the target language) is always good;
  • focusing on areas of your own interest for reading articles or listening to reports will always maintain motivation and interest; and
  • remember, generally native speakers are keen to help you “learn”, although they too may make mistakes (and they may be hopeless for explaining why certain things are the way they are).

If you are realistic and clear about your objectives, learning a language is like learning anything else – with motivation and effort will come success. However, it does pay to be clear about the purpose, and thus what “learning” the language with your particular goal actually means.


4 thoughts on “What is “learning” a language?

  1. korhomme says:

    Motivation: a long time ago a colleague from Nigeria told me his story. He had been sent by his government to study in what was then the USSR. He arrived in Kiev not speaking a word of Russian. I asked him if it was hard to learn Russian.

    “When you’re hungry you learn very quickly,” he replied.

  2. […] fact, much of what determines how easy a language is to learn has nothing to do with its structure. Motivation is the real primary determinant; and, of course, if you don’t really have anyone to talk to, […]

  3. […] grounding, from which you can develop knowledge in the ways I have suggested in the past. Remember, motivation is […]

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