Wednesday, January 22, 2014

After passing my ТРКИ (TORFL) exam yesterday, Russian officially became the first foreign language that I’d learnt to a level of certain proficiency. This may come as a surprise to some as I am a speaker of English and Chinese (Mandarin), but neither of these two languages were learnt by me as a ‘second’, or foreign, language.

November 1989, in the coastal city of Durban, South Africa, I was born into the tail end of Apartheid and into an environment of English and Chinese. Both my parents graduated from the English Department of the same university in Taipei, Taiwan. And the mere fact that my parents had English proficiency was enough of a reason for them to travel across the Indian Ocean in search of a brighter future. And as a direct result, unbeknownst to them at the time, I would become part of a new generation of children, known to me simply as having two mother tongues.

Having said that, I would like to distinguish a person with two mother tongues from a person who is bilingual or multilingual, as I believe there is a slight, but not very eye-catching difference. By my definition, a person who has two (or more) mother tongues is born into an environment that doesn’t require the learning of a second or third language (I use the term ‘learning’ very loosely here, but in general I refer to the process of attending class specifically designed for the acquisition of the language), where as someone who is bilingual may acquire proficiency of a second language through hard work and no small amount of willpower and consistency. For example, a Russian girl who puts in endless hours of effort learning English at school, who also exposes herself to English-language content such as films, books and music as a joyful but purposeful way of self-study improvement. This bilingual speaker is exceptional in all parts of the language, and is the model student for any language learner.

Now consider this: a girl with Serbian parents is born in Austria. She speaks Serbian with her parents up until the age of three, after which she is sent to school to study with all the other children in her neighbourhood, in German. She grows up without the factual knowledge of having to go to class to learn a second language, and the environment she grows up in exposes her to both Serbian and German, thus giving her two mother tongues – two languages which she has a perfect grasp of: speaking, listening, reading and writing.

Another similar example would be myself. Growing up in South Africa with Taiwanese parents, I spoke mainly Chinese at home and was later educated in English at school. English was the norm for me because everyone spoke English, and I didn’t for a second consider as a child that I was at an advantage, having in my possession a secret weapon many would kill for, a second mother tongue. When I was a child, I had zero understanding of what speaking a second language (natively) meant. In actual fact it means a lot, but as a child, it’s difficult to understand the value.

When I started learning Russian in 2010, it was difficult for me. Russian has six cases and three genders, and plural for each. That brings the maximum number of possible declensions for a simple noun to 12. Don’t even get me started on verbs of motion and their endless prefixes. Some may call me lucky for speaking English and Chinese natively, but whilst sitting in my first Russian grammar class staring at a blackboard full of Cyrillic, what helped me take in Russian so quickly was not just my previous exposure to Chinese, English and Afrikaans, but also the few years in high school I spent learning beginner level Greek. I had no goal to work towards when learning Greek, and I found it hard to conjure up a strong interest. I was an ignorant, naive and clueless teen in decline. And needless to say, I do not speak Greek (or Afrikaans for that matter). But be it however bleak, my exposure to Greek and Afrikaans can never be undone, and it helped me in ways I could not understand at the time. Learning the fundamentals of Greek not only taught me about the existence of a radically different alphabet, it was also my first introduction to a case-system language. During those years in high school Greek class with Κυρία Αμαλία (Mrs. Amalia), I learnt one of the most important root languages of Europe. This, coupled with an actual interest for the language, drove me onwards to learn Russian.

“All methods are effective in the end when you finish it. But the question is: will you finish it?”

When learning a language, one’s success – or lack thereof – depends on many factors. Too many for me to list in this post, and too various to affect every learner on the same scale. Some of these may include: exposure during childhood, good (or bad) educators, age, mother tongue, interest and goals for learning the language, the method used and difficulty (another debatable topic) of the language, etc. One of the above mentioned points is enough to deter or encourage someone from wanting to pick up another language. So what are the indicators? What is the “Go” sign? It’s all in you.

I write this post from Nizhny Novgorod, Russia, the city I came to at the end of last summer to study intensive Russian courses. My roommate Tom and I have had endless discussions since we first met in September 2013 about what it means to be a language learner, and the goals that language learners should be setting themselves. We often come to a conclusion that is not so much a conclusion as a springboard; a hypothesis, if you will, that shows us the pure facts and gains of learning a language. A theory that doesn’t just tell us how one should learn a language, but also why.

We are both in agreement with the fact that in the heavily globalised world of today, in which we find the Internet, smartphones and tablets, there exists an abundance of material and methods, with which one can successfully (and efficiently) learn a language. However, beyond the mountains and seas of applications, websites, textbooks and institutions that one could utilise to reach this goal, some fundamental and personal requirements remain. Here I refer to two of the Seven Heavily Virtues: diligence and patience.

Many take motivation as the impetus for learning a language. And why not? Is there a better time to start learning a language than when you’re fully motivated? Perhaps not, but it may be argued that motivation alone is unreliable, because motivation, like inspiration, comes and goes.

“Keep the real core of language learning. Plan it and have language results fast.”

During the process of acquiring a new foreign language, we believe one should see to it that a regime of learning is set up in such a way, that it allows you to learn new material even when you’re least motivated to do so. Like a steady diet or a short bout of exercise, the method used would at least allow you to learn a little bit every day, while maintaining practice over a long period of time. Even if this means a few words each day, it will be sustainable and most importantly, consistent.

“Even people suffering from ADD should be able to follow a system like this, on the basis that you can learn a language really fast by exposing yourself every day,” says Tom. “This is better than being a hardcore student who drills it intensively for a short period of time.

“All methods are effective in the end when you finish it. But the question is: will you finish it? The point [of an effective method] is fast results, stakes, goals and planning.”

Much like anything you want to do in your life, short and long term goals are key. You need to focus on your planning and agenda in order to achieve desired results. For example, achieving an A1 or A2 level after half a year.

“Oh, and afterwards you can reduce your method to a minimal,” adds Tom. “The same way you would try do something in the shortest amount of time, focus on the right parts. Conversation, for example. Try to find somebody to practise with and you’ll feel good about yourself. Keep the real core of language learning. Plan it and have language results fast.” That is to say, we all want to be able to speak the language we learn. And once you enter these heavenly gates, you will be addicted and you’ll never want to let it go again. And that’s how I feel about Russian.

I guess it would be simpler to classify language learners – of any age – into two categories: the passive language learner and the active language learner.

Passive language learners are like the many children who begin learning a language (English, for example) as part of a curriculum at school, without any real need or drive to be proficient in the language. This is not news. After all, what does a 7-year-old know about the conveniences of English, the most globalised language in the world? This is where parents play a big part. I see no difference in a child learning piano and a child learning French, for example. While children are young, parents can take the initiative and introduce a foreign language into their lives, turning the passive into the active.

But the truth is in the pudding. That is to say, while there are numerous success stories of English proficiency acquired from time spent at school and self-imposed methods, many students, having learnt English for several years, still do not have a solid grasp of the language. And unfortunately, today, while many of the students themselves still feel the need to improve, the drive to work towards this is often found wanting.

Active language learners, on the other hand, I would define by their willingness to learn a language from nought out of personal interest or necessity, either for work, or in some cases to be in contact with someone important – a loved one, for instance. But many end up with the same hapless result: a half-learnt language and seemingly no time or strength to carry on.

These are things that can be easily addressed if one is willing to carefully plan the language learning process, as mentioned above.

Tom’s definition of being perfectly bilingual doesn’t only include a perfect grasp of the grammar and everyday usage of the language; that is naturally essential. For him, the crème de la crème comes with phonetics. That is, the ultimate goal is to speak without one’s original accent, but instead with the accent of the language learnt. I don’t disagree, but I will reserve my judgement for now.

It would come as no big surprise then, as I find a way to end this post, if I say that proficiency in English alone, in this day and age, is just not good enough. I’m not talking about reaching B2 or C1 proficiency in a foreign language (although that would be most desirable), I’m talking about the basic, elementary level that would allow one to communicate in everyday conversations when speaking with foreigners or when travelling to a foreign country. They say learning is a never-ending process, and I believe language learning should be the same. After all, proficiency in another language can only be beneficial.

At the end of the day, there’s just one important message: regardless of your age, status or wealth, language learning needn’t be a struggle. Pick a language, plan a method, set a goal, and acquire your proficiency.

As always, thanks for reading. And remember, we’re not experts. We’re just your average language learners. JSF.


Tom Gauthier is a language student from Aix en Provence in the south of France. Our discussions about language learning began when he shared an incredible application with me called MosaLingua. It is based on the extremely effective Spaced Repetition System (SRS), which gives the user regular doses of useful vocabulary and phrases each day, while tracking the progress of the learner over a long period of time.
I have been using MosaLingua to learn Spanish and German, and Tom uses it for Spanish, German and Portuguese. 
For those interested, Tom is also part of a Russian-language learning blog, helpful for those considering taking up the challenge. Unfortunately, it is currently only available in French.
I would love to know more about your language learning experiences! So leave your comments below. 

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