Let's Define What It Means To 'Learn A Language'

What does it mean when you say you want to learn a language? What do you expect to be true before you have learned a language? And what is happening when you are learning a language? That phrase is pretty powerful, and yet pretty vague. Apparently, everyone understands it differently.

A little controversy

A few weeks ago, I made the bold statement that I had learned Polish in just 8 days. I admit that I chose these words because they would be a bit controversial, but they were not untrue.

Upon reading it, some some people were completely awestruck, as if I had performed a miracle, which tells me they put far too high a value on the phrase learned a language. Others were as negative as if I had claimed to be able to fly. They too have their expectations too high.

But there were some who were merely curious, and a few who actually know Polish and could measure my results first-hand, and who genuinely understood and respected the task that I had completed in a short period of time.

I didn't say that I had mastered the language, I said that I had learned it. I wasn't fluent. In fact I am still not fluent. I learned the alphabet, its sounds. I learned phonics and morphology. I learned conjugations and declensions. I learned basic grammar and sentence structure. I learned enough vocabulary to survive and to have basic conversation.

Learning a language

I've been dragged into many arguments in the past, about what it means to learn a language. Some have made the claim that you can never learn a language, because it's impossible to know everything. I say, the words learn and impossible should never appear in the same sentence.

Some presume that having learned a language means speaking it fluently. But there's already a word fluent... why would some other group of words be necessary if they share the same definition?

To me, learning a language means understanding that language. It means being able to use it, and being able to understand it in use. Having learned a language means you are able to use it without the aid of any other language.

But learning a language does not mean mastery of it. It doesn't mean speaking it fluently. In fact, it doesn't even mean being comfortable with it! You can know a thing and still struggle with it. That's okay.

My results

I just got back from Poland, and I can say confidently that I understood a lot. I was able to understand a surprisingly high percentage (maybe 80% or more) of what was said to me, when people spoke at a moderate pace, and still about 40-50% of what I heard when people spoke particularly fast.

You might think understanding 40% is too low, but it's just a matter of how you look at things. Keep in mind that I went through an entire book about learning Polish in just 8 days, and then did a bit of online chat and wrote a couple of entries on Lang-8. The only real listening comprehension practice I've done is watching a couple of YouTube videos from Real Polish, and a following along with the guest reading submission a few weeks ago.

While in Poland, I was able to buy food and drinks and train tickets. I was able to ask for directions and understand amounts and times. I found my way around and even gave directions to some Poles. When I didn't understand something, I was able to ask in Polish for its meaning, and usually understand the explanation.

Based on these results, I am convinced that anyone can learn a language in a short period of time. I'm not claiming anyone will be fluent in one month, or that they will master the language or have an impressive vocabulary. But I do firmly believe that baby-stepping your way into the language does nothing to help.

In the future, I will attack all languages with this blitzkreig approach, in hopes of reaching a useful understanding of the language as early as possible, so I can spend the rest of my time working on building vocabulary through everyday use.


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Author: Yearlyglot
I'll lead you through a 12 month journey from knowing absolutely nothing about a language to having professional fluency.

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  • lol

  • I think it is the tense you use that makes people upset. It is a question of semantics and it appears a bit like grandstanding. If you say you "learned a language", using the past tense, that implies that you have come to know everything that there is to know about a language and that you don't need to spend time understanding anything more about it. If you use the present tense, "I am learning a language", that implies that you have a limited mastery of the language and you are still in the process of gaining more knowledge about it. Personally, after 10 years of learning Italian it makes me uncomfortable to say I have learned the language... but I do have an excellent mastery of it. Everyday I learn something new and therefore it would be a false statement to say it has been learned completely.Language learning is all about communicating effectively and avoiding confusion. If you are communicating effectively, then you are learning how to use the language.

  • I don't mean to be sarcastic or rude, but does this mean next year (or whenever), you are going to be using books and tapes etc. again? Or are you still staying away from those?

  • Why should the tense matter? I'm not implying anything. In fact, I've very clear about saying I'm not fluent and certainly haven't mastered it.I learned Italian last year. I understand it and speak it fluently. And yet I'm also certain that my skill level is pitiful when compared to yours. But I have no problem saying that I learned Italian, and I can't imagine why anyone else would.To use the present tense merely indicates that this is ongoing, and frankly if this is the only thing matters then it's not an issue of fact but an issue of perceived humility, which I find ridiculous.

  • I suppose it will depend on the outcome of this year's Turkish experiement. At present, it seems like there is a place for certain materials in the learning process, and that we just need to figure out what that place is.Keep in mind that while there were materials involved in this Polish experiment, they were only involved for 8 days. :)

  • The outcome, regardless of what it is, is certainly going to be interesting. On one hand, if you come out speaking fluently, then you have a brand new, extremely low cost way of learning but on the other hand, if you don't succeed, you know a lot more about how to learn and what's needed. Either way, you can profit from this. Then again, you've probably already thought about this and it's really too early to talk about the end. Enough of my theories. I'm talking too much and need to go back to Russian...

  • I can understand the point the author is trying to make. I feel the same way about French. I have been studying French (self-study) for 2 months, and I feel like I have control of the sentence and verb structure. At this point, it is about filling in more vocabulary to have better conversations. Conversational fluency will take me about 6 months. But, as I do with English (native language) and Spanish (reached conversational fluency in 6 months), I will continue to learn words and new phrases everyday.I attend a weekly conversation group in Spanish, and the only conversationally fluent people in our group are natives; americans who took their school knowledge and stayed in a Spanish speaking country for some time; and 2 other people like myself who have never been to a Spanish speaking country and have been studying Spanish for approximately 1 year. All others in the group have been studying Spanish for 2-5 years with tutors, community college, universities and still are not as advanced as the people who have done self study.Our secret is to use a high-end immersion software. The 3 of us all started with Rosetta, Fluenz, Pimselur, etc. Of course we did not rely on the software to teach us everything. But while most people in our group are studying vocabulary list and writing things, the 3 of us were seeing, hearing, speaking Spanish words in action. The learning is coupled with:1. Daily practice with natives in our daily lives (shopping outlets) and the weekly meetup group.
    2. TV and radio in the target language everyday, even if there are some things we have not learned yet. Listening keeps your ears trained.
    3. Reading in the target language.The biggest point I try to make to language learners is to talk to foreigners here in the United States. I have asked many of them who have been in the U.S. for many years if they understand 100% of a news cast in English or all of the idioms in English movies. They have great conversations with Americans everyday, but admit that they only understand some english accents, 60% of news cast, and 60% of an American movies. Does this make them more are less fluent than americans who study their language?

  • that is my point precisely. you should use the present tense because language learning is always ongoing.

  • There is at certainly some merit in that!

  • Good luck with your attack on Turkish, I have a feeling that it won't fall as easy as Polish :)

  • All things in time. :)

  • Thanks for your comments.

  • To have accomplished what you did in 8 days is amazing. Man I wish I could do that, but I don't think I could. What book did you use? I have some polish friends and I want to give this experiment a go.

  • So basically you just got a really good understanding of grammar in a short period of time, then started working on vocabulary and listening comprehension? This is pretty amazing!

  • More or less. Good handle on grammar, pronunciation, and basic speech. I don't think it's particularly amazing, I think it just serves to prove that we're all under-performing our potential to learn.

  • I don't think it's particularly amazing, I think it just serves to prove that we're all under-performing our potential to learn.I used an old version of Colloquial Polish that I found in a used book store.

  • I expect that my eventual finding will probably be something like: "there were a few things that I learned much better this way, and a few things that I think were impaired by the lack of access to explanations." And I expect that in the end I'll probably incorporate some of the things I've found in the Turkish experiment and some of the things I found in the Polish experiment, along with my previous experiences with Russian and Spanish, and others.

  • How did you stop yourself getting bored during the Polish experiment? I think that's one of the things putting people off doing this is the dull nature of textbooks.

  • Well, for one thing, I don't consider the Colloquial series to be "textbooks".
    For another, I love learning languages, so it's hard to get bored.But perhaps most importantly, I basically went through the whole book in one go. I didn't spend any time repeating things, or trying to make sure I committed anything to memory. In fact, I knowingly and willingly accepted that I would most likely forget a high percentage of what I read, maybe even within minutes of reading it. So really, in essence, I just eliminated all the boring things people normally do. :)

  • It seems that speaking of fluency or of learning a language is a bit like arguing if the Lakers or the Celtics or perhaps even the Bulls are the greatest NBA team ever. Or was Singletary better than Butkus. Anyway, there is a fair amount of imprecision to such terms and so in my mind, we each get to define it for ourselves. Those who want clear definitions or to hold people to some imprecise definition are usually concerned with their own pride and the desire to be better than the other. But we don't learn languages so that we can be better than "Joe" at a particular language. We learn it so we can communicate with a native speakers. And the level of communication that we consider enough is up to what we are comfortable with. Not what someone else thinks. Great article. Thanks for approaching the subject.

  • "Those who want clear definitions or to hold people to some imprecise definition are usually concerned with their own pride and the desire to be better than the other."I wholeheartedly agree! That statement is more timely than you could possibly know. :)

  • Yup, people usually throw a hissy fit over the term "fluent" as well, it's a completely ambiguous term that doesn't really mean much, their is no official proficiency level considered "fluent" as defined by any institution or organization. It's kind of like how conservatives use the term "socialism" here in the U.S.: that word does not mean what you think it means. Nearly every time they describe something as "socialist" or "socialism", it's not. It's just a word that gets a push-button reaction out of the old-fart baby-boomers that grew up during the cold war and have been trained to always have a negative reaction to anything even remotely related to communism.I prefer to define the terms I'm going to use very precisely before I use them, and then (and only then) use them to describe my or someone else's proficiency in a language. My personal definition of "conversational fluency" is the ability to have a conversation about any normal, everyday subject (anything you can find in a local newspaper qualifies) at a normal conversational rate of speed with a native speaker for 15 minutes straight without having to refer to any reference sources (dictionaries, etc.) and you are able to say everything you want to say and you are able to understand everything the native speaker says to you. That's my own personal definition that I made up and originally based off of Tim Ferriss', who did something very similar (he, too, uses that phrase, "conversational fluency", and has a similar definition) and uses it as his personal standard to determine when he has achieved a certain level of proficiency in a language.Cheers,
    AndrewP.S. Nice redesign.

  • I really have a hard time with people saying things like that you should be "...able to say everything you want to say and you are able to understand everything the native speaker says to you." Addressing the second part first, I don't always understand everything an English speaker says to me, and I've been a native English-speaker for 35-years!But to the idea that you should be able to say everything you want to say, I call that notion utter rubbish. I may at any given time feel inclined to tell someone that I "find their ideological adherence to an already-disproven notion to be illogical and destructive to society." Sorry, but I can't currently say that fluently in any other language. In fact, I can barely get it out in English. But that doesn't take away from my ability to say (quite fluently) that "the thing you just does not make sense, and the fact that you believe it may even cause harm to people." The latter makes a similar point, but it's not the same thing; it lacks nuance, and subtlety, and might easily be misunderstood, and will most certainly be perceived as offensive.Further, I can speak quite fluently in English about geothermal expansion, temporal paradoxes, nuclear energy, underwater breathing apparatus, inertial damping, internal combustion, evolutionarily stable strategies, and a host of other things. Would you suggest that my inability to converse about them in Spanish/Italian/Russian makes me somehow non fluent in those languages?P.S.
    Thanks, I'm really excited about the cleaner, less cluttered, easier-to-read format.

  • "It's kind of like how conservatives use the term "socialism" here in the U.S.: that word does not mean what you think it means. Nearly every time they describe something as "socialist" or "socialism", it's not. It's just a word that gets a push-button reaction out of the old-fart baby-boomers that grew up during the cold war and have been trained to always have a negative reaction to anything even remotely related to communism."Not language-related at all, but...As an "old-fart baby-boomer" I'm not sure whether to laugh at this statement or be offended by it.Nah. I'll just laugh at it.

  • Really? I had you pegged as gen-x...

  • At the tail end of the baby-boomer gen. Andrew probably has a more narrow view of when the baby-boomer generation was (it ended either in '64 or '65, depending on the reference).

  • I have had the same type of criticism, and I have learned some of my languages in even lesser time in eight days, and I 100% agree with you.

  • Everyone has a different idea of what "learn" means, so if you feel you learned Polish in eight days, I guess you did. No one can really (legitimately) argue with you because there's no concrete, universal definition of what "learned Polish" means. Your accomplishments are impressive and encouraging though, nonetheless. =)

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