Is learning a foreign language ever easy? Yes. If you are five and move to another country . . .
But what about for the rest of us who are no longer five, and need to be polite when travelling for business or for pleasure? I think that the answer is yes, language learning can be easy provided you don’t want or need to learn too much.
The key to successful language learning in my mind is not to set the goalposts too high. It is rather like running. Even if you run twice a week, you don’t necessarily want to be able to run a marathon, or have any intention of running a marathon or maybe you never could run a marathon. You might just want to maintain a level of fitness. I think the same can be said for language learning. I find languages fascinating and enjoy dabbling with them, but that doesn’t mean I feel duty-bound to get good (or maybe I can’t anyway). I’m a programmer and have no particular aptitude for foreign language learning, but I like to learn a few words here, a few words there type of thing.
Let’s get back to the goalposts. If you decide to learn ten words in a foreign language before visiting the country, you know that you will manage to do this. Learning a foreign language for your purposes has now been redefined to learning ten words. Conversely if you decide to attain conversational fluency, unless you are an exceptionally talented individual you will fall far short of your goal, and quite probably give up in disgust.
I think that there is far to much emphasis on this completer-finisher thing with regard to languages. For the majority of us, language learning should be easy and fun. Of course, I’m not saying that there isn’t a place for becoming fluent in other languages, I’m just saying that for most of us it isn’t practical or necessary.
I like travelling but I don’t have the time or aptitude to learn too much of any particular foreign language. So I learn, or dabble and enjoy it. I set goals that work for me and are usually to learn about hundred words whenever I visit a new country. I’ll learn the words you need to be polite, the numbers, greetings and a few general phrases. Doing this always results in a better holiday and I enjoy it.
It is also far easier to start learning a foreign language than to finish. In other words the better you are the slower it can be to improve, because you are becoming stuck with grammar, making sentences, learning less common words etc. If you are only trying to learn a few foreign words and phrases you will enjoy a faster rate of progress, have more fun, and don’t have to spend to much time on any given language.
Minority languages are particular candidates for this approach, because often you don’t need to use them to communicate and they are by their very nature not widely used. A good example is Catalan which is spoken in the north-east of Spain by about 10 million people, almost all of whom are bilingual (also speaking Spanish). There is no need to learn Catalan to travel around this area of Spain, if you already speak Spanish, but it shows respect for the local culture and it is interesting to learn a few words.
The intention of learning only a few hundred words in a language, and then stopping, isn't the usual approach to language learning, but it can be a very rewarding and entertaining activity
Frank Jones is a freelance author and writes occasional articles for Veneficium Ltd. Visit http://www.linguata.com for language learning software designed to teach a few hundred words and phrases in different languages.