Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Learning The Lingo #5: Commitment

Let’s get one thing straight—Learning a second language doesn’t happen on accident. Save a supernatural gift from God, the language isn’t just going to get downloaded into our brain. As “natural” as we try to make our learning process, it is still hard work. Sometimes it hurts. It takes commitment if we are going to learn the language well.

That's probably not a huge revelation. Most of us tend to think learning a language is an impossible task, not an easy one. If it is possible, it's only because we have a firm commitment and good discipline. While it might not be as impossible as we may think, it is still a good idea to be prepared. If you can get others to join with you in learning the language it is even better. But in any case, it is good to have someone (or several people) holding you accountable for your language learning.

Along the road of language learning there will be plenty of detours and distractions encouraging you to give up or lessen your language commitment. Commitment to language learning will be necessary when…

  • Your head is aching from the onslaught of new information that you just don’t understand.
  • You’ve said something that you shouldn’t have said and made someone feel bad.
  • People laugh at your speaking mistakes—for the thousandth time.
  • You are confident you are saying it right but the nationals just don’t understand you.
  • You just don’t feel like hanging out with your national friends tonight.
  • You just can’t pronounce that strange vowel that doesn’t exist in English.
  • You really, really, really want to skip language class today.
  • Your language teacher insults you in a way he thinks is funny.
  • You lack the courage to walk up to a group of nationals and begin a conversation.
  • You just want to buy a small item in the store but you can only think of the English word for it.
  • You don’t understand the difference between five words in the language that all translate to the same word in English.
  • You described her as a “pig” when you meant to say “friend” because you messed up the tone.
  • You have an English-speaking national who is more than willing to translate for you.
  • You have invitations to go hang out with other expats doing something you actually enjoy instead of hanging out with the nationals.
  • The phone is ringing with a national on the other end of the line and you just want to hang up.
  • You’d rather just save the language learning opportunity for class-time.

It is hard work to learn a language. You should know this going in and make a plan for it. You should also not be too hard on yourself—your brain needs breaks and time to process all that you are learning. Just be careful not to turn breaks into extended vacations.

I have noticed the best language learners are the ones who make the most of every opportunity. Whether that is riding a bus, standing in line at the immigration office, reading signs along the road or talking with a previously unknown merchant, they never miss the chance to pick up a new vocabulary word. These people are motivated by a desire to really "get it." Those who feel like, “I’ll get to that when I take my class,” usually go much more slowly.

Commitment means we really want to obtain fluency, not just survival phrases. We shoot for native ability even though we know we will never quite reach it. Still, that commitment moves us further down the road of language competence.

Other qualities such as grace and humor also go along well with commitment in language learning. If we are too afraid to make mistakes, or find it hard to laugh at ourselves, then we become more hesitant in opening our mouths. Perhaps that is where real commitment lies—in “getting back up” from our setbacks, failures and embarrassments to keep going.


  1. My favorite phrases in Spanish are 'como se dice?' (How do you say this? - while pointing to an object) and 'mas despacio por favor' (slower please - and I usually throw in a few more 'mas'(es) for effect and that I need them to talk reaaaaalllly slow. (And then they laugh.) Breaks down the barriers.

    Ok - this is totally off subject but I had a dream last night and you asked if I still saw the bug everytime I commented on your blog. THAT is weird. (and no I don't - it's farther down the page where it should be.) ;)

  2. Hey Annie K... glad you're dreaming about me. Hmmm... If that bug ever gets too close to you, then just expand the blog archive for each month and it will push that bug down far away from you. Try it. It's loads of fun.