Thursday, April 30, 2009

Learning The Lingo #6: It takes time.

One of the most common questions I get asked when it comes to language learning is, “How long did it take you to learn the language?”

I have a hard time answering that question.

You would think that after hearing this question a thousand times I would have come up with a good quick answer that made people say, “Oh, that’s nice,” and move on with the conversation. Most people aren’t ready to listen to a 5-hour symposium entitled, My Theory of Language Learning Based Upon Experience.

When I used to drive a van for a particular ministry I would often get the question, “How much longer until we get there?” Now, this was on those two-day trips to Mexico and such. They would usually ask this after a couple hours into the journey. I had a standard answer: About a half-hour. The response was always the same. They thought, “Oh, that’s not too long,” and went back to talking with their friends, playing card games, listening to their headphones or sleeping. Three hours later it would begin to dawn on them, “Hey, hasn’t it already been more than a half-hour since Koffijah told me that?” But that answer bought me a solid three hours of non-whining.

I could do the same with the “How long did it take you to learn the language?” question. I could just answer, “Two years,” and be done with it as we continued on talking about things they found more interesting. But I just can’t bring myself to do it. I just can’t pass up the opportunity to dismantle one of the misconceptions about language learning.

People often have the idea that you spend time learning a language until you become “fluent.” After that you go out and start using it to accomplish the work you want to do. But that is not what it is like at all.

First of all, it is difficult to learn a language unless you start using it from the beginning. Then, you gradually increase in your ability to speak it as the years go by. I imagine a hyperbolic curve that continually rises and continually approaches this thing we call native-like-fluency, but never gets there. The curve is smooth. That means there are no distinct points at which we can say, “Okay, now you can speak the language.” We can always only speak “some” of the language from the first day we start learning a few words. It is just that this “some” continually increases.

So it is difficult for me to answer honestly that it took me __ years to learn the language. I am still learning. I am still running into new vocabulary and ways of saying things that I have never known. This is true even after many nationals say I speak just like them and even confuse me as a fellow national when I talk with them on the phone.

It takes time to learn a language. There are days when you feel like you are not making any progress. Then there are days you feel like a whole new world has opened up to you because you finally understand something new. It just takes time. But the less social contact we have with the community, the more time it takes.

If you do the right things, over time, you will learn the language. How long will it take? About a half hour.


  1. You are so right! It takes time! I'm still learning English, which is my second language as I was born in Europe, and I've lived in Canada 55 years now. It is also one thing to learn to speak the every day language, and quite another to focus on the spiritual words and concepts, or perhaps medical or technical language. Plus, language changes over time and words get different meanings.

  2. Hi Karin--Yes, someone once told me that you know you've learned to speak the language well when the nationals stop complimenting you on how well you speak it.

  3. Hi Koffijah!

    I've been catching up on my Koffihouse reading. Sorry it's been a few days. How are you doing? Did you see I gave you a shout out the other day?

  4. Hi Katdish,

    I'm doing... okay.

    No, I didn't see your shout out. Where was it?