Learning a language: How long will it take?

26th, 2012
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Whenever I meet somebody for the first time — whether Turk or expat — and they find out I’m a teacher, one of the first questions they ask me is, “How long will it take me to learn English/Turkish?” And my answer is always, “It depends on how much work you put into it.”
The most common response I get, though, is, “I know, you’re right, but between you and me, how long will it really take?” As if I am holding back some mystery that is only known by a secret group of teachers — a secret society that has the inside information on the fast track to fluency.
And while I try to make my classes as fun as possible, the reality is that learning a foreign language takes hard, repetitive work. I know very few people who have a photographic memory or a true ear for language who can pick up a language without seeming to try. The rest of us have to slog it out. That doesn’t mean that you have to sit down every day and do exercises until the information sinks in. However, you won’t learn a language simply via osmosis. It’s best to find a middle ground.
When I first started learning Turkish, I had my native speaker friends, a couple of phrase books, a teach yourself language series and the everyday world of shops, busses and people who, upon realizing I was foreign, wanted to engage in a conversation. There were nights when I would roll up my sleeves and dig into exercises, determined to unlock the key to Turkish suffixation. There were other nights, however, when I just thumbed through my books just reading the Turkish sentences without trying to forcibly learn anything. There were still other nights when I would be in my friend Fırat’s living room, surrounded by his brothers and cousins and I would just randomly pick phrases from my phrase book and try them out. It was a scene out of a comedy show. The guys hanging out, talking or playing backgammon, and intermittently a foreign voice calls out like a parrot — “Do you know where the nearest Internet cafe is?” or “It’s too hot in here.” One time, as some of the guys were eating and I was in the corner with my phrase book, I blurted out, “You are very sexy. What are you doing later?” Fırat’s cousin spurted food out of his mouth and proceeded to roll on the ground laughing hysterically. “Good,” I thought, “my pronunciation is getting better.”
Another tactic I used was to target one specific suffix and affix it to every word I could find. If I was working on “-li” (with or containing), for example, as I walked the street I would consciously try to add -li to every word I encountered on every sign in the street. Additionally, every one of my known words became a target. Murat Büfe was turned into Muratlı Büfeli. As I reached for the salt, in my mind I parroted “tuzlu” (later, I was delighted to learn that tuzlu means salty, with salt and “an arm and a leg”).
Think of learning a language as a skill, much like playing the guitar. You could buy the best guitar in the world; you could hire the best guitar teacher. But if you don’t spend time with it, you will never play the guitar.
Learn outside your comfort zone: Many people approach language through their preferred learning styles. For example, if they are audio learners, they may work on picking up the language by watching TV, listening to conversations in cafés or on the street or by listening to the radio.
If they are kinesthetic learners, they might attempt to take notes about what they are seeing and hearing. Those approaches are great first steps, but you’ll need to get out of your comfort zone if you want to achieve any kind of fluency. Starting in February last year, I wrote a whole series over about three or four weeks on the specifics of acquiring a language. You can look at them to help discover your personal learning styles (if you don’t know them already) and get some idea of actions you can take to move your learning forward. I recommend, though, that your chosen methods include speaking, reading, writing and listening practice. In this way, you are exposing different parts of your brain to the information you want to acquire and, therefore, have an increased chance of the information finding its way into your long-term memory.
You can’t buy proficiency: When you buy a book, one of those audio or computer courses or when you join a class, know that you’re not buying fluency. This concept may sound funny, but I have actually encountered students who were surprised when I suggested they take some actions so that they could improve their language learning.
I was in a class that was deemed “intermediate” by the administration of the language school I was working for. But when I started talking to the students, I quickly realized that they were far from intermediate. I started outlining action items that they could do to help improve their speaking, such as meeting foreigners, using Skype, using movies by parroting what the actors were saying, etc. I was met by a lot of wide-eyed stares. “What’s wrong?” I asked. “Teacher, we paid a lot of money for this class — just give us English.” Can you imagine, though, paying a lot of money for a swimming course and then complaining when the teacher tells you to get in the water? “Hey, what’s this get-in-the-water crap? I paid my money; just teach me how to swim.” It sounds ridiculous, but there is an archetypal myth floating around here that you can buy anything you want — including fluency in a foreign language. Like most myths, it’s just not true.
Focused practice: As I have outlined in the past, the most effective way of learning language is to focus your practice so that you will be the most effective learner you can be. If you find the best way to match your learning styles, motivation and interests, then it will be easier for you to remember what you are learning. However, if you choose methods that do not match your learning styles and interests, if you are unmotivated in truly learning the language and/or if you don’t practice the language, you will have difficulty remembering the language information over a long period of time. Although you may feel like you’re putting in a lot of work and effort, if the information is not making it into long-term storage, then you may have done a lot of work for nothing.
Memory: I wrote an article a while back about how memory works. Some people say that the problem is that they can remember things for a short period. They get frustrated because they feel like their progress is too slow. I recommend finding ways of lumping things together to help you store information. For example, if you want to say “I’m on the road” in Turkish, you could memorize “yoldayım” (chunked) rather than trying to figure it out piece by piece- yol + de, da, te, ta (yol has an o and so the vowel should be a; the l in yol is voiced and so you need da) + yim, yüm, yım, yum (a and ı partner and so yım is the correct choice).
Let me be clear: It’s good to know the mechanics of how to fit the suffixation together, but when communicating, you slow fluency up considerably when you have to stop and work out the word you want to say. It’s easier (and faster) to just memorize fully grammatically correct utterances that you can pull out of your hat as needed.
On a final note, it’s a good idea to memorize phrases and sentences that you will actually use. Many phrase books and courses contain archaic or stilted language. Check with a native speaker of the language you’re learning before you memorize something, or you may end up having people tell you things like, “You sound just like my grandpa. That’s so cute.” One day, I was in search of a better way of responding to “nasılsın.” One of my colleagues at the university suggested I respond, “İç güveysinden halliceyim.” (I am better than the guy who marries a woman and moves in with his wife’s family.) When I utter it — I am met by questioning stares by my younger friends and broad smiles by my older friends. Their smiles seem to be simultaneously saying, “That’s so cute.”
* “İt ürür kervan yürür” is literally translated as “The dog howls and the caravan moves forward.” It is used when criticism is leveled at someone or something and how this has no bearing on the situation.
Resource: Today’s Zaman, BROOKS EMERSON , İSTANBUL

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