I have been a private language tutor for five years now, teaching English, Russian, and Hungarian from Budapest to NYC, and in that time, I have noticed something rather shocking: every language learner “decides” for themselves how far they are going to progress in the target language. Some people simply “decide” that they will master a language, never really reaching a limit. Others will progress to a respectable level before coming to a point where they continue taking classes, but real progress grinds to a halt. Still others will reach their limits much, much sooner, and will never really progress past basic, no matter how long they study. And here’s the fascinating thing: a student’s culture of origin, level of education, and even first language seem to have nothing to do with this “limit.” I have had students who never graduated high school become masters of ESL, showing up college professors who never seem to get a handle on the language, and vice versa.
So what is this limit, and why do I say it’s a choice? Why is it different for different people, when each and every one of us is capable, at birth, of learning any one of the Earth’s six thousand languages? Most importantly, is it possible to push your limit and “choose” to go beyond what you thought was possible?
What I have found is that most people’s limit for solving a problem is the degree to which it simply… annoys them. Imagine two people trying to fix a hopelessly mangled car engine. One of them is a personal assistant to a corporate executive and needs to fix the company car so that the boss can go out of town for the weekend. The other is a gearhead, someone who is passionate about cars and how they tick. Even if both have the same degree of mechanical background, they will respond to every problem they encounter differently. The first will look up in abject frustration every time the carburetor starts smoking… call this the “Why me?” response. The second, for whom this engine is a personal project, will look on every problem with intrigue and curiosity. Call this the “Hmm… that’s interesting,” response to the same smoking carburetor. Of these two, who has a greater chance to fix the engine?
When it comes to learning languages, of course, the situation is a little more complicated. Language learners are notorious for not only having different strengths, but also in different areas. Anything that a person feels is important they will be naturally curious about, while other things illicit a “why me?” response, and will essentially be unlearnable because the student feels deep down that it’s a waste of time. I have known ESL students who communicate very efficiently with only one tense: “I do it today, I do it tomorrow, I do it yesterday,” and never really bother learning the difference between “I do it, I am doing it, I did it, I have done it.” In a sense, they are right… after all, why bother learning the tenses if you can simply specify the time of each action? Some languages, like Mandarin, have no tenses at all, and indicate time exclusively in this way. This may well be true. And yet, those students who struggle with perfection will continue to improve for as long as it seems important to them, and those that don’t bother will stop learning, and will likely spend the rest of their lives at more or less the same level, no matter how many classes they take (though they may advance in other areas that seem more useful, such as pronunciation or vocabulary).
The secret to continuing to learn, as I see it, is to be less like the office employee and more like the hobbyist. This may be less important if all you want to do is communicate in English, which for all its sometime weirdness is, at the end of the day, a fairly easy language to learn. There are many people who have spent years passively learning the language and operate at a very high level of functionality, even if they continue to make basic mistakes… my own mother comes to mind, who still passionately implores, “It is no spoon!” every time she watches the Matrix.
There are other languages, however, which are much harder. Most of my Russian and Hungarian students were not hobbyists but people who married a Russian or Hungarian and wanted to pick up a bit of their spouse’s language. They came in with the mistaken impression that if they sit in class long enough, they will eventually learn to speak. Unfortunately, these are just not languages that you are guaranteed to learn by sitting in class. I would go so far as to say that, unless tackled with a whole lot of love and curiosity, they are close to impossible. The British Diplomatic Service has stated, for example, that of all the languages its diplomats learn, Hungarian takes on average the longest (beating out other heavy-hitters like Chinese and Arabic). Apparently, the British Diplomatic Service never bothered learning Oneida or Inuktitut, languages which make Hungarian look like an episode of Sesame Street brought to you by the letter H, but that’s neither here nor there. Regardless, among other difficulties, such as having anywhere from eighteen to twenty-eight grammatical cases, Hungarian has a system of double conjugation. There are two forms for “I see,” two forms for “we see,” two forms for “I saw,” etc, and every time you use a verb you have to choose between them depending on whether what you see is an apple or the apple. If all you want to do is learn the language as quickly as possible, this seems truly annoying and pointless… and you will never get it. If you are curious, however, figuring out which of the two forms to use for which situation can be a lot of fun, and will come much more easily to you.
So the next time you sit down to learn Sanskrit or Spanish, do yourself a favor. Don’t think of it as a job. Think of it as a challenge. Be curious about how it works... you will learn it much faster. Languages are hard, and if you have the right mindset, very, very cool.