You Can Learn Another Language!

“I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything,” says Mike. Phelps adds, “It was among the best decisions of my life.” Both are referring to having accepted the challenge of learning another language.

IN COUNTRIES around the world, a growing number of people are learning new tongues for a variety of reasons​—some personal, some financial, and some religious. Awake! interviewed a number of people who are studying a foreign language. Among the questions asked were, What is it like to learn a new language as an adult, and what can help a person to learn? The following material is based on their comments. You may find the points both encouraging and insightful, especially if you are learning a new language or are thinking about doing so. Consider, for example, some important qualities that the interviewees felt are vital to the mastery of another tongue.

Patience, Humility, and Adaptability

While young children can pick up two or more languages simultaneously​—often just by being exposed to them—​adults usually find learning a new tongue much more difficult. For one thing, they must be patient because learning a new language can take a long  time. And with their busy schedules, this often means putting other pursuits on hold.

“Humility is essential,” says George. “When you are new to the language, you must be willing to speak like​—and in some respects, be treated like—​a child.” The book How to Learn a Foreign Language points out: “You have to shed some of your own self-importance and your worries about dignity if you really want to make progress.” So don’t take yourself too seriously. “If you never make mistakes, you are not using your new language enough,” notes Ben.

Do not worry if others laugh at your mistakes​—instead, laugh along with them! In fact, the day will likely come when you will be telling entertaining stories about the things you have said. And don’t be afraid to ask questions. Understanding why something is said in a certain way aids the memory.

Because learning a new language often means learning a new culture, it helps to be adaptable, to have an open mind. “Learning another language has helped me to realize that there is more than one way of looking at and doing things,” says Julie. “One is not necessarily better than the others​—just different.” Jay recommends, “Reach out to make friends with people who speak the language, and enjoy being with them.” Of course, Christians will make sure that such friends are good associates who use wholesome speech. (1 Corinthians 15:33; Ephesians 5:3, 4) Jay adds, “When they see that you are interested in them, their food, their music, and so on, they will naturally be drawn to you.”

The more time you spend studying and, even more so, using the language, the faster your progress will be. “We acquire language skills the way a chicken eats​—grain by grain,” observes George. “The little specks are not much in themselves, but they keep adding up.” Bill, who learned several languages as a missionary, says, “I took word lists with me everywhere I went and looked at them whenever I had a few minutes.” Many have found that regularly devoting short periods of time to study is more effective than infrequently setting aside large chunks of time.

There is a dazzling array of aids available to help people learn a language, including books, recordings, flash cards, and more. Even with all these products, however, many people find that they learn best in a structured classroom atmosphere. Use whatever methods work well for you. Keep in mind, though, that there are no shortcuts around personal effort and perseverance. But there are ways to make learning easier and more fun. One is to increase your exposure to the language and culture.

“After mastering some of the basics and having at least a beginner’s vocabulary,” notes George, “ideally you might spend some time in a land where you are surrounded by the language.” Barb agrees, “Visiting the country allows you to absorb the flavor of the language.” Most important, being immersed in the environment helps you to think in the new language. Of course, most people may not be in a position to go to another country. But there may be opportunities locally to become further immersed in the language and culture. For example, there may be morally acceptable and wholesome publications or radio or TV programs in the language you are learning. Seek out people in your area who speak the language well and talk to them. “In the end,” notes How to Learn a Foreign Language, “practice is the single most important rule for making progress.” *

Plateaus

As you continue working with the  language, you may at times feel as though you are stuck on a plateau​—struggling along at the same level without seeing any improvement. What can you do? First, reflect on your original reasons for learning the language. Many of Jehovah’s Witnesses have taken up a new language in order to assist others to learn the Bible. Reflecting on your original goals or purpose can reinforce your resolve.

Second, have reasonable expectations. “You may never be able to pass for a native speaker,” notes the book How to Learn a Foreign Language. “That’s not the point. You just want people to be able to understand you.” So, rather than lamenting that you are not as fluent as you are in your mother tongue, focus on communicating clearly using what you have already learned.

Third, look for milestones to gauge your progress. Learning a language is like watching grass grow​—you don’t notice the growth, but day by day the grass gets higher. Similarly, if you look back to when you first started, no doubt you will see that you’ve made advancement. Avoid judging your progress by that of others. A good principle to follow is found in the Bible at Galatians 6:4. It says: “Let each one prove what his own work is, and then he will have cause for exultation in regard to himself alone, and not in comparison with the other person.”

Fourth, view the process as a long-term investment. Think of this: As a speaker, how capable is a three- or four-year-old child? Does he use sophisticated words and complex grammar? Of course not! Yet, he can carry on a basic conversation. Indeed, even for a child, learning a language takes several years.

Fifth, use the new language as much as possible. “I seemed to stay on a plateau when I didn’t use the language on a regular basis,” says Ben. So keep at it. Converse, converse, converse! Naturally, it can be frustrating to try to communicate when you have the vocabulary of a small child. “The hardest part for me is not being able to say what I want to when I want to,” laments Mileivi. But that very frustration can motivate you to persevere. “I hated being at a level where I couldn’t understand stories and jokes,” recalls Mike. “I think such feelings pushed me to work harder to pass through that stage.”

How Others Can Help

What can those who already speak the language do to help a learner? Bill, quoted earlier, advises, “Speak slowly but correctly, not in baby talk.” Julie says, “Be patient, and don’t finish sentences for the learner.” Tony recalls: “Bilingual people tended to speak to me in my language. But that actually slowed my progress.” Thus, some learners have asked their friends to speak to them only in the new language at certain times and to point out specific things to work on. Learners also cherish those who genuinely commend them for their efforts. As George put it, “I couldn’t have done it without the love and encouragement of my friends.”

So, is learning another language worth the effort? “Definitely!” answers Bill, who, as mentioned earlier, speaks several languages. “It has broadened my outlook on life and helped me to view things from other perspectives. In particular, being able to study the Bible with people who speak these tongues and see them accept its truths and make spiritual progress more than outweighs the effort. In fact, a linguist who speaks 12 languages once said to me: ‘I envy you. I learn languages just for the fun of it; you learn them truly to help people.’”

[Footnote]

[Blurb on page 11]

The desire to help others is a powerful motivation to learn a language