Are you good at languages?

Speaking a foreign language is seen as the intellectual equivalent of a “six-pack” stomach. If you can truly express yourself outside your mother tongue, there will be a range of responses, from the snide, to indifference, to awe, but most people will acknowledge that there was probably an element of work involved.

In the modern climate of health and fitness, a few people will look at a flat stomach and say, “You’re lucky you have a fast metabolism.” More often, the response will be, “That must take a lot of will-power and work.”

But what does the polyglot hear from the mono-lingual? “Wow, you must be good at languages!” Above and beyond the question of ‘What does that mean?’ (and I will address that in a moment), how many people watch Gordon Ramsey chop an onion and say, “Isn’t he naturally great at chopping!” He may be a @##$%ing good chef, but he almost certainly went through a similar process to Meryl Streep/Julia Child (go to 1:09 in the video).

Well, this is now where I am in my Project. Particularly in Chinese, I have already gotten past the point where I can simply listen to individual words and attempt to memorise them while driving my car; the first flush of “beginner-hood” is gone, and it is time to knuckle down.

This means concerted effort. Another language blogger recently wrote about the 10,000 hour rule before attaining mastery (as publicised by Malcolm Gladwell). I will not link to that post – not out of professional jealousy, but because I don’t want to serve you a steak while I am asking you to finish your beef wellington.

When I first started thinking about “mastering” a foreign language, I didn’t actually think about hours. My yardstick was mistakes. I found that each time I tried to learn a new piece of vocabulary or grammar, I would have to fight my way through a period of using the new language incorrectly before achieving reasonable competence. Some of this “fighting” could be done through homework and drills, but the best way was conversation.

While I was teaching English, I found that the brightest students were not always the best performers; sometimes the most outgoing were the first to master the necessary communication. By virtue of their willingness to get out there and try to use their new language, even if initially imperfect, they could get the experience – and often the feedback – to pick up the correct language.

A quick diversion away from language to the world of the arts. Many years ago I worked alongside a woman who had been a professional ballerina. She was still a terrific dancer and I asked her if she had been the best in her ballet class as a young girl. I imagined that she had starred from an early age to make it to the ranks of the pros.

She said that she had actually been one of the worst as a child, but that this had taught her that she needed to work if she wanted to keep up with her more talented peers. The girls with more natural ability had coasted on that ability, up until the point where it was no longer enough. Unfortunately, by then their work habits were too deeply ingrained and they watched their less-talented but harder working classmate advancing past them.

I actually believe that the idea of “good at languages” really does exist, but it is more a question of degree. The better student may not require the full 10,000 hours, or 4,000 mistakes before becoming fluent. They may be able to cut off 15% of the workload, or pick up new concepts 10% faster. But the old rule of Hollywood – it takes years to become an overnight sensation – holds as true in languages as anywhere else.

Whether you decide as a language student that mistakes or hours will be your unit of measure, you can’t avoid the work. In my second month of the Babel Project, I have realised that like it or not, I will have to do the hard yards – times five.

So, wish me luck as I wade through the slop of drills, flash cards, homework and more. It’s all in a good cause.

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