To Learn or to Know?

Old books

Whenever I meet new people and get asked what I do, there are a handful of usual responses. Apart from the “how many languages do you speak?” question, one common response is: “I'd LOVE to learn ______________ language.” Sometimes this is true, others it is not, because some people are less interested in learning a foreign language and more interested in knowing the language.

Learning a language is a process. It takes considerable commitment, time, and effort, regardless of how one goes about it. At Linguisticator, we're working to make the process as streamlined and efficient as possible, but you still have to work. The harder you work, the more you get out of the process. With our programs, the difficult aspects are frontloaded, so if you follow a program intensively for a number of weeks, you'll have the foundation to progress further through external and internal immersion. For a lot of people, though, this is still too much to ask.

Many of the people I meet who profess their desire to learn a language are also most insistent on knowing an exact figure of how long it will take them to get to a level in the language which they usually define as “getting by.” Considering I've gotten by in situations in the past by grunting and pointing, you might see my predicament in giving a specific answer… It could be anywhere from 3 hours to 3 years depending on the actual target level and the level of commitment.

If you spend half an hour skimming resources once a week, you're never going to get where you want to go. If you spend six weeks working an hour or two every night after work and three hours a day on the weekends — well, then you'll get somewhere fairly quickly. Depending on your initial language basis and the target language, you could have full grammatical competence and a vocabulary of a couple thousand words in that time period. That's more than enough to get by. The real question is: will you stay committed?

It's natural to want to know how long the process will take, and I should probably just spend the time to generate a type of language calculator based on initial level, target level, languages spoken, and time commitment… But even if I give exact figures for number of hours, days, and weeks necessary (and define the functions and capabilities of the target level), we're getting off the real point here.

Do you want to learn a language, or do you simply want to know it?

A lot of people want to use a language, but have no interest in the actual process of learning it. You cannot get to the knowing without going through the learning. So if you are considering acquiring a new language, you would do well to start getting comfortable with the process and even the idea of the process. Don't look only at the end goal, especially since with language it doesn't really exist — there is always more to learn. You are never finished with a language, even your own native one. Instead, start accepting the process of getting to various milestones and targets, and focus on the day-to-day of your commitment. Get OK mentally with the fact that it will be confusing or frustrating at times, and simply continue the activities one day to the next. Otherwise, you can spend years sitting around dreaming about knowing a language instead of just walking the path and learning one.

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