What does it mean to "Learn" a Language?

Question marks

How many languages do you know?
How many languages do you speak?

These questions are used interchangeably, but they are actually very different, and both assume a lot. How about this one, which we get asked all the time:

How long does it take to learn a language?

There are several terms we need to define here before we can start answering these questions in any meaningful way. We assume we're all on the same page, but I guarantee we have wildly different ideas about what the following words mean:

  • Language
  • To know
  • To speak
  • To learn

Let's start with the most important: language. Here at Linguisticator, we define a language as “A system of solutions to problems of communication.” The language is the system. By this definition you could know many words in a language, but not know the language itself because you don't have the system. Conversely, you could have a very small vocabulary, but know the system of the language very well. The system is primary, vocabulary secondary.

Let's break about to know. Knowing something can mean very different things to different people. There is a wide spectrum of knowledge, from familiarity to active production:

Familiarity —> conceptual understanding —> passive knowledge —> active knowledge

It's possible to develop a conceptual understanding of a language without going through the work of learning it to be capable of active production. I have done this several times, and it has enriched my ability to pick up new languages quickly. Having an understanding of how a language works does facilitate active production, but it does not count as knowing the language. From conceptual understanding, you must progress to passive knowledge and from there to active knowledge. That's really knowing a language.

Using the term knowing is in many ways better than speaking, since it implies a deeper knowledge of the language itself. It also includes functions like writing that aren't included when you just use the verb to speak. Speaking is about communicative competence, and while important, is limited. It's easier to speak a language than to know a language. Also, speaking tends to rule out a lot of dead languages…

So, finally we get to what it means to learn a language. Well, if a language is a system, and knowing a language implies active production, then learning a language means acquiring the ability to produce the system of a language actively.

Does this mean you are fluent? No. Does this mean you have perfect pronunciation? No. Does this mean you speak flawlessly? No. It means you have the essential patterns and framework to use the language effectively in all environments, regardless of whether you have the vocabulary or idiom to do so.

This is just one way to look at the issue. It seems simple to ask, “How long does it take to learn a language?” But the truth is, the more specific you can be about what you want to accomplish in the language, the better the answer you'll get.

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