why learning a new language is (not) difficult

I believe to acquire any new language one ought to temporarily forget oneself. That takes me a while to realize and yet still find it hard to fully comprehend.

It’s not like I can speak 10 languages to get to this why-so post. But after more than half of my life learning English as a second language and only very recently started to feel comfortable commanding it, I want to add my two cents on how it’s like.

And, it’s not easy. It takes tremendous efforts. But eventually, it’s rewarding. Why? Because:

  1. A language is a culture
  2. A language is a structure
  3. We are often too concerned with ourselves

Surfing around the world wide web, you may have already come across the advice that we need to be in the culture of the language in order to learn that language. For instance, to learn English, make friends with Americans, Australians, British, Canadians etc. Get to know their food, their music, their arts, their literature, their everyday conversations. Better yet, come to live in their countries to be totally immersed in their cultures.

So, first, to learn a new language is to get to know a new culture, to feel what it is. Babies and young kids learn best because they absorb languages in the most natural ways possible – meaning, they mimic and experiment using new words or structures in new contexts without knowing or trying to know they are experimenting.

But a language is after all a tool to convey ideas, to make sense of oneself and to communicate with others. As implied, there are certain rules – most obviously in the form of grammar. Then, a bit less obviously is vocabulary – words and their commonly agreed meanings. Hence, learning a language is technical. A long-term student, I myself have to continually reading English grammar and style books to maintain a sense of the English language that is inherent to native speakers, even though I work with English almost every day.

To think about grammar is a good practice for any aspiring writer (don’t believe me? Steven Pinker agrees – wait, with me!). However, grammar is a trap for beginners because when we are too concerned about it, our thoughts and thinking are suppressed. In other words, we have to memorize grammar to follow sets of (evolving) rules, but pouring all energy onto figuring these exact (evolving) rules limits ideas and expressions.

It is because language is, again, a culture, which means it is a bundle of ideas and expressions. That also means, again, one needs to be in and part of the culture to acquire and absorb all its materials.

I happen to be an individual who is too aware of herself that I always try to make sense of whatever I say, whatever I do. Weird, but that’s who I am. And that’s why I always attempted to perfect my grammar, thinking too much about what the structure should be, until recently when I finally realized how this thinking has paralyzed me: If my focus is overwhelmingly myself – what I say, what I do, how others perceive me – then I won’t be able to improve my second language skills. Instead, I needed to mentally make space for the foreign culture to enter my world by merely thinking less and freely using the language more. It’s okay to make mistakes. Sometimes, it’s actually great to realize and understand mistakes and to be able to do something about them.

But I guess different personalities have different methods to learn a new language, a new culture, a new world. We all experience our worlds in unique ways even though we share similar materials. For me, having a sense of myself in whatever I do is essential to me so I think much about things I do and rationalize with myself why I’m doing them. Though really, I need to tone it down.


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