The (Not So) Fun Side of Language Learning

Catherine, over at Women Learning Thai, recently posted about a video by Ed Trimnell (author of One Word a Day with Ed Trimnell). In the video, Ed discusses something which I have found to be rather frustrating: the ever-increasing notion that learning a foreign language should always be fun, and, perhaps by extension, easy. He discusses the idea, commonly bandied about on YouTube, that to learn a language, all you have to do is jump in and start talking; that immersion is the end all, be all of language learning. Ed thinks this is wrong, and that the ideal way to learn a language is by combining immersion and traditional study/translation-based methods. I agree wholeheartedly with this.

I will admit, my feathers have long been a bit ruffled when people (often those trying to sell something, admittedly) go on about how easy learning a foreign language is. It’s not. A lot of it is, frankly, a major pain in the butt. I’ve spent countless hours studying lists of words, bits of grammar, and all the other parts that make up a language. And you know what? A lot of the time, it’s not a great deal of fun. The end result – being able to read a text that you couldn’t before, or finding that you can have a conversation that’s just a tiny bit longer than you could manage before – is worth it. But the actual process of learning a language can sometimes be a chore, and sometimes, downright hard.

So, why do I (and presumably Ed) take issue with other people claiming that all you have to do is jump into the fray, talk to people, and you’ll practically be a native in a month or two? For myself, I have two reasons:

The first is rather personal: having spent untold hours slogging through courses, vocabulary lists, grammar points, and so on, and still feeling that I have volumes of stuff to learn, it irks me to hear someone claim that they speak X, Y or Z fluently after bouncing around the target country for a month. Sorry, but I just don’t believe it. A person might be able to get by in some situations, but to claim you’re fluent after such a short time just comes across as hubris to me.

The second reason is a bit more serious than me being personally offended (okay, a lot more serious): by having someone in a place of authority claiming that it’s always fun and easy, and that you can skip all of that boring course stuff and just talk to people, other language learners can be misled, especially beginners. Learning a foreign language, and doing so well, is a big commitment. I think it’s better for learners to have some idea of what they’re getting into from the start, rather than being told that it’s a simple matter of immersing yourself in the language and talking to people. Beginner language learners could hear such simplistic, easy advice, find that they’re not making incredibly fast progress like they’re “supposed to,” and quit. And that, frankly, is a bummer. I think Ed’s advice is excellent: start learning a language, knowing from the start, that your best bet is to use everything at your disposal – traditional study methods, like those silly, antiquated books; conversation partners; TV; podcasts; and everything else we have at our fingertips these days. And know that sometimes, it isn’t going to be fun – it’s going to be work.

 

15 thoughts on “The (Not So) Fun Side of Language Learning

  1. WC

    I absolutely disagree. And I do that from experience.

    Sure, I put some study time in. I average 5 minutes per day for the last 5 years. I can read manga and easy books, watch (easy) anime, play video games, write diary entires on Lang-8, and talk with my Skype partners, to some extent.

    No, I’m nowhere near fluent. But I’ve already accomplished some of my goals, and I enjoy using the language.

    There has been no commitment. I study when I want to, and I don’t study when I don’t want to. My study time generally consists of going through the next 20 items on iKnow.jp. I don’t have to schedule anything or worry about whether I’m learning the right words. If I have a grammar question, I simply look it up on the web, or ask a friend.

    So yes, you can make language learning be not-fun and work-like. But you don’t *have* to. You can choose to slow your pace and take longer, and enjoy it more. It’s not a race.

    Reply
    1. Josh Post author

      Hey WC,

      Thanks for your comment! I appreciate your viewpoint. I think that we may agree on more than we disagree, though. You say you’ve made no commitment, but I think that’s not quite entirely fair to you. Based on an average of 5 minutes per day for the last 5 years, just in the “studying” department, you’ve clocked around 150 hours. I would call that a commitment! Throw in the hours you’ve spent reading manga and books, watching TV, talking to Skype partners, and writing diary entries to be corrected… well, honestly, it sounds like you’re doing exactly what I would say is the best way to approach language learning.

      While I have personally found some parts of language learning to be a bit of a chore (vocabulary, I’m looking at you), I was more stressing that the whole notion of being able to jump into an immersion environment and hit the ground running just isn’t very effective. It can indeed work. It’s just going to take ages upon ages.

      Lastly, I do agree with your last point: it’s not a race, at all. I’ve been chipping away at some of my languages for years now, and still have mountains of things to learn. I’m in no rush. But that doesn’t mean I want to shortchange myself by not making use of everything available to me. I learn languages quite similarly to how you do. Keep on learning. :)

      Cheers,
      Josh

      Reply
      1. honeybee

        Hi Josh:
        As an expat who is in an immersion environment, my experience is exactly as you say. I have certainly not been able to “hit the ground running”! Immersion is not some kind of magic charm, believe me.

        And also, while I do things that I enjoy in my L2, I find I must also put in some nuts-and-bolts grammar exercises and verb drills, and things like that. Maybe it’s my age, but I really need these “old school” methods to ramp up my speaking skills. No, it’s not fun all the time, but I don’t expect it to be. I don’t have the luxury of being able to take a long time to learn my L2. I have to speak every day, so a lot of what I do is a slog, but that’s the way it is.

        That said, I can confirm that doing a lot of enjoyable input has definitely made a difference, but I can’t rely on it alone.

        I also think the idea of being “fluent” after being someplace for a month is pretty funny. It just seems like so much chest-thumping to me. I guess it also depends on what your definition of “fluent” is.

        Also, something that I dont’ see mentioned much in terms of language learning: most bloggers assume you’re learning a L2 for fun. They don’t consider those of us who are learning a L2 because we have to. We don’t have the choice to learn a language we think is cool or fun or whatever. We have to play the cards we’re dealt. I think this is a totally different thing and requires a more integrated approach.

        Of course, I guess it all comes down to knowing what method suits one best and the one that is providing the most bang for the buck. I’m sure some people can just plop down in a foreign country, watch a bunch of TV and soak the local language up like a sponge. It’s not me, however.

        Thanks for this post, Josh. I appreciate your perspective.

        Reply
        1. Josh Post author

          Hi honeybee,

          I appreciate you sharing your view. It’s nice to hear from someone who is actually living in an immersion environment, and not finding it to be the magic fix that it is sometimes described as.

          Also, you’re right – most bloggers (myself included, I will admit) assume most language learners are doing it for fun. Your priorities and methods (and the speed with which you need to learn) are obviously quite different if you’re living in a foreign country, and trying to earn a living / run your life there. I’ll try to keep that in mind for some future posts.

          Cheers,
          Josh

          Reply
  2. Aaron

    Josh,

    I think you touch on something that reflects more the culture that has developed along with the growth of the web. It seems there is a “happiness at all costs” mentality to most everything these days. We want to leave the “cube” and be our own boss so that we can do what we want to do. There is a bit of hyperbole to it all.

    It seems all a bit of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. There is something to wanting to leave a corporate environment that is not any fun just as there is something to realizing that language learning can be fun – at least more fun than most people’s experiences from school.

    I always tell people that I want to help them be more effective, more efficient and have more fun. More fun. But if you want to learn a language to some sort of mastery in a reasonable timeframe, it will take hard work and dedication. There is no getting around that.

    It is best to keep exceptions and reality in some semblance of balance.

    Anyway, what you write here certainly resonates with me.

    Aaron

    Reply
    1. Josh Post author

      Aaron,

      Thanks for your thoughts. In trying to point out the flaws of such a “fun above all” mentality, I may have perhaps gone too far. Obviously, I find the bulk of language learning to be an incredibly enjoyable experience; otherwise, I wouldn’t keep doing it! I think this one sentence of yours sums up my thoughts quite well:

      It is best to keep exceptions and reality in some semblance of balance.

      You can have fun and learn a bit of a language by dabbling around, or even just talking to people, if they’re willing to work with you. But, as you said, to reach any sort of mastery in a reasonable amount of time, it will take hard work and quite a bit of time.

      Cheers,
      Josh

      Reply
  3. Meghan

    I completely agree with you! I have spent nearly 3 years now learning French including having the good fortune to spend 5 months living in Paris and I am NOWHERE near fluent. I have used Rosetta Stone and took traditional classes and used many, many web resources. I think it is a complete misrepresentation to say that by using any of these methods for a short period of time (or even a long one, over several years) that you will be fluent. Now, I can definitely get by in French in many situations that I could not before, especially common social and tourist situations. But, I am not at the level where I would need to be to work in my field in French or to pursue a graduate degree in French. Fluency means different things to different people, and some people want enough of a language to go backpacking or to successfully have short chats with other speakers of that language. I am not knocking that, but I need French for professional reasons, and therefore I expect it will be a lifelong project to attain fluency! Also, I do recognize that some people have a talent and an ear for languages and perhaps there are rare people who can successfully and quickly achieve fluency in a year or two. But I am not one of them and I feel like it sets the average person’s expectations too high to perpetuate the myth that everyone can become fluent with relatively little time and effort.
    Thanks!
    Meghan

    Reply
    1. Josh Post author

      Hi Meghan,

      Thanks for sharing your experience. You hit the nail on the head: “it sets the average person’s expectations too high to perpetuate the myth that everyone can become fluent with relatively little time and effort.” Sums it up perfectly.

      Cheers,
      Josh

      Reply
  4. Donovan | The Mezzofanti Guild

    Hi Josh,

    I want to chime in and say a few things in response to this.

    Firstly, I understand your frustration with certain bloggers who are in it to make a profit selling the garbage idea of fast fluency (he doesn’t need to be named).

    It is misleading, especially when beginner learners see these heavily scripted and edited videos of a popular YouTube polyglot masquerading as fluent after a couple of months. People then start thinking that they’re inadequate or not gifted enough. They beat themselves up over it.

    It’s deceptive and an unethical way to make money.

    ‘Immersion’ has also become this cop-out word that people use as if it’s going to guarantee success. I’m currently living in Korea ‘immersed’ but I have to spend countless hours pushing myself hard to learn and I still have a very long way to go.

    I do want to make the point that enjoyment is key in many ways to success. Hard work doesn’t have to be horrible – it can be ‘enjoyable hard work’. Just as many people enjoy doing an intense workout at the gym, some people enjoy the mental challenge of learning something.

    If it feels like a chore, my advice is to try a different strategy.

    Reply
    1. Josh Post author

      Hey Donovan,

      Thanks very much for your comment! I agree with you, and in rereading my post, it does sound like I’m advocating practically torturing yourself with study. That’s not what I meant, unfortunately. I agree that enjoyment is a very important part of learning, and if it feels like a never-ending slog through misery, you’re probably doing the wrong thing. Really, I was mostly just trying to stress that it’s not all quick and easy. ‘Enjoyable hard work’ is a good way to put it.

      Cheers,
      Josh

      Reply
  5. Maria

    Thanks for saying that it’s not always easy nor fun. It can be tough but there are cliches about that.

    I have expat friends who seem fluent to me, but they’ll tell you differently and if I spoke their other language I’d hear the corrections people offer them.

    My goal? I just want to stop mixing my romance languages within the SAME sentence. Répéter por favor. *laugh*

    Reply
    1. Josh Post author

      Don’t feel bad, Maria; I do that but with more than just Romance languages. I’ll try to say something in French, and only be coming up with the German or Russian word for something. :)

      Reply
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