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.