Is (language) learning very easy?

by Raphael Haase

I recently came across a website of an Irish guy who learned around 8 languages within a few years without any language courses or formal education in anything related to languages. He’s an engineer in fact and began learning languages when he was 21.

Sounds amazing. His idea is simple: Get a phrase book and then just travel to the country and try to speak to people. So, if you can only say “hi”, “thank you” and “you’re welcome” in the language you want to learn that is perfectly enough to actually start talking to them with these 3 expressions and picking up everything else on the go – learning by doing!

This is also my experience with learning languages: Forget all those courses, books etc. Not necessary and not helpful! What worked for me quite well with Mandarin Chinese was the combination of regularly working through ChinesePod lessons + meeting regularly with a native speaker to practice one on one. You teach the other side a language you know (e.g. English) and they teach you their native language (e.g. Mandarin).

My feeling is that it is particularly important to avoid any situation that makes you feel like you are learning how to speak the language, where in reality you are only consuming / listening. So, if you are in a university course, listening to the teacher, you are not talking. If you just sit around at home reading, you are not talking and not practicing. Same goes for group “language exchanges” and anything that primarily does not force you to talk. It’s not going to lead you anywhere in terms of ever speaking the language.

Also I noticed (and that happened to me at one point to) that many people in time start think that actually speaking a language is not so important any more. They seem to study it without a real goal or just to be able to read it or so. It’s one of those tricks that our unconscious plays. We started with the intention of learning the language to actually talk and then all of sudden we end up not pursuing that goal any more, but instead some arbitrary goal. That’s not what most people will want. They probably study it to be able to speak it with real people, not just read books or understand some isolated phrases.

Now I have another hypothesis: Most of the time, learning by doing is the way to go even with other things than languages. My experience is that you can teach yourself pretty much every thing by simply repeating some reference. Whether you are learning with a group, from a teacher or totally on your own, it seems to be the same all the time.

Do you have the same experience with learning and particularly language learning?