Few things are more daunting to me than having an unquenchable fascination with the world’s languages. It can be a bit overwhelming at times when you have a desire to know them all. I guess what I’m speaking about is a bit of a polyglot problem, or at least this aspiring polyglot’s problem, but it is a real one none the less. I call it, language ADD.
(This is the second language article of the week for International Mother Language Day.)
Stemming from the name of a real disorder called attention deficit disorder, or ADD, I’ve started to call my tendency of following my curiosity rapidly from language to language, language ADD. It isn’t a major problem, but it definitely hampers one’s ability to focus and develop strong language skills in a specific target language.
Over the years, I’ve jumped from language to language as my interests have peaked. This has given me the opportunity to learn phrases in a variety of languages and know basics which I admit can be quite useful at times. However, the frustration therein lies with the inability to reach a higher level of conversation and comprehension in those languages, or to put in a better way, master the language itself. Knowing a few phrases only gets you so far, until a person responds in full force. Then you have to smile it off and quickly give your disclaimer that you don’t speak the language, maybe just a little.
This trend has traditionally worked like this for me. I’ll meet someone from XY country or who speaks XYZ language. I will go home and learn some phrases in that language to better connect with that person, then get intensely interested in the language for a short time. Perhaps even ordering books and online resources for the language, then my enthusiasm for it will taper off. I did this with Russian, Portuguese, German, Italian, and Turkish, which is why I can count to a hundred and introduce someone in Russian with decent pronunciation, but couldn’t hold a conversation if my life depending on it.
It may not seem like a major problem to have a broad interest in linguistics, focusing only on language connectivity, structure and language families for instance. However, there comes a time when one has to consider the idea of practical usage versus general knowledge. What is your goal of studying the language(s)? You might say, better understanding of culture, to be able to appreciate the arts X language, culinary reasons, or even more personal such as communication. All of those reasons would benefit from a deeper grasp on a language though. Sure just the ability to read Cyrillic has been extremely helpful in traveling to countries that follow that alphabet, but it stops at Привет (‘prevyet’ – Hello in Russian).
I don’t think all hope is lost for those of us who have this problem. In fact, I think one can study the basics of many languages, while still delving deeper into one or more choice languages. Here are a few ideas that can help you if you ever get into the same situation.
5 Tips for Overcoming Language ADD
Setting a road map for your language learning process is essential to success. As it has been said, “Failing to plan, is planning to fail.” If you just start off with the idea, ‘I want to learn Russian’. Then begin with just looking at different aspects of the language. You may have some books or even listen to music, but you spend most of your time asking Google how do you say ‘you’re welcome’ in X language. You’ll unfortunately never get very far. You need to have some measurable goals laid out say a lesson or chapter a week, even 2 pages a day.
Last fall I started this language ADD thing with Persian. I contacted all the Persian speakers that I could find in New York City and asked about events and resources. I ordered two Persian books, got into some pop music, and even downloaded a few apps for my phone. From the start, I was learning the alphabet, practicing it daily, and flipping through the pages of the book as my interest peaked. Then as I got busy, my focus began to dwindle until finally I went two months without cracking my book. I’d look at it all the time, then lower my head in disappointment in my devotion to it and the potential knowledge that it possesses for me. Why did I fail? I had no goals. I just told myself ‘I want to learn Persian’. That is so ridiculously broad. Well, I’d like to learn a lot of things, but if I don’t make a reasonable approach towards it, then I’ll likely never succeed. You have to start with something measurable and attainable, which brings me to my next point.
There are more than 6,000 languages in existence in the world today. Unfortunately, as much as we’d like to, we must be honest with ourselves and say that we cannot learn every one of them. Not even half. Even hyperglots or mega polyglots who can reportedly speak over 50 languages will admit that they cannot easily shift from language to language. It takes advanced preparation and review. A realistic goal would be gaining a working knowledge of all the language families in the world, maybe focusing on one or two. An unrealistic goal would be trying to learn 3-4 languages at the same time. Note, learning 3-4 languages at the same time is not to be confused with maintaining them. Back in my early language learning years, I once embarked upon the task of learning Portuguese, Italian, German, and French at the same time. It lasted about a week. Besides even the idea of having that much free time to devote to that now, it is ridiculous to think about. Although learning similar languages can be a way to connect them, grammar is still different and can be confusing if you do not have a good foundation.
For the next four months I’ve mapped out my language learning to about 1 lesson a week. It is both realistic and achievable. I did the math on the last 6 months of wasted time. Had I reviewed just 2 pages a day, I would have finished one of my language books to over 360 pages. Imagine just 1 page a day. That would be nearly 200 pages of vocabulary, grammar, sentence structure, cultural contexts, and more. 200 pages of intense study would definitely be enough to hold a solid conversation in any language.
Have an accountability partner
Besides telling yourself that you are going to do this, make sure you tell others. Tell lots of them. So that when you see someone in two months and they ask you about it, you don’t have to say, ‘I just got to busy and had to work on other things right now’. Find a placement examination; choose an event to go to; schedule a meeting with a native speaker. Something that will keep you honest with your goals.
Learn how to tailor learning to your interests
If your language learning process isn’t tailored to your own interests in learning the language, then you’ll likely get off track. Remind yourself what you plan to achieve from learning this second language. Think about what would make you happiest in learning this language. Would it be speaking to someone or ordering food at a restaurant? Perhaps, watching and understanding a full movie? How about, listening to your favorite song and finally getting the message? Whatever the situation, you need to make learning adhere to that. For example, if you want to learn how to speak to people then learn practical and colloquial communication. Learning literary forms of a language might be nice, but they won’t get you very far past frustration when speaking to people. Imagine if you went around talking like Shakespeare. People would think you were mad.
Be accountable to yourself
Lastly, and arguably the most important, you have to be true to yourself. No one is going to be standing over you and saying, you should be studying language instead of watching TV. Language learning is very much a personal journey. However, like most personal journies, they require sacrifice. If you want to learn something, then you have to sacrifice the time required to do it. If you don’t take the time to do it, then you cannot point your finger anywhere but at yourself. I know that in 3-4 months if I haven’t been true to my goals and haven’t progressed in my language learning, then it will be my own fault.
Have you read my other articles on language learning?
Did you see these interviews with language lovers and polyglots?