I would never claim to “speak” any language that I don’t speak natively, and that pretty much means English–more specifically, American English. However, I’m pretty comfortable in Spanish, and I’m getting there in French (which doesn’t mean that I don’t still sound like an idiot, but I do pretty much live my life in French when I’m in France, both personal and professional). People often say something like this to me–almost always Americans: I’m no good at languages. Or: why are you so good at languages? My answer: I’m not “good at languages,” and you’re not bad at them. Why I am comfortable in one or two of them, and can survive in a few others: you would not believe how much time I spend studying.
As far as I know, the only reliable predictor of success in learning a foreign language is motivation. That was the case when I started grad school in 1991, and it’s still the case now. Motivation is important in a couple forms, where language-learning is concerned:
- You cannot quit. If you don’t quit, it’s not like success is guaranteed–I don’t know what level of mastery you’re looking to achieve, after all–but, if you do quit, that does guarantee failure.
- While you’re busy not quitting, you have to bear in mind that you will learn quickly to the extent that you spend a lot of time working on it–or not. I’ve been able to go from not speaking French to living my life in French in 2.5 years only because I am relentless about taking notes on the words that I don’t know in the course of my day and then looking them up, memorizing vocabulary, learning new grammatical points, driving around town (when I’m in America) practicing the French r in my car, listening to French radio, following a really good French-learning podcast (Coffee Break French), using French every single time that I can, and reading in French. It’s pretty uncommon for a day to go by without me spending some time studying the language.
Here’s what the Wikipedia page on second-language acquisition has to say about the role of motivation in learning a second language. (The links to references are working, so I’ll leave them as-is.)
The motivation of the individual learner is of vital importance to the success of language learning. Motivation is influenced by goal salience, valence, and self-efficacy. In this context, goal salience is the importance of the L2 learner’s goal, as well as how often the goal is pursued; valence is the value the L2 learner places on SLA, determined by desire to learn and attitudes about learning the L2; and self-efficacy is the learner’s own belief that he or she is capable of achieving the linguistic goal. Studies have consistently shown that intrinsic motivation, or a genuine interest in the language itself, is more effective over the long term than extrinsic motivation, as in learning a language for a reward such as high grades or praise. However, motivation is dynamic and, as a L2 learner’s fluency develops, their extrinsic motivation may evolve to become more intrinsic. Learner motivation can develop through contact with the L2 community and culture, as learners often desire to communicate and identify with individuals in the L2 community. Further, a supportive learning environment facilitates motivation through the increase in self-confidence and autonomy. Learners in a supportive environment are more often willing to take on challenging tasks, thus encouraging L2 development.
So, if you want to learn another language: work hard, and don’t quit. As far as I know, that’s really the only secret.