You won’t learn to speak another language unless…

You won’t learn to speak another language unless you’re willing to do two things: memorize a LOT of vocabulary, and…

You won’t learn another language unless you’re willing to do these two things:

  1. Develop the sitzfleisch to memorize a lot of vocabulary.
  2. Make a fool of yourself–over, and over, and over again.

The only known predictor of success in learning a second language is this: motivation.  There are lots of things that you have no control over whatsoever that can tip the odds in your favor a little bit–already being bilingual, having had exposure to native languages other than your own in childhood, being quite young when you begin–but, in the end, the only thing with enough of an effect to be predictive is having sufficient motivation.

What do you do with that motivation?  Everyone who’s successful at second language acquisition develops their own tricks.  But, there are two things that are essential–without them, it’s just not going to happen.  You must use your motivation to make yourself do two things:

440px-Zipf_30wiki_en_labels
A graph showing the Zipfian distribution of words in 30 languages on a log-log scale. Source: Wikipedia, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Zipf_30wiki_en_labels.png.
  1. Memorize an enormous amount of vocabulary.  Knowing a sufficient amount of the grammar of the language is necessary, but it’s having lexical items (words) to plug into those grammatical structures that makes the difference between being able to function in the language, or not.  And: if you’ve been following this blog for a while, you know that it’s a very basic fact about the statistics of language that you need to memorize not just the common words, but an enormous amount of rare words, too–because about 50% of the words that you will run into on any given day are going to be statistically of very low frequency.  (That’s the Zipf’s Law in the title of this blog.)
  2. You have to be able to tolerate feeling like an idiot.  Specifically, you must use your motivation to force yourself to take the opportunities that you get to practice the language that you’re trying to learn.

I happen to know from experience that you can feel really stupid without (so far, at least, in my case) dying from it.

This month finds me in Wuhan, a city in roughly central China of 10 million inhabitants, essentially none of whom are occidentals.  There’s a charming aspect to this–people will literally ask me to pose for pictures with their children.  Fat, bald old me.  There being no occidentals here to speak of, the people in stores, restaurants, etc. rarely speak English, so studying Mandarin (or the local dialect, which is not mutually intelligible with Mandarin) is a necessity.

If you have not tried to live with just a tiny bit of a language, you might be surprised how little you can get by with.  For example, a couple days ago I had my first Mandarin conversation.  It involved dropping off my laundry, and went like this:

Me: Míng tiān ma? (Tomorrow?)

Nice laundry lady: Míng tiān.  (Tomorrow.)

Now, after a couple weeks of me struggling to communicate in Mandarin when dropping off my laundry, the laundresses du coin are a lot less nervous about dealing with a hairy barbarian and have progressed to giggling and trying to teach me new words.  Strangers: a different story.


Today I’m sunning on a terrace with a cup of coffee (a luxury here–that cup of coffee cost more than the large, delicious, and healthy meal that I had just eaten) when I notice a couple girls adjusting, readjusting, and re-readjusting their…berets.  Not a huge shocker, as the stereotypical Parisian tourist is now Chinese, but still: they were looking at each other’s berets, then looking at their own berets using their cell phone cameras in lieu of mirrors (yes, in lieu of is English), then looking at each other’s berets, then touching up their lipstick, and then starting all over again.

Obviously I needed a picture of this, but how to get it?  I mean, it’s not like you can go around taking photos of women you don’t know without risking an ass-kicking.  Ah–but, at 56, I am totally accustomed to making a fool of myself.  We have the following (one-sided) conversation:

Me (fat old bald guy, remember): Duì bu qǐ (‘excuse me’).  Patting myself on the chest: wǒ shì fǎ guó rén (‘I am French’–not true, but I am of French descent, so…).  Pointing at each of their hats: fǎ guó, fǎ guó (‘France, France’).  Then I mime taking a picture with my camera.

Them: Speaking to each other for a while, then looking at me like I’m insane, or an idiot, or both.

Me: Patting myself on the chest: wǒ fǎ guó rén (‘I am French’).  Pointing at each of their hats: fǎ guó, fǎ guó (‘France, France’).  Then I mime taking a picture with my camera.  (Yes, this is exactly what I said the first time.)

Them: Talking to each other again for a while, then they shrug at each other–and pose for a couple pictures.  

Me: Xiè xie (‘thank you’).

Them: Walking away in silence.  Do I want to know what they’re thinking?  Definitely not.

Now, bear in mind: the purpose of my relating this attempt at conversation is not to brag about how great my Mandarin is.  The opposite–the point is how bad (nonexistent, really) my Mandarin is.  And yet: I know that…

  1. …if I’m willing to keep making a fool out of myself, I might actually get comfortable with the language (in, say, SEVERAL YEARS), and…
  2. …if I’m not willing to keep making a fool out of myself, I will never get comfortable with the language, and…
  3. …making a fool out of myself did not kill me.  Embarrassing?  Yes.  Fatally so?  No.
IMG_1460
Two beret-wearing Huazhong Agricultural University students being very tolerant of a fat old bald guy outside the Luckin Coffee cafe. Picture source: me.

So, the next time you’re trying to work up the courage to practice your language of choice, just remember this: at least you’re not a fat old bald guy like that funny-sounding Zipf fella.

Scroll down for the English notes!


English notes

sitzfleisch: The perseverance to just sit and plug along at a task.  I learned it from my master’s thesis advisor, who often pointed out that two hours in the library can save you four months in the lab–suddenly the word has become popular.  I have no clue why.

a couple: ‘a couple of.’  This is one of those things that other native speakers give me shit for saying.  What can I tell you–like my hero Tonya Harding, I’m Oregonian trailer trash.  And, yes–you should go see the movie.  It’s really good.

2 thoughts on “You won’t learn to speak another language unless…”

  1. I had a make-a-fool-of-yourself enlightenment moment in my teens. I grew up in New York, where Spanish is very much the second language, and I’d been studying Spanish in school but was paralyzed by embarrassment about speaking it out in the world. I happened to be in what later came to be called a Chino-Latino cafe–a Chinese owned place that served, mostly, the Puerto Rican community, and overheard a Chinese man talking, in Spanish, with a Puerto Rican man. The Chinese guy’s Spanish wasn’t good, but the conversation worked. A lightbulb went on: It’s about communicating, not about getting it right.

    Liked by 2 people

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