“What did you eat for breakfast as a child?” asked a wide-eyed woman from across the conference table.
My friend had just introduced me to her clinical research group as “Kelley from Korea who speaks Chinese, Korean, and French” because she loves nothing more than to engineer awkward moments with strangers just to watch me sweat. The scientists, whom I had expected to react to the unnecessary boast with polite but detached smiles and nods, instead seemed to be more impressed by my various language experiences than by the admission that a white girl named Kelley was a friend “from Korea.”
While this anecdote admittedly tiptoes into dangerous humblebrag territory, it also illustrates what I think is a sorrowfully inaccurate popular perspective that learning a language is a harrowing undertaking reserved for people with oddly wired brains fortified with supervitamins. I certainly won’t knock the necessity of nutrition for proper cognitive function, but I will stress that this cognitive function is something that the grand majority of us possess. Developing proficiency in a foreign tongue, even at a relatively mature age, should not be intimidating for either the learner or those who might praise her: Critical periods of pronunciation development aside, we are “wired” from the start to learn language—which is, after all, a creation entirely of the human brain, and one that most of us have mastered in at least one form already.
While I have been immersed for over a decade and a half in developing and maintaining proficiency in three foreign languages that I began learning relatively late in life—French at eleven, Chinese at seventeen, and Korean at twenty-four—I am not a teacher and thus have no authority to claim any well developed theories on what language-learning strategies might work for most or even many people. I can only look back with limited retrospection and report on what I think has been effective for me, in the hope that my advice might enable or embolden some others to succeed at their own linguistic pursuits.
And if you spend any part of your language-learning experiences interacting with native speakers (as you should!), your powers of understanding and expression will also inevitably be both over-and underestimated at awkward turns. Be prepared to swallow your pride, both to ask questions when you don’t understand something that your interlocutor assumed you did, as well as to avoid distracting frustration when they repeat or water down a concept that you grasped sufficiently from the start.
It’s a little-applied fact that one does not need a large vocabulary to speak a new language with confidence; you just have to learn to creatively apply what you have. Focusing from the start on the most commonly used words is also important for developing efficiency, and one of the best ways to determine what words you need the most is to force yourself to speak and listen to only your target language for an extended period. It wasn’t until I moved to Beijing after two years of college-level Mandarin study that I realized how absurd it was that I could expound with some confidence on the advantages brought by China’s socialist history for the status of women in society but didn’t know the word for “hairbrush.”
You should dive into listening with the same confidence, as you’ll find that the human brain can understand quite a bit even with weak knowledge of verbal components and structure. In the words of social psychologist and Harvard Business School professor Amy Cuddy, “Fake it until you make it”—don’t write off a conversation as incomprehensible simply because it’s in a language you just started to learn or even haven’t learned at all; throw yourself into it with full attention and take note of every scrap of recognizable data—tone, expression, hand signals, loan words—that might be useful to you. At the very least, you’ll find yourself passively absorbing information on intonation and accent that could be useful for later adventures in proper expression.
I decided to take a short vacation in Tokyo following college graduation and use the opportunity to practice Japanese. This was a slightly problematic decision because I did not know Japanese, and even after a few halfhearted glances through survival language books between final exams, I had a paltry vocabulary of fewer than twenty words. I assumed (naturally) that I was just setting myself up for failure.
And yet, feeling the full brunt of Point 2 above, I pressed on anyway, finding to my pleasant surprise that when I challenged myself to use my scant knowledge to ask passerby for directions or order from a menu, I could generally pick up on the interlocutors’ responses: By focusing on gestures and the very few words that I knew (mostly verb particles and place or food names), I could fake a conversation in Japanese—without knowing Japanese.
So manipulate yourself into desperation, have fun feeling stupid, and be patient about the inevitably unsatisfactory results of precipitously challenging yourself to use the language you wish to learn. It might sound like a tall order, but just remember that what you’re seeking to master is something that’s already known by countless others, something that the brain is primed to acquire–indeed, something that has been suggested to be important, if not necessary, for some forms of thought itself. So eat whatever you want for breakfast. What’s the big deal?
桑凯丽 is a graduate student in Seoul researching the relationship between traumatic brain injury and addiction and exploring possible evidence-based applications of traditional Korean medicine to the treatment of affective disorders. She believes that a thorough understanding of the brain requires as much knowledge of culture as a thorough understanding of culture requires of the brain.
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