On learning – and failing to learn – languages (and other hard things)

Some semi-random but entirely practical observations about language learning that teachers never talk about in language class – but should…

1. Two people can speak the same language fluently and still misunderstand each other – massively.

Conversely, two people who barely share five words between them, can get a lot done with smiles, improvised sign language and the strong desire to understand each other and get the thing, whatever it is, done.

The ability to understand and function effectively in another language is not a simple matter of learning every word, phase, and verb form.

It has at least as much to do with the quality of your interaction and your attitude about the other, yourself and the interaction you’re actually having, not as part of a conversation drill, but in the real world.

2. I met a guy in Guatemala whose parents were both gringo, but had raised him in the country. At six foot four with blues eyes and long blonde hair, he looked about as gringo as you can get, but he was absolutely fluent in Spanish, right down to total mastery of the highly localized slang of the region where he lives.

And yet, when he speaks to locals who are strangers, especially people who don’t have much experience and/or comfort dealing with gringos, often they don’t understand him initially – even though his Spanish is perfect. Eventually, they “get” that he is actually making perfect sense and a rapid Spanish conversation follows.

What’s going on here?

His reluctant conversation partners assume because of how he looks that he doesn’t speak intelligible Spanish, so they psyche themselves out of understanding him even though he is speaking to them with absolute clarity.

3. There are people who, in your own language, respond to clearly stated simple questions with: a) dumb looks and b) long elaborate “answers” that are off the point and aren’t responsive to the question asked.

Believe it or not, this happens in foreign countries and in foreign languages too. Don’t assume you are not making sense or that your language ability is poor. You might simply be attempting conversation with an idiot.

Related to this is the challenge of being a beginner and trying to communicate in the language of another, that other being someone who only has ever learned one language, his own.

On the average, mono-lingual folks who have never even tried to learn another tongue tend to talk way too fast and use way to many idiosyncratic figures of speech when speaking with foreigners.

Why do they do this?

Because they’ve never been on the receiving end of the give and take of trying to communicate in a language they don’t fully understand.

Therefore they don’t appreciate how helpful it is when someone speaks slowly and clearly and deliberately selects the simplest words. Instead they seem totally oblivious about the needs of the person they’re talking to – and they are.

You’ll run into these people a lot.

Just learn how to pleasantly ask them to slow down and repeat. Cheerfully disclose that your skill in the language is weak and you need some help. And test your understanding of what they’re saying frequently by re-stating what you think they said: “Do you mean…”

Don’t be too aggravated if none of this works. When people are unconscious about their behavior – and strict mono-linguists are unconscious about the nature of language – getting them to be conscious about it is a task too big to accomplish in the course of asking directions to the bank.

4. Here’s the bottom line:

You need enough language to get the things in your life done that are meaningful to you done. Period. You might aspire to more and that’s great, but never lose sight of the fact that is the “getting things done” part that’s what language learning is all about.

If you’re getting things done in the real world – vs. mastering the past perfect declension alone in your room – you’re on the right track.

5. Being able to exchange witty jokes and learned references with the country’s poet laureate at the Ambassador’s reception might happen for you someday, but it won’t happen until you’ve logged many thousands of hours of real exchanges (many of which won’t even qualify as conversations) with real people about real things on our own and without the “net” of a bilingual person to bail you out.

6. Many complex things have been accomplished with limited vocabulary and atrocious grammar. Look up “pidgin English.” The British and American Empires were built on it.

To save you a trip to wikipedia, here’s definition of pidgin: “a simplified language that develops as a means of communication between two or more groups that do not have a language in common. It is most commonly employed in situations such as trade…”

Not included in this explanation of circumstances where pidgin is employed, but should have been, are two other popular cross-cultural endeavors: war and sex.

7. Special Forces guys out in the middle nowhere with four weeks of language training under their belts are not discussing the fine points of epistemology with their backwoods allies. They’re saying things like: “Gather all the men here now” “How many enemy did you see in the next village?” “I need young men who can shoot well” “We go together now” “You wait here”

Commands. Simple questions. The ability to understand simple answers.

8. There’s another common activity where flowery language helps, but is not necessary…

“Faster” “Slower” “Softer” “Harder” “Yes, right there.” “No not there please.” “Do you like this?” “That feels great.”

I’ll leave the rest up to your imagination. It’s not complicated.

9. Here’s a reality professional language teachers with all their books, lesson plans, flash cards and state pensions can’t deal with:

Every baby becomes FLUENT in his own language without classes, without textbooks, without studying grammar and without listening to tapes. And they do it without even having a concept of “language” and no projection of what “language learning” is and what it entails.

And babies aren’t the only ones who successfully learn this way.

10. Who are the best practical linguists on the planet..the people who can, on average, function in more different languages than any other identifiable group on earth?


Not the university-educated savants who escape to Paris, but the truck drivers, the street merchants, and others like itinerant laborers many of whom are illiterate.

One narrative about this phenomenon, plucked at random from the Internet:

“I am awestruck at my South African husband and his family and the variety of languages they use and understand on a daily basis in SA, though many would say they aren’t fluent or bilingual because their use is limited to the job or individual they are speaking to. He was a Xhosa raised in Zululand that attended English schools and was required to learn Afrikaans. I’ve heard him speak Sotho, Tswana, and other African languages with fair fluency when necessary and am always amazed at the abilities of so many in that country to easily communicate in a variety of languages.”

That’s South Africa, but this linguistic facility can be seen all over the continent as anyone who has ever encountered street kids in Morocco knows. Without special schooling it’s not uncommon for them to speak Arabic, French, a local dialect or two and occasionally a little Spanish.

There’s another class of people who tend to learn languages more quickly than most: Lovers.

How many times have you heard it said that the best way to learn (fill in the blank) is to get a (fill in the blank) girlfriend or boyfriend.

11. So why do babies, African, and lovers learn to speak languages so well while the “average man” falters?

Easy. The baby, the African, the lover, all share one trait in common:

They have specific things they need to learn to say to get things they need and want that are immediately important to the quality if their lives – and if they don’t learn, they don’t get.

Language learning in these contexts becomes a means to markedly improve the quality of life – and who doesn’t want that?

On a more basic level: The hunger for food, companionship, connection – and other things – is a great focuser of the mind.

The “average man” always has an “out.” He can revert back to his native tongue when class is over. In country, he can find someone who is bilingual to assist him with the countless transactions of daily life.

And there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just a path that does not and never will lead to fluency (effectiveness) in another language.

Tapes, classes, flashcards – by all means use them. But as Duke Ellington used to say “It don’t mean a thing, if it ain’t got that swing.”

You learn a language by using it with real people in real situations over and over and over again. Just jump in with no net to catch you…and play the fool and muddle through as best you can.

In closing, here’s some good advice I plucked randomly from the Net by someone who “gets” it.

If you really, really want to learn a foreign language (and if you live year round in a place where the language you want to learn is the official language you’d be an idiot not to), follow her advice.

It may seem extreme, and might not be 100% practical in all cases, but it will work.

“The best advice I can offer to anyone moving to Morocco (or ANY new country), and wanting to learn the language, is to have NEITHER a TV, nor an internet connection at HOME for the first year, or more. This will force you into interacting with people in the native languages of the country.

In Morocco, once you become fluent enough to have basic conversations with people on a variety of subjects, THEN get a TV, but DO NOT get a satellite dish. Instead, watch French TV (an official language of Morocco), and preferably with friends, who can translate an unfamiliar word from time-to-time.

Those who got satellite dishes immediately upon moving to Morocco and watch TV in their native tongue have NEVER, EVER become fluent in the native languages. Those who have (become fluent) were forced to rely on nearly all interactions in the native languages.”

There you have it.

Put yourself in a situation where your quality of life depends on learning the language and that miraculous thing they call “the speech center” part of your brain will rise to the occasion just as it did when you were a toddler learning your native tongue…and just as it does for many tens of millions of roughly educated people all over the world who just want to live a little better.

– Ken McCarthy

P.S. For over 25 years I’ve been sharing the simple but powerful things that matter in business with my clients.

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