Who learns easily?

Is it easy to learn a foreign language? Well, it really depends on who you are.

If you are one of the lucky ones, one of the very few who have a natural ear for languages and can pick them up in minutes just by listening, then English or any other language will be very easy for you indeed. You will be able to pick it up as easily as I pick up a hat. It seems as if a particular part of the brain, the auditory processing system, is overdeveloped at birth in perhaps one in a million people. The rest of the brain remains normal. The story is told of one such man, gifted in this way, employed by the English foreign office to test candidates in their proficiency in foreign languages. It was said of him that he spoke seven languages perfectly and never said an intelligent word in any of them. Then there was the case of the brilliant linguist who worked among the tribes of New Guinea. When, in the course of time, the tribes became extinct, he was the only person left alive who could speak their languages, a solitary voice in the jungle. Unhappily, he too is now dead.


If you are not born gifted, you should aim to be born very clever, although cleverness is no guarantee of linguistic brilliance or even ease of acquisition of a new language. Still, it helps. There has to be a liking for language, developed perhaps because different languages are spoken among the family or perhaps because there is a lot of travel on vacation or on business. As a child, spending time outside your native land will make language acquisition later in life much easier. My old professor, for example, born in England, was educated in Lisbon where, apart from Portuguese, he learnt Latin and classical Greek. He then went to university in Rome, where he studied Hebrew and Arabic, and his first job was at a Belgian university. Yes. It does help to be clever.


If you can't be gifted or clever and still want an easy time learning a language then at least be rich. Rich families travel. They take long holidays abroad. They have friends in other countries. If they are very well off, they may employ an English nanny in a blue starched uniform to teach their children English nursery rhymes such as

If Moses supposes his toeses are roses
Moses supposes erroneously;
For nobody’s toeses are bunches of roses
As Moses supposes his toeses to be.

Clearly, any child learning this verse from his English nanny at an early age will have a great advantage over his contemporaries. Well, maybe.


If you are not born rich, you will probably find language learning less of a burden if your parents live in a convenient geographic location. Switzerland is ideal, a tri-lingual nation speaking German, French and Italian. Holland would also be a good choice, with German to the south, French to the west and English a few miles away across the North Sea. In the Far East, centres of commerce offer the possibility to acquire languages relatively easily, Singapore and Hong Kong, for example, while in North America the bilingual province of Quebec requires that its inhabitants speak both English and French. The schools in these places are geared up to teach languages. Of course, the worst place to be born is a purely English-speaking country, whether the UK, the US or Australia, where your chances of learning a second language, with ease or with difficulty, are practically nil.


Still, the world over, the great majority, like me, have no exceptional gifts, are not particularly clever, are not wealthy and live in rather dull, monolingual places. For us, learning a second language becomes a matter of personality. Ease of learning lies not in the right textbook or the best teacher or the latest pedagogic fashion, but in ourselves. It requires not determination or great willpower or long burning of the midnight oil. What it needs is sociability, an active interest in the world and a liking for your fellow men and, especially, women. Women talk more. If you prefer dogs to people, if you live with an iPod glued to your left ear, and if you never go to a club, pub or coffee bar, then give up any hope of ever learning to speak a second language with ease. Communication is language, language is communication. What you must do is talk. Be cheerful. Sing. Dance. Best of all, fall in love. That is the way forward.


Therefore, do not be shy. I remember talking to a Far Eastern student studying at a British university who told me that he was sharing accommodation with four local students. I said, “That's wonderful. Your English must be improving at a rapid rate."

"Oh, no," he replied. "They don't talk to me."

"What do you mean, they don't talk to you? You share the kitchen, don't you?"

"Yes."

"Well, if you are in the kitchen and one of them comes in, doesn't he say something?"

"Yes."

"What does he say?"

“Hi.”

"And then what do you say?"

"Hi."

"Doesn't he say anything else?"

"Yes."

"Well, what?"

"Something like, “How’s it going?””

"And what do you say?"

"Fine."

"And……..?"

And… nothing else. End of conversation.

Shyness is bad for your English.

To learn, talk.
To learn better, be the first to talk
.

©English Teaching Systems February 2007

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