language learning contest

Browsing through language learning related forums and blogs, I sometimes get the impression that language learning is a new sport. Learners boast with the number of tongues they have “mastered” and conversation topics circle around questions of “Faster, Higher, Stronger” with the polyglots as both heroes and judges of the fledgling adepts.

And while anything humans do can and will be turned into a competitive sport – from cheese rolling through extreme ironing, wife carrying or worm charming – let’s leave the medals and winner’s podium aside for a while.

You Are What You Speak

Of all the things a person can learn in this world, language is one of the most mind-boggling. It’s deeply personal, shaped by individual preferences and dispositions and ultimately indistinguishable from the human being who speaks it.

If we compare a basic arithmetic skill such as multiplication to a basic language skill like translation we see that when two or more people (correctly) multiply 7 by 7 they always reach the same result, whereas two or more translators might translate one and the same sentence in a myriad different ways.

One of the main principles of scientific method is reproducibility – the idea that the same results can be achieved “in different locations by different people”. In that sense, language is not an “exact science”, or is it?

For now, let’s just say that language is an integral part of an individual’s personality. Language is how we make sense of the world and communicate our experience to ourselves and others. Since each person in the world sees and understands the world differently, we all express ourselves in our own very unique ways – even if we all speak the same language we still make different choices in terms of vocabulary, grammar and style.

The Rat Race Of Foreign Language Acquisition

When it comes to foreign language learning, courses and textbooks often like to give the impression that acquiring a foreign tongue is a clear-cut process with certain quantifiable goals and results. If we take a look at the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages, for example, there are neatly separated levels and sublevels designed to pinpoint particular stages of foreign language learners. Usually these stages are described in terms of abilities, i.e. “can understand and use familiar everyday expressions”, “can introduce him/herself”, etc.

While these stages may be helpful in order to group learners adequately for beginner’s courses and create a variety of different “standardized tests” with accompanying diplomas, they don’t hold much water beyond this mere functionality.

During the many years I spent teaching German as a foreign language, I noticed that particularly grown-up students seemed to be obsessed with being classified and knowing their place on the scale. There is of course the understandable issue of needing to reach a certain level in order to be handed a visa, work permit, etc. but on a deeper layer these levels also tended to breed competition between learners.

When the ability to express oneself and communicate with other people takes the backseat to achieving arbitrary levels and proficiency classifications, we’re not in the business of learning languages, we’re trying to beat the game of language.

Taking The Edge Off

In the end, it’s only natural that we compare ourselves with others while learning a language. We wonder why some people seem to make more progress and others get left behind. We don’t want to be that person who still can’t put one meaningful sentence together after studying a language for two years. Language is deeply personal. We don’t want to be ridiculed for our accents or feel insecure in grammar and spelling. But we tend to forget sometimes that each person learns very differently. Some get really good at speaking while others excel in reading comprehension or writing.

Learning a new language entails a lot of pressure, both socially and psychologically. In my experience as a teacher and learner, creating more pressure through baseless comparisons is not just a waste of time but can make our progress even more difficult.

Maybe we just might allow ourselves to develop a language naturally, at our own pace, knowing that just as our personal learning process is unique, so will be our abilities in the new tongue. If other people have advice for us, we can listen or even study together for a while but in the end their journey is a different one than ours.

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