I got this really cool comment in response to this article where I urged people to calm down and focus on one language at a time:
Surely, if a child can be raised natively in three languages, it would be just as possible and in fact easier as an adult to do the same thing? Surely one could simultaneously learn, say, Japanese, Chinese and…I dunno, French? Why just one at a time?
You know what? I have a feeling it could be done.
- I just don’t know how, but
- I do know that this frantic, type-A, “I HAVE TO DO THIS AND YOU’D BETTER TELL ME HOW OR ELSE THE WORLD IS GOING TO END” sort of breathless email that I occasionally get is going to cause more ulcers and heart attacks than language learning. There is such a thing perhaps as eustress and a healthy tension — I myself used to pretend that my life would depend on my ability to impersonate a Japanese person — but this isn’t that; this is panicking. This is headless chicken mode.
- I am not always impressed by the multi-lingual people I meet, to tell you the truth (there are definitely exceptions, of course). They often have annoying gaps in their knowledge. They function in the languages, but, for example, they can’t handle a lot of nuances, subtle humor or cultural allusions. That bugs me. Now I have to talk to them in a truncated, flavorless, sanitized version of the language. It’s like drinking flat Sprite. Having said that, any level of language skill is still useful, and you can’t (indeed, don’t need to) be good at everything, it’s just not always that much fun to interact with.
What really ticks me off is how these “I HAVE TO KNOW ALL THESE LANGUAGES AT AN ACADEMIC LEVEL — STAT!” kids write as if it were my responsibility to sort out their lives, and I’d BETTER GET ON IT RIGHT NOW, MISTER! Maybe that’s just me being oversensitive. But they’re so pushy, it’s like “OK, stwop it! Stwop it! Mmm kay?”
With patience — not procrastination, but patience — humilty, and a relaxed, stable frame of mind, I think it could be done. I feel like it would require a deep love for the languages and a tortoise-like attitude — habitual plodding rather than binge-and-purge franticness (“bulimic learning”).
It would require letting go of any attachment to speedy results, and latching onto just doing little things, all day every day. And not caring that people thought you were crazy and going nowhere — which is already the case with self-directed learners of just one language.
In that sense, it’s not unlike learning one language, just triple the patience, triple the humility, triple the thick-skinnedness, and triple the materials costs.
The hare-like, business-oriented, NOW NOW NOW people are not demonstrating the mental stamina to disconnect from the idyllic end and focus on their daily habits. With their current attitude, they are going to crash and burn mentally from the lack of instant ultimate gratification long before even the lack of short- and mid-term monetary and social return starts to hit them. And then, to top it off, they’re going to go looking for someone or something other than themselves to blame, as if they were tricked into it(!)
Which brings me to a pertinent topic — economics. Economically, all this language study could potentially detract from time and monetary resources needed to invest in other activities and/or skills. Depending on one’s location, there could be considerable cost issues involved with acquiring the native materials necessary to simulate “growing up”. Again, these issues are multiplied by as many languages as there are in question.
Learning a language is going to cost a lot of time and some amount of money before it pays back anything other than enjoyment; for a long time, it has to be an end unto itself and not a means to anything but a good time. All these costs are typically hidden from us growing up in our native language(s), because they are incorporated into daily life — a kid growing up in Japan doesn’t buy a “Japanese” comic book, she just buys a comic book; she doesn’t hang out with “Japanese” people, she just hangs out with people; she doesn’t watch “Japanese” TV, she just watches TV — but these same costs become very clearly visible when we’re now recreating a childhood remotely and from scratch.
But it could be done. I’m quite sure of it. It is totally doable. It’s not really a matter of the raw capability of the human hardware, more one of PPL: patience, priorities and logistics: the patience to continue priority-investing in the exposure and infrastructure necessary to acquire a language, all for no immediately visible return, over an indeterminate timescale, against any and all significantly deleterious objections and interruptions from other people, because it’s going to take as long as it’s freaking going to take, and if you stop, you lose.
And once you’ve built your beautiful linguistic house, you don’t just let out a satisfied sigh, wipe your hands and walk away; you keep maintaining it lest the termites of memory decay 1 should eat into your wonderful imported Brazilian hardwood frame and bring the whole thing crashing down.
One doesn’t so much learn a language as one does become a person who habitually comes into contact with it. Can you establish and maintain robust, high-bandwith, long-lasting, simultaneous input streams across all the languages you want to learn? If so, then go for it!
I may be completely wrong in my caution; I may just be “projecting”; I would be happy — overjoyed — to be shown to have been too conservative. Either way — if you want to do something, don’t waste another moment of your time talking to people like me: the way to prove it…is to do it. In cases like this, you don’t win by being right, you’re right because you win.
- Since we’re belly-aching today, I might as well belly-ache you this: It really tugs on my tampon strings (what-the?!) when someone’s like “oh yeah, I know language X, I’m just a bit rusty”, and then proceeds to speak in such an incomprehensible accent and make so many fundamental grammatical errors, that you just want to move to the Netherlands and have yourself medically euthanized.
I myself have lived in a few too many countries now, such that I have a unique tapestry (trainwreck) of an accent in English…an airport accent, but, I mean…I’m pretty tolerant of variation, so I think that my grievances actually carry even more weight than those of, say, an American who doesn’t own a passport and tells tourists from the UK that they: “need to learn English properly” (actually happened to a friend of a friend ).