Let's Define What It Means To 'Learn A Language'

avatarMille Larsen
4 mins read

What does it mean when you say you want to learn a language? What do you expect to be true before you have learned a language? And what is happening when you are learning a language? That phrase is pretty powerful, and yet pretty vague. Apparently, everyone understands it differently.

A little controversy

A few weeks ago, I made the bold statement that I had learned Polish in just 8 days. I admit that I chose these words because they would be a bit controversial, but they were not untrue.

Upon reading it, some some people were completely awestruck, as if I had performed a miracle, which tells me they put far too high a value on the phrase learned a language. Others were as negative as if I had claimed to be able to fly. They too have their expectations too high.

But there were some who were merely curious, and a few who actually know Polish and could measure my results first-hand, and who genuinely understood and respected the task that I had completed in a short period of time.

I didn't say that I had mastered the language, I said that I had learned it. I wasn't fluent. In fact I am still not fluent. I learned the alphabet, its sounds. I learned phonics and morphology. I learned conjugations and declensions. I learned basic grammar and sentence structure. I learned enough vocabulary to survive and to have basic conversation.

Learning a language

I've been dragged into many arguments in the past, about what it means to learn a language. Some have made the claim that you can never learn a language, because it's impossible to know everything. I say, the words learn and impossible should never appear in the same sentence.

Some presume that having learned a language means speaking it fluently. But there's already a word fluent... why would some other group of words be necessary if they share the same definition?

To me, learning a language means understanding that language. It means being able to use it, and being able to understand it in use. Having learned a language means you are able to use it without the aid of any other language.

But learning a language does not mean mastery of it. It doesn't mean speaking it fluently. In fact, it doesn't even mean being comfortable with it! You can know a thing and still struggle with it. That's okay.

My results

I just got back from Poland, and I can say confidently that I understood a lot. I was able to understand a surprisingly high percentage (maybe 80% or more) of what was said to me, when people spoke at a moderate pace, and still about 40-50% of what I heard when people spoke particularly fast.

You might think understanding 40% is too low, but it's just a matter of how you look at things. Keep in mind that I went through an entire book about learning Polish in just 8 days, and then did a bit of online chat and wrote a couple of entries on Lang-8. The only real listening comprehension practice I've done is watching a couple of YouTube videos from Real Polish, and a following along with the guest reading submission a few weeks ago.

While in Poland, I was able to buy food and drinks and train tickets. I was able to ask for directions and understand amounts and times. I found my way around and even gave directions to some Poles. When I didn't understand something, I was able to ask in Polish for its meaning, and usually understand the explanation.

Based on these results, I am convinced that anyone can learn a language in a short period of time. I'm not claiming anyone will be fluent in one month, or that they will master the language or have an impressive vocabulary. But I do firmly believe that baby-stepping your way into the language does nothing to help.

In the future, I will attack all languages with this blitzkreig approach, in hopes of reaching a useful understanding of the language as early as possible, so I can spend the rest of my time working on building vocabulary through everyday use.