While having dinner with a group of friends from Singapore recently, a friend M asked, “How’s your Korean language skills now?” I shook my head.
While I’ve actually spent some five years learning the language at a pace of one lesson per week, two hours per lesson, most of my lesson time is usually spent talking about random topics in Japanese. Don’t ask me why. But even if it weren’t the case, I doubt I can be fluent now if those are the only times I used Korean.
M and her boyfriend said they both find it difficult to pick up a new language. They claim they have no talent in languages. To me, I doubt there’s such a thing as no talent in picking up languages. If so, there will be tons of people who lived their whole lives unable to communicate. But we are all able to speak our native tongue, so that should count for something.
I find that the reason many people are unable to speak foreign languages is less because of talent, but more because of perserverance, or maybe unrealistic expectations. When I was learning Japanese, by the third year, about 80-90% of the class had already dropped out.
Learners need to realise, you cannot expect to be fluent in a language simply by learning it just once a week for three or five years. People tend to give up by year three because they don’t see themselves being able to hold daily conversations when they don’t try to use it on a daily basis.
Children pick up their native tongue by being exposed to it every day and they try to speak it even if it is not grammatically correct at first, which is why by 3 years of age, they are able to drive you crazy with so many why-questions in close-to-perfect grammar. But as adults, we are too conscious of not making a fool of ourselves with incorrect use of a language, we don’t speak it. And when we don’t speak it, we will never know if we are wrong.
When I was still attending class for Japanese, whenever we had to answer open-ended questions in tests, if I have a few ideas on how to answer a question, I always pick the one that I am least confident in instead of the one I am most confident in. This way, I will know whether a sentence can be said that certain way since asking each one during the following class would be such a waste of time. Besides, scoring well in Japanese tests don’t mean anything to me, and that’s also because they’re extracurricular classes that don’t affect my life or grades at school. In a sense, tests are also a chance for me to “ask questions.”
Using the language you’re learning is very important because our facial muscles are not used to producing certain sounds in succession, so it is necessary to let your face and tongue get used to mouthing those sounds one after another.
Picking up a new language is not impossible if you put in the effort (which I haven’t been doing for Korean). If you don’t, living in the country is not going to help. I’ve met an American who’s been in Japan for 13 years and he couldn’t speak a proper sentence in Japanese because his work doesn’t require him to use Japanese, and neither does he need it much in his daily life so he sees no reason to try to improve.
If the purpose of picking up a new language is to simply hold daily conversations, you don’t really need a huge amount of vocabulary either because if you collect a corpus of words and phrases used in chatrooms, you would realise the words and phrases used is actually quite repetitive.
In conclusion, if you can communicate in at least one language, you have the “talent” for languages. You just need effort and perserverance.