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  • Writer's pictureMichael McClellon

The Essence of Language Learning

We’ve all had that feeling during our moments of freetime, where we have this sudden burst of energy to learn something new. We so vividly imagine the outcome of this new prospect without ever bothering to consider its tangibility or the persistence needed to achieve success. We imagine playing the piano like Mozart, without ever thinking of learning Mary Had a Little Lamb. We imagine hitting backhands like Roger Federer without ever thinking of buying a tennis racquet. By the time we realize the obstacles that keep us from achieving success, we’re already back to scrolling through social media wishing to be like other people.

Language learning is no stranger to this phenomenon. Too often we envision ourselves becoming proficient in Mandarin, while simultaneously learning Spanish in school. And why not add in some Arabic because it sounds cool. Although this seems impressive, focusing on just the outcome takes that much time away from devising how you’ll actually learn. Most people then fall victim to turning this wonderful opportunity into nothing but a phase. Nothing but time wasted that you’ll have nothing to show for in the future. You won’t even know what to say if someone asks you “Can you speak another language?”, as you’ll debate over whether you should acknowledge your efforts or just flat-out ignore them.

But don’t worry. There’s a solution to this. It starts with better understanding language itself, and making the learning process more tailored to you. If you do have the urge to learn a new language, you’ve already completed the first step towards achieving your reality. You’ve created an opportunity that’s too valuable to dismiss. You finally have the chance to create a learning experience that you would never truly get in a schooling environment. It all starts with a game plan.

As addressed before, people often forget to plan their language learning process, and are stuck simply doing Duolingo for a couple weeks and then quitting because of the monotonous “correct” sound. Rather than using one method that becomes uneventful overtime, you need to combine a series of diversified methods to get the maximum amount of knowledge within a short amount of time. This involves not only using Duolingo, but listening to songs, watching Disney movies, or even listening to Disney songs that you love in whatever language you are learning. Because the songs you listen to will probably get stuck in your head, you’ll find yourself learning a whole new set of pronunciations in no time. I also recommend watching a variety of Youtubers that make the learning process more engaging. Relying on multiple Youtubers gives you access to multiple learning methods, which again, maximizes your efficiency. In particular, I recommend watching videos from the famous polyglot, Michel Thomas. His unique “self-absorbing” approach allows you to start speaking any language in no time, without any homework or intense memorization, and I highly recommend you research his videos. For those who may not have time to learn a new language, these strategies only require about 10 minutes of devotion per day, or even per week. Ultimately, this process emphasizes fun over tediousness, which allows you to sustain the most important goal of learning a language, which is maintaining interest. Diversification is therefore motivation’s backbone.

Utilizing diversification and not only relying on traditional language learning methods keeps your interest alive. This allows you to move at your own pace, yet still be engaged throughout. You can now avoid turning this into a phase and start reaching your goal of proficiency, instead of just imagining it. Especially during this time of quarantine, taking advantage of your freetime by doing something incredibly productive will give you one more reason to look back on 2020 as a time of accomplishments, and not just loss.

One of the most effective, yet unpopular strategies that you should use when learning a language is immersing yourself with its associated culture. Here at Ogma, we’re not asking you to move to France if you’re a Francophile, but nothing is stopping you from learning about a certain culture. Don’t be that kid who learned Japanese just for the anime. Be that kid who learned Japanese for the anime, but also for the rich Japanese culture and traditions, which makes learning the language much more interesting and opens your global perspective to the culture of 120 million people. Language is the means by which culture is understood, and culture comes alive once it is expressed audibly to all people, whether they understand it or not. Learning about the culture behind a certain language can unlock numerous doors in your language learning experience, and can even make it easier for you. Personally, being fascinated with French history and architecture has allowed me to enhance my understanding of the language. I can now learn about French grammar and sentence structure while reading Napoleon's famous farewell speech. Additionally, if you practice a certain religion or have roots within one, learning a language associated with it can increase your religious knowledge, and make you an even more devoted follower. Ultimately, learning the culture in which the language was born into gives you infinitely more knowledge, and substantially increases your motivation.

One of the factors that can be most influential to language learning is understanding the cognitive aspect of this process. We often take the power of making sounds with our mouths to other people for granted, but in reality, the fact that an idea as complex as a dancing cow studying analytical chemistry can be transmitted effortlessly from person to person truly puts this into perspective. Chances are, you’ve probably never heard of this idea before, but now that you’ve been blessed with its mental image, imagine the ideas you could learn from other languages that perceive the world differently than you. Understanding the truly awesome power of language is what motivates polyglots alike to not only increase their vocabulary, but also their perspective of the world.

In addition to understanding the value that language itself carries, you should also understand its ability to actually change the way you think. According to Lera Boroditsky, a cognitive scientist and professor in the fields of language and cognition, learning a new language can open your thought processes to new perceptions of reality. To understand how language learning influences your cognitive perception on the world, we can analyze multiple examples of linguistic differences. This can be seen if we compare English to Arabic or Hebrew in relation to timelines. English speakers are more likely to lay out a timeline from left to right, in accordance with their writing system. Speakers of Arabic or Hebrew would probably lay their timeline out from right to left, just like their own writing system. Boroditsky also provides the example of gender differentiation. The word “bridge” is considered grammatically masculine in Spanish, but it is considered grammatically feminine in German. Consequently, when asked in a study, Spanish speakers were much more likely to describe bridges in general as “strong” or “long”, referencing more masculine descriptions, while German speakers were more likely to associate bridges with more feminine descriptions, such as “beautiful” or “elegant”. Being able to change your perception of reality effortlessly between separate languages is probably considered the most valuable gift of language learning.

So how would all of this knowledge help you? How will you use this advice to become the trilingual prodigy or the humble Spanish speaker you envisioned? Well, in addition to utilizing effective learning methods, understanding the importance of language and the fact that it guides individual reasoning is paramount to your learning process. It introduces you to a new way of thinking that you were previously restrained from due to the limited perceptions ingrained into you by your own language. This makes language learning much more transformative and intriguing, and I’m sure this has made it much more attractive to you. I hope I’ve used the gift of language effectively to open your perspective, and that you can finally reach your success from the dream that started it all.


To read more articles from Michael McClellon click here.

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