A Solid Principle for Language Learning

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Prioritize the daily over the occasional.

I’m not sure where exactly I first came across that saying. But it has yielded good fruit in my life over the last few years. One fruitful application of which has been in language learning. I’m a Native US English speaker who grew up also speaking a Melanesian creole. I’ve been learning the language of our Central Asian people group for about five years now and am at an advanced level, but seeking to push toward true fluency. In addition to this, I’m trying to learn biblical Greek and Classical Latin. I hope to be able to read and understand at least four more historical languages and my dream is to be conversant in several more living languages of my area (an area which is quite the linguistic stew). Contrary to some, I’m convinced that the key to learning multiple languages, whether dead or living tongues, has less to do with natural ability and more to do with simple daily practice and exposure and delight.

There is a city about an hour and a half from where we live where almost the entire population is trilingual. People from this city have a reputation for being sharp with language. But I don’t think it’s because they are any more intelligent or gifted than those from other nearby cities. This trilingual city is unique in that it is divided ethically into three more-or-less equal populations, each of which has its own language, and that from a distinct language family. One population speaks an Indo-European language, another speaks a Semitic language, and the third speaks a Turkic language. So while vocabulary is shared generously between these languages, the underlying structures of these languages are not at all the same. And yet virtually the whole city can speak all three, with other residents throwing in other minority mother tongues and English to boot. How is this possible? I believe this is what is going on: When a resident of said city leaves his home where his mother tongue is spoken and goes to a neighborhood store, butcher, or barbershop, at each location a different language may be the primary tongue used in that establishment. When he goes to work, he may use mainly the Semitic language. When he is the bazaar, he may primarily use the Turkic. And at home, he speaks to his family in the Indo-European. The simple daily use of these diverse languages keeps the brain capable of learning, retaining, growing, and code-switching between these very different systems of speaking and understanding.

In this, I believe, lies an important key for anyone seeking to learn a new language or multiple new languages. Simple daily exposure and practice is remarkably powerful. Daily learning and upkeep is the key to not only acquiring, but also preserving and advancing languages already learned. And who wants to learn a language only to later lose it? Why should I keep up my Melanesian creole when I am the only one in this entire country to speak it? Well, personally, there is something about losing a language that feels akin to losing a friend. Each language is a unique way of viewing the world, of using different forms to communicate meaning. My Melanesian creole contains fun and creative ways of expressing meaning that just don’t exist in English. It contains ways of communicating with and about God that are beautiful and distinct. I don’t want to lose that even if by worldly standards keeping up this language is not “practical.” Thankfully, I have learned that I don’t have to lose it if I can fit in a few minutes of exposure to the language every day that can also lead to daily incremental growth. And daily incremental growth means substantial growth when thinking in terms of months and years.

So, prioritize the daily over the occasional for language learning and language retention. Ten minutes per day is better than a two hour lesson once per week. Ten minutes per day is also sustainable. And finding a sustainable practice leads to hope in language learning, and hope is key to perseverance. Smaller daily doses of language also keep it in the realm of the enjoyable and out of the realm of the drudge – another key to persevering in language learning. My current daily routine involves reading a few verses of the New Testament in parallel Melanesian creole, my adopted Central Asian language, New Testament Greek, and in Latin. The YouVersion Bible app allows you to compare different translations or languages side by side and is very helpful for this. I’m also finding helpful a book called Keep Up Your Biblical Greek in Two Minutes a Day by Jonathan Kline. I do this comparative Bible reading in the morning, then later on in the evening I’m working through the Duolingo Latin course, spending maybe 10-15 minutes per day in that app. Throughout my day I also have multiple opportunities to practice the Central Asian language I’m learning. My hope is to get multiple historical languages to the point where I can read in them a little bit everyday, thereby insuring incremental contextual learning – picking up new vocabulary and grammar as I go along as I continue to do in the endless ocean of the English language. However, I know that mere reading will not be enough for languages I hope to be conversant in. That will take daily conversation. I’ll have to develop my own rhythms that enable me to metaphorically drop in at the Turkic store, visit the Semitic butcher, and speak to my Indo-European relatives on a daily basis.

If you are daunted by the thought of learning a new language or retaining one that is slipping, take heart and take the pressure off. If you can find a sustainable method by which to be in that language a little bit everyday, then your growth in that language is guaranteed.

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