Every single language learning forum screams about the importance of the passion for a language you learn. Among the common statements are: “you can’t learn a language you don’t like“, “you should never even try to learn a language you’re not passionate about“, “passion in language learning is everything“, “go with languages you love” and so on.
However, I lean more and more towards the conclusion that passion here is highly overrated and going with your “likes” alone will make you waste your time.
Difference between “I like” ad “I need”
First thing I want to emphasize: this is not the post for those who already learned a bunch of languages and keep doing so out of sheer interest to language learning as a whole. If you are polyglot, you probably know what you’re doing and why. Moreover, the large chunk of your “fluent-in” list is likely to already include notorious English, French, Spanish, Chinese, Arabic and so on.
Rather, it’s aimed for people whose passion for a language calls them to learn something like Ukranian, Javanese, Korean, Swedish, Kurdish and so on. And, what is even more important, for those who are driven by this passion alone as opposed to well-conceived reasons. By the way, nothing is wrong with these languages, except that it is not that you should concentrate on if you don’t have a very good reason to do so. That’s what I call “I like”.
When it comes to “I need”, the picture is quite different. If you don’t have defined preferences and solid plans to move to a specific country, your “I need” list should include top-10 languages spoken in the world by the number of L2 speakers. The logic behind this statement is simple. If millions of people learn a certain language, it means that this language gives them a socio-economic advantage. What kind of advantage? Better education. Better-paid job. Improved quality of life.
You got my point.
This is why you don’t have a passion for “useful” languages
The root of the problem is very deep. It comes from our first experience with learning foreign languages.
The school killed it all
I guess all of us had a quite painful language learning experience in school. For the most part, it was one of the popular and “useful in the life” languages spoken by millions of people. Take a look on the top-10 world languages and you’ll most likely come across the one you tried to learn (oh, wait: tried to be taught) in school years. You probably even knew that learning it would be a good investment; or at least your parents thought so.
Nevertheless, you couldn’t help hating these language classes that were boring and useless. Then, you began hating that language in general. First of all, you didn’t choose to learn it but was still accountable for your progress. Second, teaching methods were far from being perfect: you had to read stupid texts, cram long lists of words and build dialogs on topics that never interested you. You know it all.
Personally, I didn’t meet a single person who would admit that they learned a foreign language solely in the school classroom. I wonder if these people exist as a kind.
You don’t want to go with the crowd
If you managed to save deep inside that passion for language learning you probably wanted to learn one later on. But which one? Well, anything but English/Spanish/French (choose your option). Anything but what is forced on you to learn. Anything but what everybody learns.
I remember being disappointed in English to that extent that I actually intensively studied Polish grammar during my English classes. So if you wanted to meet the most loyal adept of the “passion trumps all” theory you would have a very engaging conversation with the 5-years-ago version of me.
However, the next 5 years of language learning let me understand that following your passion for a language can be a very misleading approach.
5 reasons why you risk to waste your time
No introduction. Let’s start with the obvious:
Passions have a habit to change
Rare persons are who stick to their passions for a long time. The more common scenario is the following:
- You get this spark of interest for a new idea (a new language, in our case);
- This super-excitement takes the total control of you, and you burn with desire to explore and learn this language;
- Then you start collecting a pile of stuff: textbooks, courses, language learning apps, dictionaries, conjugators… and eagerly practice the new skill for a while;
- At a certain point, something pops up in your life (new passion, that vacation coming, birth-death-marriage -you name it)
- You have no choice as to change your focus;
- And your passion for a language slowly and steadily dies out, completely forsaken.
Often you keep that old heartwarming dream to revise and relearn your Polish, Irish and Inuit but… but you just have no time. You know, all this work, and study, and triathlon, and then you wanted to learn how to code… All these obligations and other interests compete for your time, and your brain whispers to you that language learning is not the thing you should be doing right now (in the middle of ALL THIS).
Opportunities for learning and practice are limited
If you’re up to learn a rare language (and rare in this case is everything that is not top-10 by the number of L2 speakers), you may find yourself struggling to obtain quality learning material.
Yes, the Internet fixed the problem quite a bit but the problem is still there. If there is no sufficient demand, there is, by default, the lack of sufficient supply as well. For example, one of my last brilliant ideas was to learn Amharic. And I can’t deny that Wikipedia has a very thorough article on Amharic grammar and that the general vocabulary is available on Memrise. But the quality of this material is significantly inferior to that of world languages. Plus, since Ethiopia doesn’t have a reliable access to the Internet, there’s almost no YouTube videos, iTunes podcasts and other examples of Amharic pronunciation in the web.
The only reliable way to learn this kind of language is immersion, but I will probably postpone moving to Ethiopia.
Usage of this language is geographically restricted
It’s very easy to develop the passion for a language spoken in a single small country or even a single province (think about India). World languages are mainly deprived of this charm and the sense of relic simply because they are abused and overused by nearly everyone.
And it’s totally fine to be deep in love with Thai culture and try to connect to its heritage via the Thai language. But… If you’re serious about it you might want to change your dislocation to something like 13.7379579,100.51679 and actually immerse in that culture. Otherwise, it’s same as learning scuba diving in a municipal pool. It’s kinda fun and you’ve got the feeling – but it’s in no comparison to what diving in Great Barrier Reef can be.
Even with the internet and globalisation, your usage of Thai in the USA, Canada, and Europe is highly limited. Well, yeah, you’ll learn some vocab, find a dozen decent Thai YouTubers to practice your understanding and even go through a few speaking sessions in Skype. But what’s next? With the sole passion for a language, your two options are a) artificially maintain this language for the rest your life from your condo in downtown Toronto and b) forget the language.
This language has low social status in the world
That’s another universal truth. Unpopular languages are unpopular for a reason.
Language death has a reason, same as language globalisation has one. English is lingua franca of XXI century because it unlocks the doors to one of the most powerful economies in the world. French, Spanish and Portuguese are in the top-10 because a few centuries ago smart Frenchmen, Spaniards, and Portuguese managed to colonise the half of the world. Chinese is on the list because of the immense population of native speakers and (again) powerful economy.
What can you say about Greek? Not that much, except for it is the language of the country recovering from the crisis. Javanese? The 11th language by the total number of speakers, but have you heard much about it? Bantu? Moldovian? Ojibwe? Azerbaijani? They are not from one of the wealthiest countries in the world. And they do not lead scientific progress.
So speaking one of these languages will never give you the same advantage as speaking one of the lingua-francas.
How to bring your passion for a language to the next level
I bet you already knew all the aforementioned reasons. Your brain knew, at least on some unconscious level. You might already have an experience of abandoning a language because your logic took over and you realised that the return didn’t worth the investment.
However, if you are stubborn (same like me at various points of my life) all these reasons leave you no other choice as to maintain the language. Somehow. With incidental conversations in Skype, or by reviewing vocabulary in Memrise, or by watching movies in your target language.
But how long you can go on on the passion alone? Once you fall out of this language learning routine, you’re left with the “i-learned-this-language-for-a-while.zip” folder archived deep in your brain. And it takes much more time to take it out, dust it off and unzip it again that you may think.
So your best shot is to never let this situation happen in your life.
It requires some planning. First of all, you won’t go too far without these 5 energy-saving rules for language learners that will save you hundreds of hours. And second, at any point of your language learning journey, you will have to find a reason – other than the sheer passion for a language – to keep learning it. You want this language to play a crucial role in your life, at least for a few years. And then, your powers are unlimited.
Find your own reason
The reason for learning your favorite language can personal or professional. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that it should force you to use this language outside the classroom. It must (MUST) be meaningful for you. And it should bring added value to your life (other than the simple fact of speaking a foreign language).
Here are 5 examples that will help you to start:
- You know that you’re learning Greek because you’re just about to marry a Greek girl (and you will have to deal with her family).
- You just signed up a contract with a Czech company. Prague is your new home for another three years of your life and you can’t wait to pick up this language.
- The book “Don’t sleep there are snakes” by Daniel Everett made you completely excited. You’re selling your house-car-and-dog on eBay and heading to Amazon Rainforest to do scientific research on Piraha people.
- Modern society has completely worn you out, so you’re packing Tibetan phrasebook and heading to meditation tour in mountains.
- Japan has long attracted you. Now, as a student, you’ve got an opportunity to spend a year abroad – in Japan, of course.
If you have a plan – go ahead and learn this language, no matter how rare and unuseful it seems to other people. There’s often just a little bridge between the passion for a language and the powerful motivation that makes your world change for the better.
You just need to have a vision.