Language learning takes a long time, usually much longer than any learner anticipates when they begin. At first, it seems pretty easy. Most people start with a bang, putting in the hours and achieving a basic ability in a few months. From there, everything seems to slow down. Suddenly, improving takes forever, and many people quit after months of no appreciable improvement. What’s going on? Do we just lack the ability to learn one language for a long period of time?
As it turns out, starting a language is easy, but speaking fluidly and with the grammar of a native speaker is far harder and takes far longer than most imagine. What’s the deal with this discrepancy?
The first thing we need to note is that anything we learn and master can become incredibly complicated if we want it to.
Sculpting developed from simple scratches in rock to incredible lifelike statues that push the limit of human creativity, knowledge, and skill, culminating in the likes of Michelangelo creating David and Pietà. If skills can get more complex without being detrimental, then some inevitably will.
Pietà. Image credit: Wikipedia
Languages aren’t hard by necessity. Take Esperanto. Esperanto has a very straightforward grammar and does a lot more with a smaller vocabulary. Conlangs (constructed languages) such as Esperanto are often easier to learn because much of the complexity of natural language has been taken out, and as a result they take a fraction of the amount of time to learn that a natural language does.
The reason why languages get so complex is largely a mystery. But part of what allows them to grow so complex must be due to the fact that they are arbitrary. There is no need to use any specific grammatical rule, word, or phonology in place of any other. This arbitrariness lets languages become unnecessarily complicated without interfering with their function. As long as it doesn’t cause a detrimental strain on adolescents to learn, there will be no strong pressure against complexifying a language. The grammatically simpler languages tend to be those that were, at some point, learned by a large number of adults. Unlike children, adults don’t have a lot of time to dedicate to learning languages and usually learn them imperfectly as a result. Not coincidentally, these are often the larger languages.
The second enabler is likely the enormous amount of time we put into learning languages. Languages are learned over a lifetime. It can be difficult to comprehend quite how much time that is. There is basically no other skill we do as much or devote as much time to. This time provides massive room for languages and cultures that are incredibly complex to be learned and integrated into our life.
Here is what this means: we are all incredibly capable language users. We are artisans of our culture. We are the Michaelangelo of our language. Over our lifetimes we devote hundreds of thousands of hours to our language and culture and we master it to a degree unparalleled to anything else we do. This is in fact an incredible feat. You just probably didn’t notice this fact is because it’s so completely normal.
Let me try to illustrate.
Imagine that, for some reason, from the age of two you were sat in that drivers seat of a small car from morning till night. You eventually figure out that the way to get anything you want in life (attention, food, friends, anything) is by driving. Not only that, the better you drive, the more often and more easily you can get it. Imagine you were constantly pushed through new cars and new courses, up until you were driving F1 cars in Monaco. How good do you think do you think you would be at driving by age 18?
My intuition is that you would be incredible. With the right car you’d probably blitz any driver on the course. You’d make Michael Schumacher at his peak look like he’s still on his learner’s license. Much of this would be thanks to the fact that you’d have surpassed his time spent behind the wheel by a factor of ten or more. And that would show.
Now, driving may have natural limits that prevent you outperforming the best F1 drivers to a significant degree. But, as we have discussed, the limits of language and culture are far higher. From the narrow river of basic structures and beginner phrases, languages flow into an ocean of grammatical complexity, subtleties of word use, irregularities, cultural references, and idioms. That takes time to master.
The reason language learning seems faster at the beginning is because basic structures let you use the language in its most basic form. But beginner structures only cover a fraction of what is out there to be learned, and that complexity takes most of a native speaker’s childhood to master. Native speakers get there by surpassing adult learners’ time with the language by more than an order of magnitude.
In conclusion, languages take a long time to learn because they are the single most complex thing any human does. It might not feel that way, since you’ve spent such a long time using your native language it feels easy, but your language ability is an incredible feat. Don’t let the relatively fast progress of the beginner stages fool you, reaching that high level in another language is no small task.
Does that mean you need 18 years to reach a very high level? Not necessarily. As we will see in part 2, native speakers don’t have all the advantages.