Is learning a language more similar to the process of learning to play piano or to the process of learning history? (About learning fast)


Currently, one of the most debated topic in the on-line language-learning community is the amount of time that is necessary to learn a language “fluently”. The debate was partly stimulated by one of the most popular blog on language learning where Benny, the author of this blog, is now trying to learn chinese in three months.


Much of the debate is focusing on the definition of “fluency” but for what concern this blog post I will assume that there is a shared understanding of what fluency is. Moreover, I want to stress that a plurality of opinions and debates around a theme are always very welcome and, as long as comments and opinions are constructive and people do not get too much attached to their opinion, debates can be useful.


Limiting belief

Certainly limiting beliefs regarding the ability to learn languages are very common and in many cases they are the real reason why some people “are not good at learning languages”. It is the classic self-fulfilling prophecy that reinforces itself. Therefore, showing that one can learn many languages in a relatively short period of time can provide a useful service by sprouting doubts on the limiting beliefs that hold back many people from learning a language. On the other side people with the expectation to learn fast would hit a wall when after few months they realise that “it takes more time that I thought”.


Factors that influence language acquisition

My own experience tells me that the speed of learning a language can be greatly influenced by the methodological approach used, by previous experience on learning languages, by the environment, and by motivation. People with previous successful experiences in learning a language will already have developed some learning skills and would certainly have an head start. Learners that are highly exposed to the language will also more likely learn faster. Finally, it is obvious that languages that are more similar to our own native language, or to other languages that we already master, will be easier to learn. Therefore, it is possible that people in a different environment, with different approaches, motivation and experience may have very different learning rates.


Physiological time

However, I also think that the process of learning a language is a process of enskillment, similar to the process of learning to play piano rather than a theoretical subject such as history. This process of enskillment requires the internalisation of the language in a way that this knowledge becomes unconscious, similarly to the way a piano player ability, by mean of constant practice, get embedded in his own hands which seems to acquire their own memory. Independently by how good is our approach, motivation and experience this process of internalisation requires some physiological time. It make sense, as during these process new connections are formed in our neural system and new patterns are established.


Learn as efficient as you can rather than fast

As a consequence, I think that is possible and recommendable to learn languages very efficiently rather than fast. Here “efficiently” means that you actively learn in the best way you can, so that you maximize your learning per unit of time.

I think that two key factors of successful language learning are the motivation and the commitment to learn for a long-term period and to practice the language daily as a piano player would practice daily because he/she enjoys doing it. It is a conscious decision to invest time in something that is believed to be valuable. There is no free lunch, if you want to acquire the skill you have to invest some time and energy.


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