A few words about your community, or communities actually, as these days we all participate in different ones, of different types. And often through different mediums, for example the Internet.
Google quotes two definitions of ‘community’ from Oxford Languages:
1. a group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common. “Montreal’s Italian community”
2. the condition of sharing or having certain attitudes and interests in common. “the sense of community that organized religion can provide”
Community and ‘language’ overlap to a great extent, wouldn’t you say? Though obviously they’re not synonymous.
In the first example “Montreal’s Italian community”, for instance, we’d assume that a shared language (Italian) was fundamental to members’ sense of belonging to the group, though I suppose that’s less and less true as the generations pass. But certainly, Montreal being in the Canadian province Quebec, the majority of members would speak French (the official language, spoken by 60% of the province’s inhabitants) and probably some English too.
Members of any community, of any type, need a way to communicate, and that’s usually a language or languages.
Deaf people and their families and friends might use Sign Language, for example. Computer nerds might be skilled in one or more computer languages (though the community ‘speaks’ mostly English.) And classically trained musicians are sure to be fluent in musical notation, which to an outsider are just lines and blobs on a page but to a member of community represent tones and rhythms and much more.
So, my point is?
People will often tell you that the best way to learn a language is to move to the country where it’s spoken, so ‘you have to use it every day’.
That’s utter nonsense, of course. Think of your own country, which surely contains immigrant communities about which nationalist politicians love to lament that they haven’t integrated, they keep their own primitive ways and, horror of horrors, THEY DON’T EVEN SPEAK THE LANGUAGE!
It’s perfectly possible to live in a country for years and not be capable of even a basic conversation with native-speakers. I was in a bar in Malmö a few years ago and, being rather proud of my nascent Swedish, tried to chat up the young server. She was unresponsive, which I put down to the fact I was twice her age, but having subsequently talked to her in English, I discovered that, despite working shifts in a pub in a Swedish city, she knew even less of the language than I did.
I lived in Turkey for years before finally learning to get by with the language, did a year as Director of Studies in an English school in Poland but could barely order a beer in Polish, and began picking up Italian only several years (and several babies) after moving here in 1998.
Nor is it just me. I regularly get letters from expatriate club members who are living the dream, having retired or relocated to some picturesque Italian village miles from anywhere, yet find that not only can then not speak the language (or dialect) that their neighbours chat away in, but that, in any case, there’s no one who they particularly want to talk to, or who is keen to talk to them.
Learning a language by moving to the country is a myth, but the idea behind it, that being in a community that USES the language will help you pick it up, is spot on.
Which reminds me of my brief forays into the user discussions over at Duolingo, when I was first learning Swedish. There were, and surely still are, lots of knowledgeable people able to point out mistakes and answer questions. But the lingua franca? English.
Join an Italian evening class and I bet there’ll be people there who, quite reasonably from a certain perspective, maintain that they need to ask questions and receive answers in English because otherwise they would not be able to do so, their Italian being as yet insufficient, or completely non-existent.
That’s another debate we could have – whether a language is best taught in the medium of the language itself, or not – but suffice it to say in this particular instance, if you consciously choose an Italian evening class in which the ‘culture’ of the group is to use Italian exclusively, then you will certainly have a different experience than if you opted for a group in which English was the primary medium of communication.
Foreign students at universities and colleges more or less anywhere in the world tend to live with friends from their own country, speak English with their professors and classmates, and may not, as a consequence, pick up very much at all of the local language (assuming it’s not English), nor the associated customs, habits, lifestyle choices, and so on.
In short, to maximise your language-learning, you need to be around when the language is being used. You need communities.
For instance, I am part of the community of people who listen to Radio Sweden each day, though I also hang with the crowd who get their lunchtime news from Spain’s most important state radio channel.
Besides The Economist and The Guardian, both of which are English-medium communities, I monitor what’s being said at Le Monde (French) and EL PAÍS (Spanish).
I live in Italy, so have Italian neighbours, colleagues and students – that’s three disparate groups right there! But I speak English at home, and Turkish, Swedish, French and Spanish with online friends.
How could I have have learnt more, faster, by making different choices?
Not speaking English at home would have accelerated my learning of Italian, obviously. Though at the cost of my kids not growing up bilingual. Quite deliberately, my own learning was put aside in favour of theirs. Parents who make the opposite choice often come to regret it later…
If I could spend less time with the English-medium press and more with the other languages, that would obviously help. But you get the general idea.
I’ll end by referencing the usual objection:
“But how can I participate in a ‘community’ if I don’t know the language? Surely I have to learn the language FIRST, and only then join in the conversation and begin to consume media?”
I’m feeling generous , so let’s say that point is perfectly valid.
There’s MY way, and there’s the TRADITIONAL way in which first you study, then you practice.
And yet… All those immigrants who didn’t integrate? The students who never learnt the local language because at home and at college they use other means to communicate?
‘Study first, use later’ might work very well if you’re motivated, have the right resources and opportunities, and stick it out for long enough.
But it clearly isn’t working for everyone, is it?
Whereas the deaf and their sign language? Or the blind and braille for that matter?
Very likely that having no option OTHER than to pick up the only shared communication system available is a powerful motivator. And being regularly exposed to the shared language, because all your friends are using it, makes it easier to learn.
Motivation + exposure + time. That’s really all it takes.
But for club members who aren’t forced, for one reason or another, to use the language they’d like to learn?
Choose your communities carefully and you’ll be around others using the language, which will hopefully motivate you and, very likely, help you learn.
This isn’t rocket science.
Next Monday we have the Summer Sale! Save 20% on everything in our shop. Lessons, ebooks, everything in our Catalog can be had for a fifth less than usual. I’ll be publishing the coupon code you need on Monday 5th of July. Existing online students will get it a few days earlier, directly from Lucia.