'I sat exams at school in German, French, Italian, Latin and Bengali.' Flickr: Jayneandd
This post originally appeared in Varsity.
Sheikh Zayed City, Giza, Egypt. I stared at the three of them. "Muhammed Ashraf fein?" I was ready for this - they were asking where my friend was. "Neyim," I answered eloquently. Sleeping. A word tells a thousand pictures, I thought. I was met with a unexpected barrage of Arabic, and I stared at them again. The oldest man colourfully mimed waking up from his slumber, and the penny finally dropped for me.
They weren't going to let me pick Muhammed's laundry up for him. I trudged back home through the dusty streets empty-handed, and wondered why I put myself through it all again.
A deep desire to become fluent in several languages has haunted me for years. All the clichés about languages opening doors to new worlds inspired me, and I sat exams at school in German, French, Italian, Latin and Bengali, and studied linguistics for four years at university. My relatives boasted about my linguistic prowess to anyone who would listen, attributing languages to me almost at random. I still have no idea why they thought I knew Sanskrit.
I felt like a fraud - no matter how many years I studied a language, I could never get past a sort of half-baked, rough conversational level.
Despite this, during my year abroad to Hong Kong, I was determined to become fluent in Cantonese, no matter how seemingly indistinguishable its manifold tones, or how complex its thousands of characters. While there, I took advice from a philosophy student called David, who had managed to get pretty good at the language before even setting foot in China.
"You know something," said David, suddenly animated, "I think that 99 per cent of the exchange students here know nothing about Hong Kong." He sounded very earnest, but unfortunately, his Swiss-German accent took something away from the gravity of his words. He added, "I really respect how you spend most of your time with locals."
Learning languages opens new horizons. Flickr: Barnyz
I agreed enthusiastically - it was a compliment, after all, adding modestly that the language barrier was probably an issue for most. On that note, what was the secret of David's success? "You should see a website I used," he answered, "called All Japanese All The Time (AJATT). It's by a guy who became almost native in Japanese in eighteen months without leaving America." I mentally bookmarked the website, but managed to forget about it for the following six months.
During those six months, I put a real effort into learning Cantonese. I bargained with the University administration for a local roommate, listened to Chinese pop music and carefully jotted down new swearwords in my notebook whenever I heard them. My progress was enthusiastically received by my local friends, but fluency eluded me.
After half the year had gone by, I wondered impatiently what on earth it would take for me to be able to speak confidently and lucidly at length. Remembering the curious case of David, I typed the website address into my browser.
What I found felt revolutionary. AJATT's creator had indeed become impressively fluent in Japanese in a short time while living in the US, and he credited it with his method of learning - All Japanese, All The Time - which entailed creating a 24/7 environment exclusively in the language for oneself. After all, that was how most humans learnt their mother tongue; they weren't given a choice about it.
He treated language courses with disdain - how could you expect to learn a new language in a matter of hours when it took you tens of thousands to learn English? It seemed obvious; people pour large sums of money into language lessons but emerge from them still unable to function in the native language environment. He switched his computer language to Japanese, consumed only Japanese media, and spoke only in Japanese to Japanese friends for a year and a half.
Full-scale immersion requires going beyond the classroom. Flickr: Victor Björkund
I was sold. In the last month or so, I tried to implement his technique, although fell short of a fully immersive environment by continuing communication with my English-speaking friends. I started to learn faster and it felt incredible: I watched Ip Man without English subtitles and found I understood most of it.
But I left Hong Kong, and gradually lost my commitment to the language, and I don't know where all this has left me. I flirted again with all my old flames, and watched Lost in German, Friends in French, Pokémon in Cantonese and various films in Mandarin Chinese. Now trying to learn Arabic during my last two months before heading into the world of work, I wonder if I was right to believe I could become fluent in a foreign language.
Even though it became clear it was the best way, the immersion method requires real commitment and sacrifice. Is it really worth turning one's life upside down for the sake of language learning? As I have grown older, my feeling has grown that there is too much to do and too much to learn. Prioritising languages means neglecting my other dreams and commitments: starting a political forecasting business; learning about religion and philosophy; campaigning on animal welfare; visiting friends and family abroad.
In the end, to continue my life as normal, I am learning to make my peace with slower progress. Funnily enough, my new job will include French language training. The learning method? A couple of hours of lessons a week.