In 1970, at the tender age of 18 I was thrown into college, willingly, but having no real idea of what I was getting into. My other choice was to go fight an unpopular undeclared war in Vietnam and shoot at and be shot at by people who I felt were simply defending their homeland. Attending college allowed me to avoid many unpleasant memories and I hope helped avoid destroying the lives of innocent people. Had it not been for the war is quite likely that I may have never gone to college. I might have gone to college but I would be the first of nine siblings and more than 60 cousins to graduate from a university.
I took the advice of my high school counselor since my parents had little advice to give me about college and decided to major in zoology. “Study what you’re interested in,” I was told, “then you will be more likely to spend your life enjoying what you work at.” Is my autobiography, Windsong, says it took me a while to settle into a career using my degree but that was good advice.
On the college campus I walked into Dr. Harris’ office, my advisor, who helped me decide what courses I should take as a college freshman. “I want to major in ornithology,” I told Dr. Harris. Dr. Douglas James, the university’s only ornithologist, would spend my freshman year studying trouble in birds in Africa so Dr. Harris had been appointed as my advisor. He was an advisor to many freshman premedical students, and I would soon discover these students dominated the zoology department during the next two years before they transferred to the medical school in Little Rock.
“I recommend you take German as a foreign language,” Dr. Harris said.
“Well,” I said in surprise, “I hope to take Spanish because I have a few Spanish-speaking relatives.” I didn’t realize I had an aunt who spoke German is your native language living nearby in Arkansas. I also had a few Spanish-speaking relatives and thought that Spanish would be more useful to me.
“German is the language of science,” Dr. Harris continued, “You should probably take German but you can make your own decision. Most scientific articles that are not written in English are written in German. The Germans have a long history of having a strong scientific background.”
So, with no discussion of Chinese or Japanese, I dove into the study of German and learned how not to study a language. I was not a stellar student in high school because no one pushed me, most importantly myself, and I found high school both boring and too easy most of the time. I assumed, wrongly, the college would be the same way and that learning a language should not be too difficult. I was wrong.
I studied German in all the traditional ways which set me up for failure. My lack of any reasonable study skills, my failure to participate in the voluntary language laboratories where students listened to language tapes to improve their use of German, and my false assumption that listening to a teacher for four one-hour classes week would be adequate set me up for failure. It took me two years to successfully complete one year of German and discover that I did really have a knack for learning languages if I bothered to actually study outside of the classroom.
I may go into detail later, but I wanted to give you a few quick ideas on what I’ve learned about studying a foreign language. One thing I know for certain, sitting in a class for a few hours each week will not be very effective. Here’s a summary of my advice based on my experience teaching myself both Spanish and Chinese.
1) Study the language you want to learn for 10,000 hours
My time in my German class took up four hours a week for 14 weeks are roughly 60 hours of class time. I had been advised to study one hour out of class for each hour in class, which is good advice generally speaking for college student. But two semesters of German would have given me a grand total of 240 hours which I probably acquired by taking both German I in German II twice. My point is simple. 240 hours isn’t going to cut it. It is only one 40th of the time you need to begin to master a language.
2) Learn like a child
I’ve been studying Chinese for nine years now. I consider myself, “Nine years old and Chinese,” as I like to tell my Chinese friends. Sure, I write like a child and had not mastered the language yet, but in 2004, when I started learning Chinese, I decided to get myself 20 years, not one semester, to learn the language. I have always heard it said that children can learn language is much better than adults. I’ve always felt that was wrong. Some of my other suggestions will explain that statement, but attempting to master a language in a matter of days and weeks is setting oneself up for failure. You need a reasonable length of time to get your 10,000 hours completed and if you don’t get any sleep it’s still going to take you more than the year. So don’t expect miracles. A one-year-old child can’t say much. So feel good that after your year of classes you can say a few words in a foreign language.
3) How to get your 10,000 hours in
Now that you have a reasonable target which will almost guarantee success you need to decide how to use your time in a way that will help you reach your goal. Obviously, immersion language learning works quite well. If you only speak a foreign language you’ll be forced to learn it quickly. If no one where you work or live space your native language you’ll be exposed to the new language every day and probably spend 10 to 12 hours practicing the new language in real life. But other methods are available. My point is simple again. Start thinking of ways to put the time in that you need to learn a foreign language.
4) Using those spare moments
There was a time when I was bored in doctor’s offices and could find no magazines to read. Standing in line at the grocery store seemed to be wasted time. Driving to work for 60 or 120 minutes or more in Atlanta was ridiculous. But once I started studying Chinese in 2004 I found I could use those times productively. I relished time in the doctor’s office, although not so much the dentist’s office. I will have to say Dr. Petkovich was quite impressed when he saw me sitting in his dental chair with Chinese flashcards in my lap. Now, every time I go to see him he asked me how it’s going. I just respond to him in Chinese.
5) Talk to your friends and the foreign language
A few years ago, I wrote a blog on this website giving me advice I’m about to give. A Chinese friend of mine wrote back and said she laughed out loud at what I wrote. My recommendation? Use the language you’re learning anytime you can even if your friends don’t speak that language. At the time I was working at Walmart and said, “I use Chinese with my coworkers anytime I can. They can’t understand a word of what I’m saying,” and probably think I’m half crazy, which I probably am. My wife just said she’s the other half, as she’d heard me dictating this message with my voice recognition software. My old coworkers at Walmart were not too surprised to hear me speaking to them in Chinese. One day, one of my best friends and I were speaking in front of a new employee. I spoke for 5 minutes in Chinese while he spoke in English and the new employee had to wonder what we were saying and who understood what. I was able to practice Chinese in a real-life situation and it didn’t matter if I made mistakes. My coworkers couldn’t understand a word of what I was saying anyway and I got real-life experience responding to questions.
6) Forget about mistakes
A man and his wife spent two years overseas. One of them was afraid to make mistakes and only spoke when he or she was completely certain that they were making no mistakes. The other one didn’t care about mistakes and just spoke the language, making mistakes constantly. After two years, one spoke the language fluently and the other could hardly say a word. I think you can guess which one master the language in the 10,000 hours he or she was overseas. The one who made mistakes learned. The one who made no mistakes, didn’t learn.
If you want to learn a language, give yourself enough time. One person I know of gave himself 18 months to learn English but he spent 18 hours a day. At the end of that time he took China’s national English exam and scored the highest score in the country. I’m not saying you should do that, because I gave myself 20 years instead of 18 months. That still means I need to spend an hour or two a day studying Chinese. But it still means I can achieve the same success. 加油。
freshman – a first-year student
have a knack for – to be good or have a natural ability to do something
ornithologist – a person who studies birds
ornithology – the study of birds
premedical students – undergraduate students who plan to become physicians or doctors
relished time – to savor, enjoy, or feel happy about having time for something
siblings – others and sisters
zoology – the study of animals
加油 – go for it