Learning and Mastering a Second Language

April 26, 2008 / Culture, Daily Life, Opinion / 46 Comments

In an article from New Scientist, a man claims that his grandfather could speak 70 languages, and write in 56. And he’s never even attended school. This man also explained that while they were traveling to Thailand, his grandfather admitted that he couldn’t speak Thai. However, in less than 2 weeks, he was able to argue with vendors for discounts – like a native! Years later, the writer was sent to Thailand for a job, and returned to converse with his grandfather in Thai. Even after spending months in Thailand, his command of Thai is still far below his grandfather’s.

As ridiculous as this story might be, it is a true one. And according to many experts, the existence of of hyperpolyglots are not uncommon throughout history. Why hyperpolyglots have sprung up throughout history, no one knows. Some experts claim that it’s intelligence. Others say that it’s a talent. Some others say it’s a side effect of a medical condition. And a few reckon that it’s pure hard work and interest.

For me? I would have to agree with the latter. Learning a language is not a talent and has absolutely nothing to do with your IQ. It’s a process, and with time and effort, normal people like you and me can do the same.

I’m not incredibly smart. I suck at math. I suck at art. I don’t particularly like science. I don’t particularly like school. But one thing’s for sure: I never ever stopped learning languages. When I was a child, I started speaking so late in my life that my parents thought that I was mute. It probably had something to do with the way I was raised. My father spoke to me in English. My mother spoke to me in Mandarin. My grandmother spoke to me in Hokkien. Once I started speaking, I always spoke in three languages, often repeating myself. If I wanted apple, for example, I’d always say “apple, ping guo, peng gor.” I’m not sure why I did that, and why I’d know that apple stood for ping guo and ping guo stood for peng gor. But it happened.

Currently, I understand 8 languages and 2 dialects. In terms of proficiency, I’m bilingual in Hokken and English; almost bilingual with Mandarin, and passively bilingual to French. (Passive here means that I can understand and read French fluently, but I still struggle with speaking and writing.) I’ve had formal education in Spanish, Malay, Indonesian and Korean. I’ve also picked up Cantonese colloquially to survive in a cantonese-dominant city. And recently, I’m also able to understand intermediate colloquial Japanese and basic Kansai dialect as an unintended side effect from watching too many animes. My Japanese understanding is at the point, where I don’t need sub-titles for certain genres of anime anymore.

(To the ignorant South East Asians, Malay and Indonesian are very different languages, despite sharing some similar vocabulary. The difference between Malay and Indonesian is like the difference between Portuguese and Spanish. You can’t count them as the same language just because they share a common pool of words. The grammatical structure between Malay and Indonesia are so different that misunderstandings can occur in a 5 minute conversation between a Malay and an Indonesian.)

My point here? A superior brain is not needed in learning multiple languages; it’s passion. For me, learning a language is the only way to completely understand another’s culture from their perspective so I always try to learn new ones. And as the number of languages I know increases, the easier it becomes to learn a new language, since most languages share similar roots. For example, since I read French and Spanish, I can understand some basic Italian.

But of course, learning a language and mastering one is completely different. Mastering a language requires a lot of painful effort and time, if you’re not a language genius. I needed 7 years of school, starting from 5th grade to 12th grade to be passively bilingual in French. I needed 4 years at university to be almost bilingual in Chinese. And even then, both are still lacking compared to my English.

But then, I was inspired. I stumbled upon many blogs, where Japanese people blog in English so that they could improve their English. The amount of effort, the amount of pain, the amount of time they put in so incredibly admirable. All this make me wonder, if I had put in that much effort into learning French and Chinese, I’d be fully bilingual by now. But I’m only 22; I have a lifetime left to master all these languages. So, I decided to have my very own second-language blog, where I will predominantly blog in Chinese, and occasionally in one of the 6 other languages. I’ll start with one entry per week, and slowly build up from there. I now present to you:


So ありがとうございます Kirin, PONTA, Weber, Little_sun and Natsuwo-beer for being wonderful inspirations. I hope that as you all improve your English as I’ll improve my French, Chinese, and Japanese (once I find myself a teacher) too!

So do you speak a second language? How long have you learned it for? If you don’t, do you want to learn a new language? Which ones? Why?

I’m sorry if this entry is lackluster. Call it writer’s block if you will, I’m just not feeling the passion to write recently.

  • I speak and write Chinese, and have dedicated a decade of my life to memorizing countless idioms and practicing writing thousands of characters. But my girlfriend overtook me in 4 years and can now write a current-affairs commentary in Chinese, while my repertoire involves secondary-school book reviews and my vocabulary is largely limited to describing ancient Chinese legends and stories of great generals and fairies and the like.

    I kind of understand when people are swearing at me in English, Mandarin, Hokkien, Cantonese and Malay. I also know a bit of Korean and French expletives.

    Also, thanks to my travelling buddy in Montreal, I have learned how to read French food court signs. Tres bien!

  • I do not speak another language but my major encourages me to select a language and I MUST be fluent in it when I leave college. I chose French out of the 20+ languages I believe my university offers. I am thinking of taking conversational Spanish lessons because the United States is such a Spanish/English speaking country.

    I feel terrible because I should be fluent in Bassa, which is the language from the area of Liberia my parents are from, but I never learned. My mother speaks it course, but my father lost his ability to speak it the more he became assimilated.

    I personally believe the best way to learn another language is to completely immerse yourself into the language. My university offers a program where you select any language you want to learn and you live with people who ONLY speak that language that way you are forced to learn. I also think I could learn another language the way people learn English. They watch cartoons or play vocabulary games like Scrabble in order to learn the language.

    But I agree with you, it is very important to have a passion to learn. I could know everything there is to know about medicine and what I need to be innovative to find a cure for what is making you ill or I could learn 71 languages–all I need is the passion.

    • I think passion is the think that drive you to learn in the first place

  • Toni

    I’m doing research in language acquisition in young children in this psychology lab and occasionally we get kids who are bilingual (mostly ESL) and a true bilingual kid (sort of like you) and this kid who learned sign language before he could speak..and it’s true, these kids are somewhat delayed in their language..and for some reason this is true of twins as well, which is pretty interesting!

    We learn in psychology that learning or knowing a language relies on a special type of memory called implicit memory and once we are fluent, speaking a language becomes effortless b/c this type of memory is totally implicit and we are not aware of it unlike more conscious memory.

    I find language acquisition quite fascinating! This was a great post! 🙂

  • Woah Ivy you’re truly a multilingual person 🙂 it really takes a lot of effort to learn a language, especially if they are of completely different origins. For example, although Japanese and Chinese may seem radically different from each other, they share a small pool of common words (Chinese characters VS Kanji characters) and so sometimes I can actually infer from food labels written in Japanese. And it makes learning Japanese easier as well.

    I’m typically trilingual (Malay, Chinese and English), but passively multilingual (I understand Hokkien, Hakka, Teochew and Cantonese). If you would let me pick a language I want to learn in the near future, it will be Japanese! Primarily because I think Japan has an extremely rich culture, and in order to appreciate it fully, I’ll have to break the language barrier first. And another good thing is that you can watch Japanese animes without waiting for the release of their English subtitles, heheh 😀

  • Do you have a view on learning and using Esperanto? Take a look at http://www.esperanto.net

  • It’s great to write new diaries in other languages.
    I admire your atitude for these languages.
    Good luck :-))

  • oOo i’m actually relaly glad i came across this blog post. for the past week, i’ve been trying to learn korean.. and i’m doing a lot better than peopel that take classes for it.. i really do think that it’s passion and not talent. although how smart you are can affect it. i speak english and FuZhou language (b/c i know FuZhou, i can easily catch on to Hokkien because they have similar words and tones)..those two are my fluent ones.. i am a bit fluent in Mandarin but not enough to be considered as literate .. I’m learning Spanish in school, and yet i’m not learning too much because we seriously don’t do anything, and i have little interest in speaking spanish.. lol

    i think languages are fun to learn.

  • I can’t learn another language. I’ve tried. And I failed miserably. But this one is awesome. 🙂 I wish I could do it. Really. Then I’d be all “JAPANESE PLZ!!”

  • I’d LOVE to become Fluent in a different language. I wouldn’t mind learning Italian.

  • I think it’s all about practice too. I used to be fluent in Spanish, not I’m limited to conversational. I haven’t had anyone to speak with in a LONG time.

    I would like regain my Spanish, and also learn Mandarin.

  • metwin1

    Ivy, you can write a current-affairs commentary in Chinese? I’m Alamak, I should have given you the copy of Wolf Totem in Chinese instead. So sorry to have underestimated the fluency of your Chinese. 😛

  • Learning a new language definitely takes time and you must have an interest in it. I speak English, Spanish and French. I’ve had a huge passion for French ever since and I speak better French than Spanish. It doesn’t take a genius to learn different languages. It’s a bit time consuming and effort has to be put into it. I speak a bit of Arabic as well but not as good as my other three languages.

  • In my opinion, people have to be exposed to a multi-language environment when they’re very young to be able learn other languages so easily. Science states that the brain shuts that ability off partially after 3 years. If you continue learning beyond that point, however, it stays on.

    I’m fluent in both Korean and English. Interestingly, my Korean writing skill has improved only recently. I’ve never attended school in Korea unti I came here at 13.

  • I definitely agree with you that learning someones language helps to better understand their culture.

    Also I agree that learning languages is possible with passion and effort, rather natural talent. Maybe one thing where some people have more aptitude than others is in accent and pronunciation – in my experience some people can hear and imitate differences in accent more easily than others, a bit like some people can hear musical tone differences more easily than others. What do you think?

    I learnt French and Spanish by taking lessons, but also had the chance to live in France and Spain, which helped a lot. I learned Italian by being around Italian people, and as a result I am more comfortable speaking Italian, but not as accurate as in the other languages. Now I’m learning Turkish and Arabic. They are much more difficult because they don’t have the structural similarities of the European languages. Learning a new script for Arabic takes a lot of extra time as well.

    I can imagine how difficult it is to learn an Asian language…

  • I speak Indonesian and English as my second (at the office). i understand chinese a little bit.

    i also agree that learning languages is possible with passion and effort, rather natural talent. I’ve been 2 years in here but i still can’t understand japanese until now -_-;

    i’m sure your japanese is better than mine, since i always need a subtitled dorama :d

    I wonder how to get the passion to learn the japanese…

  • u suck at arts? *looks around* yeah. sure. you are absolutely right. not! your theme is kicking asses, babe!

    anyway, in my opinion, everyone is good at something. that does not mean that you can’t do that certain thing if you are not good at it but there must be something you are better at. Then again,none can be achieved without interests and passion.

    I’m only bilingual. I speak Malay and English is my secondary language. I don’t know why I don’t have that much interest in learning new languages. I do, but not that much. but that’s just probably because I already have another thing to chase in life. Ivy, being able to speak multiple languages like you is just amazing. I’m proud of you for that. 😉

  • hmm… well, the ease of learning multiple languages could be the result of a different in the way a person thinks/learns? Like those “superhumans” who can do ridiculously complicated math problems in their head. But such people are probably one in a billion. For the rest of us, I do agree that passion plays a huge role in learning languages, especially at our age. (haha, did I make us sound old?)

    I’m doing a second major in linguistics. Have you taken any courses in it? I think you would love it.

  • I disappoint myself whenever I speak in korean. I sound like a child with my limited vocab and my mispronunciations. ugh.

    great idea about your chinese language blog though. I hope it helps you! 🙂

  • I dunno if I agree with you. I had a genuine interest in learning spanish, ever since I was a kid. I took lessons in elementary school and took spanish in middle and hs. I SUCKED at it. I got my worst grades in Spanish. I just couldn’t get it. So I tried Latin. I got the best grades in my class, but only because it was ridiculously easy and I was the only one who tried learning. I still only got a 77 on the national Latin exam though, after weeks of studying.

    I never had as much trouble in any other subject. I have trouble speaking/writing clearly in english too, so I may just have some natural language deficit or something.

    I think interest and passion has a lot to do with it, but I also think that some people have a natural gift for languages.

    that said, I envy you

  • WOW! That is A LOT of languages! But you’re right about how learning new languages just takes time and process.

    LOL about being sucky at art. Same with me, online and offline. =P

    But yes, when I was younger, I was fluent in 3 languages, but now, I’ve lost most of it, and I’m pretty much just fluent in English… =/

    But wow, that’s awesome that you know a lot of languages! =) I only know Vietnamese and Spanish(and English of course). LOL, but I’m not fluent in either of those languages… But that’d be nice if I can pick it up again. I understand both of those languages, I just can’t speak it well.

  • I can speak Spanish alright. I’ve been taking it in school for as long as I can remember. I’m not amazing, but good enough to be moving to the honors Spanish next year.

    I’m not sure if I am really interested in learning a new language.

  • Can I just say that HOLY WOW, I ADMIRE YOU FOR YOUR PASSION. I was always interested in learning French but I guess, based on your entry, I never really had a burning passion to do so, or the…inspiration to. I took up French for 2 semesters and even planned on taking up classes at the Alliance afterwards, but I just lost interest.

    As for being bi-lingual, I guess most Filipinos are. My English is better than my Filipino, though. Meh.

  • Wow… I definitely admire your passion!! I wish this was one of the passions I had when I was little so I can pursue them. They’ve become my passion in the last couple of years. I agree, you do not need to be smart or have a high IQ to learn. It’s if you’re willing, disciplined, and pursue passionately for it. I’ve downloaded phrase books to learn for Spanish, Korean, Japanese, and Cantonese in preparation for my Asian travels in 2009, that’s my goal at least. I think when I’m able to find the time, I will go on my own to the classes and learn.

  • Language does not fall within IQ as I understand it. Language is more about communication than symbol recognition (may be untrue of some _written languages_ of course) but now I remember that you probably know this already.

    /sarcasm 🙂

    And sarcasm is a good example in understanding. The first things I strive to learn are regular phrases (polite), cursing and jokes. This usually takes me over that first “embarrassing hill”. In addition I think there are regulatory “keys” in languages (at least in the same branch) and if you “get them” you more or less automatically understand most of what’s going on.

    Ahh who was it again…. N. Chomsky! has a theory of universal grammar: “From Chomsky’s perspective, the strongest evidence for the existence of Universal Grammar is simply the fact that children successfully acquire their native languages in so little time.” [1]

    Interesting. I’m too pragmatic to learn languages excellently, however. But confidence goes a long way. If I had the time and energy (and money) I’d try to delve deeper into Spanish and French (because now I mix these two) and German for reading original literature.

  • Id

    I know.. five languages (I won’t mention them, but two of them are English and Indonesian.. you know me, so you know what the rest are), and know two conversationally (by ‘conversationally’, I mean to order food, ask where the bathroom is, and the like), and can understand some German and Dutch based on another language that I can speak (speaking it is a whole other matter). Most of these I learned from school in classes or just being around the general student body. My primary languages were obviously from exposure at home.

    I also like how you mentioned passion when it comes to learning languages. I took Mandarin for two months, and unfortunately, the passion wasn’t there. I can still understand some words, and would like to take up formal lessons again in the future.

    Oh and major TRIMS for mentioning this: “To the ignorant South East Asians, Malay and Indonesian are very different languages, despite sharing some similar vocabulary.” Finally, someone spoke out.

    With this: “The grammatical structure between Malay and Indonesia are so different that misunderstandings can occur in a 5 minute conversation between a Malay and an Indonesian.” The misunderstandings can happen within 10 seconds. I’ve seen it happen. Then again, I was the one speaking Indonesian to a Malay cab driver. He said something about “pusing” and I was about to offer him some headache medicine. Enough said. =P

  • Sheesh! I wish I could speak more than 2 languages! I speak my native tongue (english) and french. Even after 5 years of learning french I am not that fluent. Tenses still confuse me sometimes! And I forget the easiest of words whilst speaking it too! Learning languages is not a passion of mine though, so I assume thats why I find it hard. However, I long to be fluent in italian, because I love italy, and would love to own a home in italy at some point in my lifetime. 🙂 So maybe I would be more enthused if I decided to learn Italian and maybe, I would be more inclined to stick to it and become fluent. 🙂

  • I completely agree with you. I believe that learning languages take time and hard work. I’m fluent in English (of course), I took French for 4 years in high school and living in a predominantly Spanish neighborhood, picking up on Spanish was kind of a forced thing. I can understand and converse in Spanish (maybe not fluently) but I’m no into writing it, at all.

  • I happen to be of the camp that sometimes it’s easier for people to learn languages than others, but mostly it’s a state of mind sort of thing. Sort of “If you believe you can, you will” rather than thinking some people are more naturally talented than others.

    I speak moron fluently, and dabble in French and Japanese. I took French for 2 years in high school, and recently lost all my ability to converse in it at all through ceasing of practicing, though I can still read it a little. I’ve been slowly, without ever taking a class, learning Japanese for the past 6 years. Basically, I’ve been practicing daily through constant exposure (set all the language preferences I can to JP and listen to J-pop and whatnot), and I probably couldn’t manage anything past saying hi.

    You know, the way you used to say things as a kid, sounds like a good idea for me to try ‘coz I’m trying to keep hold of English and learn two other languages myself…

    The Chinese characters in your post at language diary make my brain explode.

  • Hahaha, “Apple, Ping Guo, Peng Gor” So cute.

  • My uncle was married to a Finnish girl, and when they argued it was in Finnish (very hard, lots of consonants).
    Funny thing was their kid took up this practice as well, so he scared the shit out of everyone in kindergarten when he got excited:)
    Because his parents were adults he believed (I guess) that Finnish was a language for adults.. I never could say was he was saying but it was amusing to play along and watch the confusion unfold:)

  • Interesting. I have been enjoying learning languages and am glad to see your encouraging post. Keep up the good work and best of luck on your HSK (if you are still working on it).

  • I’m glad I was part of people who inspired you 🙂 In my case, learning a new language always requires a good reason & strong motivation. For English, I just didn’t wanna forget it after long-years of studying in school. I also knew it is useful when I work, so I always try to improve it. As for Spanish, I needed it when I had an Mexican boyfriend, but after we broke up, there’s no need to keep it up, and then I lost it almost completely by now. So I need “something” to start a new one, as my passion towards foreign language is not so much, perhaps…

  • Susan Pham

    I’ve learned English for 8 years; however, my English level is just intermediate. I feel very sad and disappointed at myself. I lost my passion because I also have another thing to chase in my life. Yesterday, I took a speaking test, and failed quickly. My teacher commented that I do badly that day and he paid complement to other students. It seems not serious but let’s imagine that you are majoring in English like me. How do you feel?
    I think you’re right, learning a language don’t require an intelligent brain; it requires passion and effort ( I’m happy to know that :D). I’m very stressed out; but after having read your blog now I feel better and I believe that one day I will be very very good at English, so I can travel around the world and speaking English like my mother tongue hehehe (I can’t wait until that time :))). I will not be confused whenever chatting with foreigners and importantly I can understand another culture.
    Thank you for inspiring me! I hope that you will learn as many as language you can. ^^