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.