Being Bilingual: The Flow of Language

Some people just seem to have trouble learning a second language.

I’m not saying it isn’t difficult if you’re not wired up for languages as some people are – you cannot deny that people have different talents. But, not to get all Word Nerd on you, but difficult is not the same thing as impossible. I firmly believe that anyone can learn a new language. All it takes is the right situation.

Ebb and Flow

Consider, for example, what happens to people who do have several languages under their belts: Quite simply, there is an ebb and flow to their dominant language, depending on how often they use them.

A friend of mine is a native French speaker – he lived in France from birth until his early teens. Then he came to Australia for school and quickly learned English so well you would actually never guess he was French! And during this time, his French actually declined. A language he was born into became less and less fluent. He couldn’t explain it. He would call home and find himself struggling for the words he needed, and sometime had to ask his family to slow down!

Then, he moved back to France and almost immediately began to regain his French mastery. But, naturally, his English then ebbed away. It was disturbing and fascinating. I doubt he’ll ever actually lose his languages, but language is like a muscle in some ways: You must use it or you will lose it.

Practice Makes Perfect

So, when people say they cannot learn a language I think it has more to do with having the crutch of being immersed in your native language. This is like working out on a treadmill every day wearing roller skates and wondering why you’re not getting into better shape.

To learn a language, you must immerse yourself in it and force your brain to adapt or drown – you will adapt. It always works. The harder you make it on yourself, the more quickly you will learn. If you move to, say, Paris and force yourself to speak only French, your mastery of that language will proceed at an amazing pace, I guarantee you. The curious – and unfortunate – thing is that after mastering French, if you move back to Australia, you will just as quickly lose your mastery.

That is why practice must become a way of life. If you do not use your languages on a regular basis, they wither away. This is always life’s biggest tragedy – sic transit gloria!