Don’t Listen To The Ad: Learning A Language Is NOT Easy

You’ve seen it: advertisements to “Learn conversational French in one day!”, or “We offer the fastest, simplest way to learn Italian!”, and my personal favorite: “Our proven method will have you speaking Japanese in no time!”

These slogans are gimmicks; we all know that. However, the question most people ask is: which ones actually work? The sad truth is, unless you’re willing to buy countless tapes through many different programs (which can end up costing hundreds of dollars), spend hours every day practicing verb conjugation, vocabulary, and speech, none of these are going to work, especially long term.

I once tried a series of tapes called “Learn German in Your Car”, which promised that after a week of lessons I could speak German at least well enough to function while in Germany. Listening to the tapes did little for me; I had to constantly rewind them and listen to passages again because it was too difficult to remember all of the words they were throwing at me. And forget about putting it into any kind of order; instead of organizing it so I could learn different grammatical rules so I could form sentences on my own, I was given full phrases to practice. That was roughly four months ago. Can I remember a single one of those phrases now? No. The only valuable information I learned from those series of tapes was how to count to ten in German. Let’s face it, if I shouted “Acht! Neun! Zehn!” in Hofbrauhaus I’d probably get more than a few strange looks.

I’ve tried many of these programs, one called simply “Learn Polish”. It appealed to me because some of my ancestors were Polish and I thought it would be interesting to be able to speak their language. After three days of virtually no progress besides the phrases “thank you” and “you’re welcome”, I gave up, realizing that I would either have to take a class or be content with the few curses I had picked up from my grandmother over the years.

Probably the “best” (and I use this word lightly) learn a language program that I’ve used was the Standard Deviants “Parla Italiano?”. It offered a DVD instead of simply tapes or a CD. It also included a helpful book as a study guide. Being able to see the words and learn in a more interactive way than listening to the boring drone of an old linguist certainly helped me. “Parla Italiano?” offers better ways to remember words and phrases, and even offers simple verb conjugations. However, the DVD is acted out in sketches that makes one roll one’s eyes and ask: “what were they thinking?” While I was able to remember more from this program than others I’ve tried, I certainly cannot speak Italian. I can remember simple things, like counting to ten, common courtesies, and “ice breaker” conversation pieces, but nothing beyond that.

The truth is, languages are complex and comprised of hundreds of thousands of words, many of which can have different meanings. These programs simply do not hold enough information for anyone to learn a language. You could memorize the entire program and chances are if you were to ask “Where is the bathroom?”, you would get a slurred answer that you wouldn’t be able to understand anyway.

There’s really only one way to learn a language: the hard way. That is, either taking classes or immersing yourself into a culture that speaks whichever language you are attempting to learn. I’ve taken five years of French and although I can speak it well, I am not at a fluent level yet. These programs offer results that take years to master. Do yourself a favor and do not buy into their advertising. Learn a language the old fashioned way, or you won’t be learning one at all.