Respect gods before demi-gods, heroes
Before men, and first among men your parents,
But respect yourself most of all.
-Pythagoras, 6th century BC
As I see it, everyone is a potential linguist. By that, I mean that everyone can be fluent in another language. You do not have to be an intellectual or an academic. After all, a linguist is defined by the Concise Oxford Dictionary in very simple terms:
Linguist: n. Person skilled in foreign languages.
Even speaking one foreign language qualifies a person as a linguist. To become a linguist is a matter of choice, and requires a certain state of mind. A linguist enjoys foreign languages and appreciates the different ways that ideas are organized and expressed in different cultures. A linguist is at ease with people of another language and confident when learning new languages.
The first step towards becoming a linguist, towards learning a second language, is to realize that success depends not on the teacher but on the learner. Each learner must discover the language gradually in his or her own way. The teacher can only stimulate and inspire. Enrolling in a language school or taking a course will not ensure fluency. If the learner does not accept this simple fact, time and money spent on language programs will be wasted. Language schools and language learning systems may teach, but only the learner can learn.
Growing up in the English-speaking area of Montreal, a predominantly French-speaking city, I remember that until the age of seventeen, I only spoke English. I was not interested in learning another language, although I had been taught French at school from the second grade and was surrounded by the French language. Yet today I can speak nine languages and have derived immense satisfaction and reward from being able to speak Mandarin Chinese, French, Japanese, Spanish, German, Swedish, Cantonese and Italian.
In order to try to understand why this happened, I
began writing down the history of my own language learning. I realized that it was only when I had a genuine desire to communicate or learn something meaningful in a new language that I was able to learn. When the subject of study was based on the details of the language itself, I resisted. When teachers tried to impose abstract principles of grammar and then test me on them, I remained passive. But once I decided that I needed the language to connect with real people or a new culture, I would throw myself into the study of the language with passion and commitment. And I needed passion, because for me language learning was very hard work.
It was while learning Cantonese at the age of fifty-five that I became aware that language learning had become easier. Modern electronic technology and the Internet have revolutionized language study. First of all, the Internet provides a vast range of interesting and authentic second language content for learners to choose from, in both audio and electronic text formats. Second, content in electronic format allows the reader to access instant dictionary software and link to new context based learning systems. Finally, the Internet can serve as the hub for a community of learners and native speakers.
As I wrote my own story, I decided that I should try to develop a new approach to language learning based on the principles that worked for me, but taking advantage of modern technology to ensure that a new generation of language learners can learn more easily than I did.