Despite mixed success in language study, I still find foreign languages fascinating and exotic. This post shares my personal experiences in language study, how I began and how I came to better understand language difficulty and attrition over time.

Why study another language?

In Australia, serious study of a second language is not that common: only 10% of students study another language in high school. My mother migrated from Sweden, and could claim to have spoken six or seven languages fluently throughout her life. My father spoke some French, had unsuccessfully tried to learn Mandarin Chinese, and was following a controversial and ongoing discussion: is Australia an Asian country? All this put a natural wonder for foreign cultures into me. I heard Swedish in the home and naturally studied French and Mandarin Chinese at school.

Globally, many people learn languages for practical or economic reasons. There are also cognitive benefits to second languages: trying to make yourself understood with only the words you know teaches you workaround strategies that help in other situations; learning the boundaries of foreign words equally teaches you about boundaries of your native words. But at heart, I feel that languages should be enjoyed, savoured for their exotic sounds and the foreign cultures they open up.

Relative difficulty

Upon finishing high school, I had studied 10 years of Mandarin Chinese and 6 years of French. Strangely though, despite studying Chinese for longer (even winning the school prize), I found I could express myself far better in French. Travel to China and France had only made the difference more stark. How could my skills be so unequal?

The Foreign Services Institute of the US Department of State estimates a native English speaker can reach conversational French or Spanish in some 600 hours of study, thanks to similarity with English. Chinese, Japanese and Arabic on the other hand take 2200 hours. This makes them nearly four times harder, twice as hard as exotic languages like Zulu and Xhosa (1100 hours).

The differences are due to what's called transfer or interference. There's a lot of information to pick up in a language, and as learners we have to constantly make guesses. If the language you're learning is close to your native tongue, these natural guesses will be right slightly more often, and you'll easily notice foreign words which are rough equivalents for native ones. If the language is distant, you'll guess wrong, often, and you may even have to fight your natural instincts for how things should work.


I've studied several martial arts, and noticed that if you stop training, you begin to noticeably lose skill. When you stop studying a language, and have no authentic situations to use it in, it similarly declines in a process called attrition. I didn't find space in my university studies to continue with French or Chinese, and plans to move overseas and use immersion as a short-cut fell through. As months then years passed, I began to forget words, or how to string them together correctly to get my meaning across.

Our memory has great capacity, but not all of it is available at a moment's notice. Sometimes when we're trying to remember a word, we only get part of it. That's the tip of the tongue experience, where you feel so close to remembering the word, but all you can be sure of is what letter it starts with. You might equally struggle to remember a word without success, only to have it suddenly come to mind an hour later, or even the next day.

To keep our knowledge active and fresh, available on demand, it has to be used and thus maintained. Until this discovery, I had imagined becoming fluent in many languages. But now I would need constant exposure and practice with each of those languages, meaning really a job and a lifestyle revolving around that proficiency. The whole prospect seemed unrealistic. If I wasn't going to become totally fluent in the languages I studied, was I a failure as a learner?

Success in language study

The way I initially thought of language study, anything short of fluency was a failure, and -- given the investment of time -- a great waste. For a long time this was basically the assumption carried by the linguistic community too, and the reasons why people did not reach fluency were carefully studied as issues of identity, motivation or other difficulties.

Nowadays we know that extra languages bring benefits, but come at a trade off. Bilingual or trilingual speakers have lower vocabularies in their best language than monolingual speakers do, and sometimes can make systematic mistakes caused by transfer between their languages. This challenges our notions of language success. Are all bilingual speakers "failures" for not knowing as many words as speakers of just one language? Certainly not. We now see these speakers, and language learners of various levels, as successful "multi-competent" speakers who find the balance of abilities which best suit their needs and identities.

It should be clear that this measure of success is both more forgiving, but also more realistic. If you happen to learn only a little Spanish for your holiday, but that's enough for you, then success! You've learned enough to meet your needs. Combining this idea with attrition, we can see that people will achieve different levels of proficiency with languages throughout their lives, and this too is nothing to be ashamed of.

In summary

To recap, what lessons can be pulled from these experiences?

Not all languages are equal. If you're choosing a language to study, knowing consider the relative difficulty of languages as a guide. If you know how much to reasonably expect from yourself in the time you have to spend, you can avoid disappointment.

Languages are for a purpose or period in your life. Given that languages need maintenance, you're probably only going to keep the language going for a period in your life, and that's fine. That is, unless you move to a country or place where that language is spoken. In that case, bon voyage!

Languages are fascinating and fun. This post has talked about difficulties in learning, but I can't explain how fun language study can be, or how satisfying it can be to get your meaning across even with only beginner skills. Don't be dissuaded, if you're thinking of trying a language, jump in!

Further reading