People don’t speak languages, communities do

Entering the community means unexpected conversations
Entering the community means unexpected conversations

I have often heard, “Talking to people is one of the best ways to learn a language.”

The truth is, talking to people is the only way.

People use all sorts of means to learn languages. Recommendations vary from listen to music or watch movies, to study books, memorize vocabulary, and post on social media. Modern technology changed the method of delivery of language data, but not the content.

Nevertheless, every method is preparing you to talk. As a baby, everyone learned how to speak their native language. Reading and writing came way later. Polyglots are judged on how they speak, not how much grammar or vocabulary they mastered.

How do you learn how to speak? You can’t learn how to speak by yourself, or even with one other person. You find a group of native speakers and you talk to them. You need a community.

When I learn community languages, I aim to speak to the people in my town who speak them. Setting speaking in a community as the goal of your language-learning will determine your success.

Becoming a polyglot without travelling

Many people say, “You can’t really learn a language without going to the country.” This rings only partially true. The truth is, you simply can’t learn a language without entering its community. In the home country of the language, you will have an easier time finding a language-speaking community and spending a larger proportion of your time there.

How many people have you met who lived in another country and never learned the language? This happens because one does not enter into the language community. These expats and immigrants may spend time with individual speakers of that language, but they do not enter into the community of speakers.

How many people have you met who speak a language decently and never went to the country? There are a few. I knew a person from South Texas who learned Spanish fluently and became an interpreter and even changed his name to reflect a Spanish spelling, yet most of his education came from South Texas. He just decided to live inside the Spanish-speaking community there.

I’m approaching learning Somali the same way. I find ways to spend time where the Somali-speaking community gathers. I’m fortunate that Somalis like to socialize in public places.

Individuals learn differently how to talk

Some people are introverts, so speaking to people takes effort. Others draw energy from talking with others. Both, though, express themselves through language. Talking lies at the basis of linguistic competence. If you want to learn a language, speaking must drive it.

Different people will approach speaking differently, just as children do. My children started speaking at a very early age, even before their first birthday. Other babies sart talking at age two. Some multilingual babies may start even after that.

Among famous polyglots, Benny Lewis advocates speaking from day one. Steve Kaufman prefers to study on his own for months before starting to speak. Whichever approach, they aim to speak.

The same goes for language classes. If students are ultimately graded on grammar or even reading comprehension, they will not learn the language. Only once they speak will they begin to own the language.

Speaking with a single person will not make you fluent in your language; you will not learn your language unless you find a community to speak in. Tutors help, but only up to a point. They are not a community. For children, if they only speak to their parents, they will likely lose their language or remain with only passive comprehension in it. They will favor the language they speak with their peers and strangers—their community.

Speaking Dead Languages

I appreciate that some want to learn languages only for the sake of reading them. My PhD is in Ancient Hebrew, so I am familiar with the process and the goal of so-called dead languages. I’m also familiar with the common resonse by folks who hear you’re learning a dead language: “Are there a lot of Ancient Hebrews (or fill in your ancient civilization here) you can talk with?”

Speaking is still the key to the language “sinking in.”

During the Englightenment, well-to-do parents were teaching their children Latin. So while this may not reach the level of a community language (and the language did not perpetuate itself as a spoken language), it functioned like a second language does for immigrant children today.

In contrast Hebrew was not spoken at all among educated Jews until the 19th century, yet the language perpetuated itself in multiple, disconnected Jewish communities for centuries until the present day. In this case, the language was not spoken, but community existed around the discussion of texts. Even among non-speakers of Hebrew, religious Jews vigorously and loudly debated texts on a regular, if not daily, basis. Thus Hebrew as a read language perpetuated itself in community.

Currently, movements have started to teach, for example, Latin and Biblical Hebrew as spoken languages. One can find classes in spoken Latin and Greek, as well as spoken Biblical Hebrew, that emphasize composing and pronouncing sentences in conversation. Anecdotally, one of my Bibilical Hebrew professors said that learning Modern Hebrew to a fluent level by spending several years studying and teaching in Israel, made reading the Biblical version easier.

The brain just prefers speaking, and it needs a community to speak in.

Languages die as communities change

How do languages die? Once the community moves away from the language as the primary form of spoken communication, the language no longer receives nutrients and withers. Among Native American communities, for example, a language class for the children will keep people speaking, but they must teach the next generation to speak with each other in the language. Otherwise, the language will grow like a hydroponic tomato: able to grow, but separated from the soil, unable to breed the next generation. The same phenomenon occurs among immigrant communities.

The community keeps the language alive, not a group of individuals. They must speak with each other for the language to function.

Speaking as goal and motivator

Speaking personally, my best language moments did not come at the bottom of a pile of flash cards, but during conversations. I treasure the people I’ve met and gotten to know.

As I continue to learn Somali, I look forward to meeting more and more people to a deeper extent. I hope to help perpetuate this language in our culture and our community.

These moments keep me going. They help me get through the textbook exercises and the vocab lists.

I hope you find some great people to talk to and you all have a great time!

How does speaking fit in with your language-learning regimen?

Photo credit: kattebelletje via / CC BY-NC

11 thoughts on “People don’t speak languages, communities do

  1. hollyhejlik

    This is a great read! I’m currently in S. America trying to learn Spanish, but it’s difficult when so many of the travelers I am around speak English. I’m having troubles getting past my “introverted” side, but I’ll get there. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That is a difficult position to be in, introverted surrounded by English-speakers. I’ve worked with students who were traveling to Spain to learn Spanish, and the large Spanish-language schools are, naturally, filled with non-native Spanish speakers. Hence, all your friends will speak Spanish close to how well you speak it.

      What activities have you enjoyed where you are surrounded by native Spanish-speakers? Have you ever thought of volunteering or making reasons for having to spend large parts of your day around people who do not speak English? I used to spend time chatting with shopkeepers, if nothing else.

      If you’re interested, I could help you think of ways to get past the “inverted” side and past the travelers who speak to you in English.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. hollyhejlik

        That would be really great actually! I am volunteering at a farm run by Spanish speaking people but the other travelers who are here speak English and we spend the most time working together. At meal times a lot of Spanish is spoken but I have a hard time jumping in.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Rachel

    Interesting. I’ve always found it easier to learn languages by speaking, listening, conversing, et c. I really struggled last year with Biblical Hebrew and Koine Greek and Bible College, because it’s all “learn these words” and “memorise this grammar paradigm” and I just couldn’t get it to stick. I keep telling people “I spent a year studying Biblical Hebrew and I learnt the alphabet and a few words. I spent two weeks in Israel and learnt several phrases, a whole collection of words, and two songs.” Sure, I’ve got words in my head about the grammar, but I can’t really remember how the conjugation works or which conjugation relates to which meaning (although I’m sure it would come back if I checked in the textbook).

    I’ve enrolled in a modern Hebrew course in the evenings for this year. I don’t know that it can count for my diploma, but I’ve a feeling I’ll learn a lot LOT more. Also I’m not convinced modern Hebrew and Biblical Hebrew are quite as different as people say. I suspect if I manage to learn modern Hebrew reasonably well (I’m quite keen on going back to Israel as a student one day) I’ll be able to read the Bible just as well as a student of Biblical Hebrew. Maybe I’ll have worse grammar and better vocab, but, you know, at least I’ll be able to talk to people.

    Liked by 1 person

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  4. Ah, one of the BEST things I’ve read anywhere- “The truth is, you simply can’t learn a language without entering its community.” Yes, yes, YES! And so much of learning a language is also understanding cultural references and habits. Things like: why are people laughing at that joke? do I take my shoes off? what are the big holidays? what’s the school system like? who was the last president? Those are the kinds of things you can only learn from being a community member, not from a book or class.

    Plus, like when you said your favorite moments come from conversations, those kinds of interactions motivate us more than anything else. That special chance to connect with another person who otherwise would be inaccessible- now that’s pretty cool 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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