A funny and perceptive piece by Robert Skidelsky (or “Lord Skidelsky,” in the quaint terminology of the British Isles) about his eight-year struggle, under varying conditions, to learn Russian, starting at the age of 56.
Short periods of immersion are no good, continual reinforcement is needed. The late 1990s were linguistically disastrous. I was finishing the third volume of my biography of Keynes, being an opposition front bench spokesman in the Lords and trying to salvage the Social Market Foundation from bankruptcy. By 2001 I was free of all these commitments and the road to Russian was open again.
It started that spring with my renting a flat in Moscow for two months. My new teacher Masha, inherited from Edward, spoke no English and so I was forced to speak Russian with her. It was my first big breakthrough. But it was hard work, and I spent much of my time in despair.
In retrospect I realise that my method was not really efficient. I should have lived with a Russian family, and let more of the language sink in by osmosis, but I was too jealous of my privacy…
(Via Ultima Thule.)
Update. There is a fascinating discussion going on in the comments about how people learn languages; I commend it to the attention of anyone interested in the subject. A particularly thought-provoking paragraph from joe tomei:
The research question of applied lingustics is fundamentally ‘why do we have different learner outcomes from what appears to be the same learning circumstances?’ How that question is phrased can twist the answer, so if I ask the question as ‘why does virtually everyone learn a first language, but not a second?’, you are in generative grammar territory, postulating a Language Acquistion Device in someone’s head. However, if you ask the question as ‘Why can’t everyone be like the guy you mentioned, ‘picking up’ languages?’ you are where I call home, which is functional linguistics. If we view language learning as something that almost everyone can do, so long as they are in an environment where it is valued, then we see that the fluency that Krashen argues for is partly due to the anonymity that he creates by presenting the judges with a tape recording. I am certain that if the listeners were told that this was a test to join Mossad and they needed to determine whether the speaker [a 29-year-old immigrant from Mexico who works in an Israeli restaurant in Los Angeles and speaks fluent Hebrew] was an agent who was trying to pass as a Hebrew speaker, their judgement might be quite different.