I am often asked the impossibly vague questions of “How long will it take me to learn a language?” In order to answer the question accurately, a host of criteria need to be considered, including starting language, target language, previous language experience, level of ability required, etc. One of the aspects that needs to be considered in answering this question, however, is the distinction between acquiring skills and acquiring knowledge.
A person’s starting level of education is key to determining the length of time it will take to learn a new language. Regardless of the subject they studied, highly educated people have — consciously or unconsciously — acquired a number of skills that will aid them in the language-learning process. From studying methods, to time management, to sheer discipline, all education helps us in any further tasks we have to learn. I have heard education described as “what we’re left with when we’ve forgot everything we learned at school.” There is a certain truth to that.
There are a number of “skills” specifically useful for language-learning, some of which are included in other forms of education and some of which are not. Discipline, analytical thought, and self-reflection are all necessary components of successful language-learning. Other skills, however, are less frequently a part of the learner’s repertoire already at the beginning of the process.
Understanding languages as systems, linguistic pattern recognition, memory techniques — and their application to language-learning — as well as certain skills of vocal flexibility are all skills largely peculiar to language-learning. Recognizing these as trainable skills before beginning or continuing the learning process can be game changing.
Acquiring new skills can feel like a distraction from the ultimate objective of learning your new language. If you have ever done any form of manual labor, however, you will probably understand the following analogy. Say you’re building something and you need to put in several screws. You left your drill in your truck and you only have a screwdriver to hand. It would be far more efficient to spend 5 minutes walking back to your truck and getting your drill than to try to hand-tighten a hundred screws with a screwdriver. Likewise, it’s worth taking some time — a few weeks even — to acquire specific skills that will ultimately make your language-learning go faster and smoother.
Once acquired, skills stay with you and gradually deepen with practice to become instinctive. The greater your level in learning skills, the faster you will be able to acquire the knowledge necessary to speak a new language. The beautiful thing about skills, as well, is that they can be applied to other tasks and subjects.