Learning English appears to be a daunting task for many of us who take it up as a second or third language. The pronunciation seems a mess, tenses and grammatical structures look, for the most part, alien, and the large variety of colloquialisms and slangs are equally intimidating for the novice. I, for one, come from Hungary where we tend to struggle a great deal with learning English, because the local language, Hungarian, is markedly different from the English language. Hungarian belongs to the Uralic language family that is not part of the much larger Indo-European family to which most of the languages of Europe, including English, belong. In other words, the two languages are, by and large, strangers to each other. Naturally, a millennium of sharing the same continent with peoples that speak an assortment of other Indo-European languages, such as Russian, German, French or Spanish, has assisted the Hungarian language and its speakers, the Hungarians, to familiarize themselves with English as well. Nevertheless, it is not much easier for us to learn English properly than it is for a Japanese or a Korean student whose native tongues surprisingly show more affinities with the Hungarian language than with the English (or Russian, or German, or French, or Spanish).
Even though you may feel at times that learning English is an impossible challenge, I assure you: it is not. Of course, one can learn a language on rather different levels. From the level of being able to read a new alphabet or to conduct basic conversation to the level of composing gripping poetry or giving an eloquent speech on the target language, there are endless shades of language mastery. But the main thing is this: one must first learn to appreciate and savor the step by step progress by which new vistas appear on one’s linguistic horizon. We cannot master a new language overnight, it takes time and dedication. We cannot master a new language by everlasting rote learning, either: it is dull and ultimately pointless. The same is true for the exclusive listening of songs and watching of TV shows and dramas. Neither gives a language learner a true sense of how the language operates in its actuality, how one should or could go beyond the mere platitudes and formulaic expressions that language learning books offer to us. The only reliable way to appropriate and own a new language is to speak it with those who are already proficient in it. No matter how many mistakes one makes, no matter how many times one makes the same mistakes, saying the words out loud by putting them in a grammatically acceptable order is what constitutes actual language usage. One could argue that typing sentences using a language on a screen without ever uttering a word in a social situation already qualifies as real language usage. However, the repeated act of utterance is the method that solidifies the new linguistic patterns to the greatest degree; besides, it also necessitates a live audience – an interlocutor – with whom one must engage into a conversation from which invaluable feedback can be gained.
A new language is like a new continent one sets out to explore. Our mother tongue has its own identity; so does English. How do we approach this new continent that has a different identity than our homeland? We ought to approach it with genuine interest, ample enthusiasm, and, if possible, as much excitement concerning the adventure that lies before us as possible. Language learning does not need to be boring. Whenever there is clear motivation, enough excitement is generated that helps us pull through the harder parts. On the other hand, language learning is not easy and is not supposed to be easy: if it were, it wouldn’t really be learning, would it? Whatever is worth acquiring needs time and effort that we put into the endeavor of its acquisition. We must therefore learn to use our time and efforts well. An empty studying hour will be empty unless we fill it up with meaningful and fun ways of activities that train us in some new aspects of a language. Five minutes of pleasurable exercising of our minds is worth more than fifty minutes of rote learning whereby our minds just keep wandering off. In short, one must find ways that keeps one’s mind actively engaged: don’t just read it in your head; read it out loud, and ask others to correct you when in doubt. Talk and write about things that interest you as fluently as possible. Do not mind the mistakes too much; they will take care of themselves. Sooner or later you will learn the right word, the right pronunciation, the right phrase. Read and listen to topics that genuinely move you or those that motivate you to know more about them. Give yourself credit that with regular study you will improve way beyond the level that you can possibly imagine right now. Because you can: all of us can. When I was fourteen, my English competence was limited to reading simple stories and conversing on an elementary level. When I was nineteen, I could read and talk on a more advanced level, thanks to my strong interest in foreign cultures and literatures. Not much later I began writing articles in English, and by the time I began my doctoral studies at the age twenty-four, I was able to start lecturing in English. I am in no way special or smarter than you are: the only reason I could progress well was that I enjoyed learning about foreign cultures and talking to foreigners even with my broken English, because I wanted to know who they were and how were they different from me. Owing to this attitude, I have learned as much about them as I have about myself and the world we live in.