There are many ways to learn a language. Learning through textbooks and classes is certainly the MOST popular way in the current day, but it is also by far the least effective, even if you’re a hardcore student.
Let’s deduce this reasoning with simple empirical logic:
You take say three classes a week, two hours each = 6 hours a week of instruction, maybe 2-3 more self study. And of course, you aren’t learning every second of those 6 hours. The instruction might mostly be done in English, with a lot of grammar and reviewing involved (classes progress as fast as the slowest student after all).
A child, by the age of two, has received 10,000 hours of passive instruction. And whatever the age is for a child to start speaking a language, well, is enough for fluent conversation in daily life. I doubt many students who take a language in University are able to converse fluently in it, even the ones who have it as their major.
Simple, the child is immersed in that language. This child does not even need to know what a noun, a verb, an adjective is, nor does not need referencing to a mother tongue, because he/she has NONE to begin with. All the learning is made by inferencing, imitation, and whatever else goes on in the brain when learning.
Of course now, you may think that you’re too old to learn a language, or babies learn faster. Wrong. With the help of a mother tongue, and advanced understanding of things in general, it should be even faster to learn a language.
Yet, most people don’t immerse in it. This has been discussed in an earlier post about learning Japanese. But it doesn’t only apply to Japanese, but all other languages as well.
Both go through the process of learning Japanese very well, with AJATT being very long-winded (in a good way :P) and detailed
Some additional techniques used by Timothy Ferriss, who claims its easy to become semi-fluent, just by applying simple basics: http://www.fourhourworkweek.com/blog/category/language/
Learning a language only takes many years because of things such as television, music, daily conversation, internal dialogue, school, work, etc. being presented in your own preferred language. By breaking out of this comfort zone, and changing it all to the language you want to learn, it is not by any means hard to learn this new language. Babies all do it. You did it once when you were young as well.
Now of course, it isn’t really all that easy. Everyone has obligations, daily duties and responsbilities, stuff to do in general. But you can tweak a lot of your time to be in the language of your choice.
Let X be the language you want to learn.
TV in language X. Music in language X. Internal dialogue in language X. Read books in language X. Make friends that speak langauge X. Take notes at school in language X. Change your computer language to X. Only go to sites of language X. You name it.
Oh yeah, textbooks aren’t recommended. To start things off and give the general gist of some basic dialogue MIGHT help here and there, but please avoid it, and just immerse. That’s not how people speak it in daily life, everything gets cut short and things get left out. Did you learn English by listening to your parents progressively use difficult and harder sentences or words? Hardly, you listened to pretty much informal conversation everyday.
And to finish things off, why learn a language? It is greatly satisfying to be able to communicate with an additional millions of people (billion if you’re speaking Mandarin for example). It gives you a much more respect academically (if you say you learned it for fun) and also might open up opportunities that you eitherwise wouldn’t have obtained with just English.
As for me, Cantonese was my first langugage – considered a very hard language by many, definitely more difficult than Mandarin, due to a bit more intonations and tone variations in words.
Spoken: 9/10 (I am unfamiliar with more intricate slang, since I only spent 6 years in Hong Kong)
Written: 7/10 (Only received several hours of Chinese instruction per week)
English being the second, but only took 1.5 years to master, because of the immersion factor. Elementary school was completely in English, and all I could really do was try to listen to it, as I didn’t have any Chinese friends in grade 1. This also would indirectly explain why many Asian students who come to English-speaking countries more or less never obtain a fluent control of the language.
Written: 9/10 (My essays aren’t that great)
Listening: 10/10 (Not including trying to listen to people of other nationalities speaking the language, which is hard to understand)
Mandarin was a passively learned language. I am by no means fluent, but since Cantonese and Mandarin are pretty much the same except for pronounciation, I can more or less half-ass it and get by daily life with no problems. Just don’t put me in a fast-paced debate conversation and I’ll be fine.
Spoken: 6/10 (I use a lot of wrong words – I’m understood but it is quite awkward)
Written: 7/10 (Same as Cantonese – it’s all the same Chinese)
Listening: 6/10 (I have to apply a lot of mental energy to figure out the conversation)
And finally, I’m in the process of learning Japanese. I only discovered this immersion method lately, and wish I applied it earlier. Screw reading textbooks and memorizing grammar structures, just let yourself listen to it everyday. You will pick up words here and there. Oh yeah, no subtitles. If you must, Japanese subtitles (Japanese uses Chinese characters as well, so I can deduce what they are saying if I see its written form).
Spoken: 1/10 (I’ve never spoken Japanese to anyone)
Written: 3-4/10 (I can write most Chinese characters and also the Japanese alphabet, but as I hardly know how to pronounce what I’m writing, I can’t say I know how to communicate in written form)
Listening: 0.5/10 (I can barely understand anything unless it’s spoken very very slowly, a handicap which does not exist in any context other than audio instruction, although I do know more than a few hundred vocabulary at the moment)