In his Education Week lecture titled “Becoming Bilingual: Language-Learning Tips, Tricks, & Motivation for All Ages,” Dr. Rob Martinsen taught listeners the “why” and “how” of language learning.
PROVO, Utah (August 19, 2019)—In a way, Dr. Rob Martinsen’s Education Week lecture provided a treatment for the all-too-frequent plague of monolingualism—“don’t worry, it can be cured,” he quipped. A professor in the Spanish and Portuguese department, his presentation leaned toward helping his audience understand the “why” and “how” of learning foreign languages.
Before explaining the “how” of language-learning, Martinsen dug into the “why.” He cited several reasons for wanting to develop the ability to speak other languages, the foremost being God’s command and approbation for doing so (citing Doctrine & Covenants 90:15). He later referenced other benefits—improving cognitive abilities, staving off diseases like Alzheimer’s, and refining problem-solving ability and memory.
Among the most important reasons for language learning is the way it increases our ability to serve. In illustrating this point, Martinsen shared the experience of President Russell M. Nelson who, when President Spencer W. Kimball suggested that Church leaders “should be of service to the Chinese [and] should learn their language,” hired a tutor and began to study Mandarin. This led to a myriad of relationships and experiences that have greatly benefited the Church, President Nelson, and countless Chinese individuals. “It’s a beautiful story of being obedient, and also of the value of language learning,” said Martinsen. “So again, this is something good, and I hope you continue to pursue it.”
Martinsen outlined a process for his audience to help them best learn a language. Instead of directing them to a specific program or course, he gave several ideas of how to effectively acquire—and maintain—foreign-language abilities.
The first step, he said, is to set specific, but reasonable, goals. Next, one should choose techniques or strategies to follow (perhaps a specific course). Then, with the goals in mind, one creates a schedule, choosing how and when to study and practice (daily, if possible). Lastly, one must be consistent to that plan.
“Learning languages is as hard as learning to play the piano,” he explained. “It’s as hard as becoming a great chess player. It’s as hard as all those other things. Don’t expect to make as much progress without dedicating similar amounts of time and energy.”
Martinsen gave a list of ideas on effective ways to practice and learn a language, ranging from taking a formal class or using a software program to studying flashcards and reading foreign children’s books. In the end, though, he admitted that—like exercising or weight loss or anything else—there is no one “best way” to learn a language; rather, finding a routine that one will follow unfailingly is best.
“The best way is the way that you will do consistently over time,” he speculated. “A mediocre method that you will do consistently is much, much better than the perfect method you don’t do very often. A ‘so-so’ method beats a perfect method that you don’t do.”
Though the method itself is less important than consistency, some specific practices are more effective than others, Martinsen taught. Take, for example, studying grammar versus speaking and listening to a language. Granted, both are important, and as Martinsen suggested doing both, he also invited his audience to find a ratio that gives precedence to time spent using and comprehending the language. The priorities, then, should be listening and reading.
“No one says, ‘I’d really like to learn Italian because I want to know the present tense so bad,’” joked Martinsen. “The time that we spend using and comprehending language, in the thick of it, trying to decipher what’s going on, should outweigh studying grammar.”
—Samuel Benson (Sociology, ’23)