In his most recent round of interviews with the magazine Særzæmin-e Mæn (“My Country”), Issa Omidvar, one of the two adventurous Iranian brothers who undertook a 10-year motorbike journey across the world (1954-1964), shares details of how he and his brother learned English and Spanish, the two languages they needed most for their long journey. Before they left Iran in 1954 they barely knew any foreign languages, so they took some English courses and managed to learn the language in less than three months.
After they set foot on Mexican soil, they learned Spanish, a language they did not know even a single word of. Issa Omidvar claims that, in two weeks, they were both fluent in Spanish and had no difficulty communicating with Mexicans, who went out of their way to welcome them to their country. He goes on to relate that after a month, they were even able to deliver lectures in Spanish for their enthusiastic hosts:
روزی که قدم به مکزیک گذاشتیم زبانشان را نمی دانستیم. اما در عرض پانزده روز توانستیم به زبانشان صحبت کنیم. ما حتی بعد از یک ماه توانستیم به اسپانیایی کنفرانس بدهیم.[The day we set foot on Mexican soil we didn’t know their language. But within 15 days we could speak their language. We were even able to hold talks in Spanish after a month.]
Issa Omidvar does not share any details about their language learning methods and his account of the brothers’ language learning feats is certainly impressive. But is it really true?
We know for a fact that most language learners take much more than ‘two weeks’ to achieve even a modest level of conversational fluency. Yet, we should not dismiss Issa’s account as an exaggeration. Therefore, we need to ask ourselves as language educators faced with students who usually take years to achieve substantial proficiency, what can we learn from the Omidvar brothers’ account?
The situation described by Issa Omidvar seems to include crucial components of successful language learning: they were young and talented and they had a communicative need:
چون هم جوان و مستعد بودیم و هم واقعا احتیاج داشتیم.[The reason is that we were both young and talented and we were really in need of the language.]
Reading carefully between the lines, one would be able to establish how imperative their ‘need’ must have been. They made documentaries on the road and held impromptu screenings in universities, halls and arts centers. They needed to know the language of the locals in order to charge an entrance fee and thus finance the next leg of their trip!
Examples of the kind of language learning described by Issa Omidvar can easily be found today. The Fluentin3Months website, for example, whose “language hacking tips” are provided by an alleged polyglot, promotes a more or less similar language learning experience. The first and foremost question that readers have when they arrive on the website is how is it really possible to achieve fluency in three months (or actually much less)? The website features interviews with people who claim to have reached conversational fluency in a language in three months or less, “thanks to a combination of passion for the language, full time immersion, and a general good knack for learning it.”
What this ‘knack’ entails is not usually revealed unless you buy one of their language learning packages. At the same time, one must not lose sight of the fact that this type of language learning, however effective it is claimed to be, is not for those who want to get an A in their language class, nor is it for those who want to learn a language to take an academic test, to write perfectly, to pass a class, or to use grammar appropriately.
If you need a language to use it in academic or professional contexts at any level of complexity, it seems unlikely that there is a way around learning a language the hard way.