Learning a language the easy way

The Omidvar brothers on the road: amazing feats of discovery and language learning?

The Omidvar brothers on the road: amazing feats of discovery and language learning?

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.

Author Vahid Parvaresh

Vahid Parvaresh is an assistant professor of English at the Faculty of Foreign Languages of the University of Isfahan, Iran. He holds a PhD in Linguistics from the University of Isfahan and an MA in Applied Linguistics from the University of Tehran. His research interests are in discourse analysis and cross-cultural pragmatics.

More posts by Vahid Parvaresh
  • I get very frustrated by all those people who say you can learn a language quickly and easily. For example I saw a Teach Yourself textbook recently for Japanese. It says on the front cover 45 minutes a day, 6 weeks, you’ll speak Japanese. What exactly does You’ll speak Japanese mean? Probably that you can say a few very basic sentences. But really it takes many years to learn to speak Japanese and then you have to learn to write it. People want their children to learn Chinese. But most children who learn a language at school for example are totally unable to use that language professionally. They might be able to use the language as a tourist to ask where the station is, but they don’t become bilingual.

    You mention the Fluent in 3 months website. Benny recommends to learn Esperanto, an easy language first. That certainly helps learning further languages a bit faster. But I am often asked how long does it take to learn Esperanto? What should I answer? It certainly takes much less time than other languages as you don’t have to learn irregular verbs, hard spelling, etc. And most people do manage to reach fluency in a reasonable amount of time. But it varies a lot between people. Learning to express anything you want takes quite a long time even if the language itself is easy. And when the language is not easy like French, most people will never reach fluency.

    There is a big myth about people becoming bilingual when they start studying a language. Very few will be bilingual.

  • Anna Mirzaiyan

    Generally speaking, we all know that language by itself it not a single entity to be learnt in a short period of time! As a matter of fact, it is a complicated system of ever-changing units of meaning and structures with intriguing principles and also exceptions . All language practitioners and teachers all around the world claim that they just teach some limited aspects of the language they are teaching ,and the learners also feel the insufficiency of formal instructions in a language class.

    When it goes to learning another language in the external context of the classroom and among the speakers of that very language, the force to satisfy the basic needs of the learner may result in imitating and using some fixed structures, away from the so-called obligatory force to learn the language academically. However, I think it would be a brave claim that “one learns a language” with all its complexities in so short a time due to whatever reason such as dire need or youth of the learner. Though these are crucial requirements, I suppose what the person learns this way is not really LANGUAGE!

    As a language learner and teacher, the more I read and teach, the more my linguistic needs are evoked and I feel that I really know nothing of English! BUT, I’d like to volunteer to replicate the brothers’ experience and go somewhere and try learning another language to save the rest of my life and catalyse my langauge learning process! It’s worth trying after all!

  • Thmn

    Good points! I reckon that the brothers did exaggerate about their level of proficiency.
    In a community where you are perceived as a foreigner, the community will also kindly help you to satisfy your need! That should not lead you on to believe that you are bilingual only because you could survive in a foreign country!

  • behzad

    Insightful observations. I think as language educators we must stay away from such exaggerations. Thank you

  • neda

    very nice experience of language learning indeed.. and undoubtedlly a mere exaggeration.. as a teacher so many students and learners come to me asking for the easiest and most effective language learning strategies and interestinglly most of them are looking for the shortest path.. most of them ask me about KHALE NOSRAT..or GHASEDAK , some sort of language learning package, and I just do not know what they are talking about..I mean how is it ever possible to learn a language by means of a CD? actually it’s been a long time I am looking for the best way to convince these guys that learning a language is not that easy .. sure it is not that scary ..but definitely it is not an easy A..maybe language teachers should do something to change the attitudes of this bounch of people , although changing peoples’ attitudes and idea would be more difficult than breaking an atom ….

  • Golnaz

    Thanks for sharing such a nice but complicated issue. The feeling that those brothers have referred to as fluency in language learning is a mere exaggeration. Of course they may have enjoyed the period of fluency in language learning, but as I mentioned that can be categorized as a period only which will be vanished if they again stop the journey. As a personal experience and matter of curiosity, I bought one of those so called great CDs to learn Italian and compare and contrast my experience of learning and teaching English to that of the CD. It was just a good tempting advertisement. No one can deny the importance of English classes and good teachers. The idea of fluency which was referred is subjective in its wording. The level of ability that I call it fluency may not be fluency for the next learner. What does fluency really mean? What does the ability to communicate really mean?

  • Li Jia

    Yes, considering the “need” of survival in financing their trip, we would not find it hard understanding how the two Omidvar brothers could achieve such language feats in a short period of time. In fact, there is also a similar story during the Second World War when a group of American soldiers were exclusively trained to acquire German language in only three months and the requirement on their command of German was exceptionally high as there was not a slight of American accent allowed in order to conceal themselves successfully in German without being sensed. Otherwise, they would be killed immediately by the German Nazi. In this sense, when language learning becomes a matter of life and death, the learning outcome is likely to be outstanding as well (298 out of the 300 American soldiers successfully acquired the German language at the end of the training).
    As an English educator, I completely agree that we have to be very clear about what we truly need in learning a language, and then figure out how to tackle with that kind of “need” in a more pragmatic way.

  • salam

    I am an instructor at payam e noor university. I really enjoyed the topic. I was wondering if I could use this post in my teaching syllabus?

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    • So, please do use this post in your teaching and we’ll be looking forward to your students’ comments!

  • akbar

    I think in this context his claim is not exaggeration. In this context they did not expect much from their proficiency.

  • Interesting read, but I feel like these brother might have been stretching the truth. Sure, they did have a great need to learn Spanish and were constantly being exposed to it, but it would take a much longer time to be entirely fluent in a language. While it is a great dream, to learn a language in two weeks, I’m going to say that they just learned enough to get them what they needed in the country.

  • Great post Vahid.

    It’s amazing that they got to fluency in such a short period of time. I’m learning Korean. I notice a progression, but I think I have to amp things up to get to fluency.

    I think that “need” that they had caused them to study Spanish intensely. People that want fluency need that “need”.

  • Leo

    I agree with Chris: It’s possible to learn a foreign language in a couple of week only in a survival way, and obviously the better the more you are hardly pressed by circumstances. Learn a language is another story, and it requires a lot more time and practice, and sometimes is a never-ending effort, as happens for chinese, by the way, where a slight error in the pronounciation of a wovel changes the meaning of a whole sentence.