Why Learning a Language Is Easier Than I Expected

I used to think that it was necessary to learn a language completely if you wanted to speak it competently. I thought it was necessary to memorize every word, become familiar with every idiom, and study every rule of grammar, until thoughts leapt from your brain to your tongue without a second thought.

However, I’ve been learning recently how mistaken I was. I spent some time thinking about why my view of fluency was so distorted, and realized that it was because I ignored two important factors, both of which serve to mitigate the apparent difficulty of languages. Those factors are synonyms and context.

Synonyms – Synonyms make speaking seem more difficult than it is, because they artificially inflate the amount of apparently necessary vocabulary. But in order to speak effectively, you don’t need to learn every word in the language; you only need to learn one word for each concept. For example, if you were learning to speak English, it wouldn’t be necessary to learn the words “fast,” “swift,” “rapid,” and “quick,” because you only need to learn one (and you can choose the simplest) in order to communicate the idea.

Context – When reading or listening, it is unnecessary to recognize every word or grammatical form spoken to you, or to differentiate among every syllable. The gestures, intonations, body language, facial expressions, circumstances and other words or sentences surrounding an unknown word often tell you everything you need to know about its meaning.

This probably sounds obvious, and I am sure it isn’t news to anyone who has learned a second language. But when you’ve only studied languages in a classroom (as I had), with textbooks that meticulously detail every rule of grammar, and thousand-page dictionaries, “speaking a language” seems to be much more linear and rational than it actually is.

Why Paris is Smaller Than I Expected

Paris is a big place. The metropolitan area has a population over 12 million, putting it on par with cities like London and Los Angeles. I moved here from San Diego, which has about three million in its urban area. In other words, I am living in a city four times bigger than I was used to.

In almost six years in San Diego, I rarely ran into people I knew in public. Towards the end of my time there, when my social circle was at its largest, it started to happen occasionally, but by no means frequently. I would say that I ran into people I knew less than once every couple months.

I also drove 30 minutes each way to work every day, which was almost entirely on a single highway (Route 15). A handful of times during those six years I looked over my shoulder or in my rear-view mirror, and recognized a coworker’s car, also headed into the office. And occasionally I would recognize cars that I had seen previously – usually because they had unique bumper stickers, or interesting decals, or something else that made them memorable.

Here in Paris, after less than four months, I’ve run into a several people randomly in the streets and in bars. In fact, in the last four days it happened five times. Two of the instances were actually the same girl, in the same night, in significantly different places.

I also regularly (almost daily) see people from my office on the train to work, even at stations much farther from my current office than my place in San Diego was from my office there. And I only know a fraction of the 2,600 employees at my office, so I suspect that as I meet more people, I will start to recognize even more people on the train.

Of course there is the chance that this is a statistical anomaly – that these encounters really are complete coincidences. And of course the fact that I work at a much bigger company means that I am more liable to recognize coworkers during my commute. I also realize that by going to certain types of places, or associating with certain types of people, you limit your exposure and the number of people you come into contact with. It isn’t as if I am walking past all 12 million inhabitants of Paris at random on a daily basis; I am only operating within some sub-set of the total population. But this was also true in San Diego, and there, my circles were far more limited than they are here in Paris – a much bigger city where my preferences and routines have yet to become well-defined, and where I am still regularly exploring new places and making new friends. I think there is more at work than just coincidence.

In the United States, we live far more anonymous lives than people do here in Paris. A big part of this has to do with the fact that we drive cars everywhere, effectively concealing ourselves from the thousands of people we would otherwise see as we move around every day. Although it seems like I encounter more coworkers (or other people that I see repeatedly) on the train than I did during my commute in San Diego, I am sure that if I had been able to see the faces of the people I drove alongside every day, I would have recognized dozens or even hundreds of them by the end of the six years I spend making that commute. “Seeing” someone’s face through tinted windows, or only from the back-left as you pass them at 80 mph, is different entirely from the way I see the face of the man sitting across from me on the train right now as I type this.

But there is another important way in which we live “anonymously” in the United States. Consider the fact that our stores, restaurants, bars, parks, etc. are all much bigger than the ones here in Europe. This has the effect of increasing the number of people that you encounter in any given venue. So while you might remember the couple that sat across from you in an intimate restaurant, or the guy who goes regularly to your local men’s clothing store, you are far less likely to isolate in your mind or memory any of the couples that were dining with you at The Cheesecake Factory, or any of the shoppers you saw at the mall. In the same way that I didn’t bother looking twice at a blue sedan on the highway just because my coworker drove one (thousands of other people did too), neither do we in the United States pay as much attention to the people around us, because there are simple too many to take in at any given place, and we “zone out.”

All of this is to say that I think my surprise upon running into people randomly here is more a matter of the United States seeming artificially large than a matter of Paris seeming artificially small.

Of course there are exceptions to this generalization. Cities like New York are probably much closer to Paris in this respect, and the Parisian suburbs are probably not very different from the suburbs in a typical American city. But the point is that, when our minds are forced to handle large sets or quantities of things (in this case people), we reach a threshold at which we stop paying attention to individuals. And that threshold is one that is far more frequently reached in the United States than it is here in Paris.