How to: Learn a Language
February 28, 2011 |  by Catherine Pierre

Robert Rivkin, A&S ’61, is trying to learn his 10th language: Turkish. He already knows English (his native tongue), French, German, Latin, Italian, Greek, ancient Greek, Spanish, and Portuguese. Rivkin graduated from Johns Hopkins with a double degree in biological sciences and Romance languages. He then launched what would turn into a 49-year career (so far) as a language teacher, first in Baltimore City and County public schools (where he created a course titled Introduction to Latin, Linguistics, and Etymology for the Bilingually Oriented) and now at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. If anyone is qualified to guide a would-be language learner, it’s Rivkin.

And so we ask him: Comment apprendre une langue étrangère?

Find a good reason to want to learn a language. Rivkin learned Spanish as a child because he wanted to be able to talk to his cousins, who were visiting from Peru. He learned Italian because he and some high school buddies wanted to understand opera. Find a way to immerse yourself. Take classes. Buy some tapes. Listen to foreign broadcasts or watch foreign movies. And of course, travel if you can. But in any case, practice, practice, practice. “It’s not a spectator event,” Rivkin advises. “The more you use it, the more likely you are to keep it.”
Learn more languages. The second foreign language you learn, Rivkin says, will take about half as much time as the first did. Your third language will take about half as much time as the second. Mission accomplished? Rivkin says you know you’re fluent in a language when it becomes the language you count in or the language you dream in.

Illustrations by Wesley Bedrosian