An Adventure A Day

Because "life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all" – Helen Keller

This week, I started a French class. For anyone keeping track this is my fifth language other than English. Sounds impressive, right? English, Spanish, Russian, German, and now French – I’m like a one person United Nations!

It would be impressive, if I could actually speak any of them, but right now I feel like I have a mental logjam of languages somewhere deep in the recesses of my brain. Words leak through, but I have little actual control over which language comes out.

I studied Spanish from junior high through my first semester of college. The method of learning was very traditional – lots of memorization – vocabulary, verb conjugations, dialogues – but very little conversation.

I started studying Russian in college. I loved the language, but the first course I took ended up being heavy on culture and light on language, making the following course more than I could understand. I picked it up again in grad school, and finished with an ability to read, speak and understand Russian – and nothing to do with it, so it began to fade.

I learned German through living it. My vocabulary progressed in a haphazard manner, as I learned the words I needed to survive. I started with groceries and doctor visits. I learned how difficult it is not to be able to do the everyday tasks you take for granted – making appointments over the phone, ordering meat from the deli or vegetables from the farmers market. How overwhelming it was to not understand what was going on around you.

I began taking lessons, and found that German speakers were generally helpful and patient with people trying to tackle the language.

Then I started learning Italian. I began an Italian course at the local Volkshochschule (the German adult learning center). Attempting to learn a new language in a language that was not my mother tongue was challenging to say the least, I’m not sure how much Italian I picked up, but it did help my German.

After I finished with that course, I participated in an online course. I found the online course difficult, because I was taking the course with people of varying abilities, the course moved around a lot. I also discovered that I had a lot of difficulty hearing the subtle variations in spoken Italian.

When we finally moved to Italy, I worked with a tutor for the first year, but I was not making the gains I made in Germany. I can attribute this to a couple of things. The first, and most important was that most of the people I interacted with on any given day were native English speakers, or fluent English speakers. I was not driven by the same necessity that I had to learn German. For me, that made a difference. I got too busy living my life – conducted mainly in English to devote much time to improving my Italian.

The second thing that inhibited my Italian was that most of the time, when I spoke Italian people answered me in English.

When I found out we were moving to another country, where they spoke yet another language, I half-heartedly began studying on my own. But, trying to get by with my substandard Italian while teaching myself French was not a winning strategy.

We arrived in Belgium, armed with a single phrase book. Because in the chaos of school ending and moving, I hadn’t thought far enough ahead to order anything else. In Germany and Italy, at least initially we had relied on my husband’s mastery of the languages to get by. Because he had studied both of those languages it worked until I could figure things out. This time we were flying blind. As a participant of an after school French Club, our nine year-old was our best translator. Someone needed to learn some French – fast.

I’ve just finished my first week of an intensive course. I prefer to learn in this manner, structured and quickly – it works for me. Not since I learned Spanish and Russian have I learned in a truly structured manner. Now, between the other languages I’ve studied and spoken along the way, I’m seeing that I can pick up on grammatical structures more quickly than in the past.

The most difficult part of French for me so far is getting the pronunciation down. I see words, and want to read them exactly as they are written. Not so fast says the French language, because these letters are pronounced differently than they are written, and these letters are never acknowledged at all. These other letters sound like this, except when they don’t, and these letters are always pronounced, except when they aren’t. And my head is spinning.

So here are my two cents on learning languages:

1. Start as early as you possibly can. While it’s never too late to learn a new language, it’s also never too early.

2. US schools begin language classes too late. I started learning languages in seventh grade – way too late for an introduction to Spanish. My husband’s family included Italian native speakers, and my children began speaking German at ages 2 & 3. Guess which one of us struggles the most – yeah, that would be me.

And my two cents on French so far :

1. How is it possible for one language to pronounce so many letter combinations the exact same way?

2. Those exact same pronunciations make French verb conjugations a little easier to remember.

And on people who speak another language:

1. Be kind to people speaking your native language with a foreign accent. It isn’t easy living in your second (or third, or fourth….) language.

2. Don’t assume that because someone has a strong accent that they can’t speak your native language. If I speak to you in a language that obviously isn’t my first, don’t automatically answer me in my native language. Respect the fact that I’m trying, and ask if I’d prefer to switch languages.

My tips for learning languages?

1. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. You are going to make mistakes. You are going to say the wrong thing. Sometimes you’re really going to say the wrong thing. Say it anyway. Keep trying. Eventually you will understand one thing someone says, and that’s a good thing. Keep practicing and each day you will understand more.

2. Surround yourself with native speakers as often as you can. Immersion is the best way to learn a language.

3. Take as much formal training as you can. I’ve heard stories of people teaching themselves language by going to the cinema or watching I Love Lucy, but this type of passive learning has never worked for me. I require feedback and a schedule to learn from. That being said:

4. Augment your formal training. Listen to the radio, watch television, read books – whatever will familiarize you with the cadence and speech patterns of your target language.

This week, after one week in French, I understood something on the radio, read and understood most of a children’s picture book, gave someone my phone number and spelled my name for them in French – correctly. Did I do any of them perfectly – no, of course not. But I tried. And that is the secret to learning any language.

Be fearless. Keep trying. Have fun!

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