My husband can sing a song on how in France most people will refuse to answer a question in English even when he feels that they can understand him at least partly and he is right. Despite mandatory languages lessons in french school from grade 6 (now grade 1) to 12th, most french people don’t speak any and if they do a little bit they are truly self-conscious about the way they sound and talk. I personally hated language courses at school and waited to live in Germany in grad school to seriously self-teach me English and German at 20.
After seriously learning languages for about 12 years and adding Spanish and Marathi (my husband’s mother tongue) to the initial mix, I have recently started teaching German to beginner without any experience in learning a foreign language. Teaching has given me a different perspective on learning languages which I want to share in this article.
- People don’t realize how much work it actually is
When I came back to France to finish grad school all my classmates kept on telling me how lucky I was to speak English and German as if I had magically became fluent the moment I cross the border. They were denying the fact that learning a foreign language require time, effort, commitment and most of the time money and this made me very angry!
To quantify this effort, the US Foreign Service Institute (FSI) classified all languages in category I (French, German, Spanish) to IV (Arabic, Chinese-Mandarin) based on the difficulty to learn it from English. Based on the category, they calculate that it would take between 600 and 2200 to o reach “Professional Working Proficiency” in the language.
This means that if I spent 900 hours of my life learning German, I would have to invest 1100 more to learn Marathi (close to Hindi).
- Using different media and tools is key for success
To become fluent in a language one needs to be able to speak, read and write and this can be achieved without following exclusively a set method. Of course one has to eventually learn some basic grammar rules and enough conjugation to understand if people are telling you what to do, what the did or what they will be doing but in the age of internet there are plenty of non conventional resources available to make learning fun and cheap.
When I set to learn English on my own, I binge watched a lot of american series online from How I met your mother to Desperate Housewives initially with subtitles and then without. I read online newspapers and bought a book with exercises to learn all the tedious grammar rules. Initially I was planning on spending 2 hours a day on each activity during the spring break, eventually I ended up spending most of my time streaming but it worked regardless.
Every time I had a chance to speak English, I would take it even if it was with a non-native speaker and eventually I was confident enough to have a one hour phone interview for a 2 month Au-Pair in the UK which I ended up getting. To this day I still fill-up – a word journal (now in digital version).
In the age of internet there are even more available resources most of them free to learn effectively. I use a Smartphone App to boost my Marathi Vocabulary and occasional free grammar exercise.
- Foreign languages increase your cognitive abilities
Studies show that bilingual develop dementia and Alzheimer in average 5 years later than their non-bilingual peers. While scientist are still disputing the direct impact of languages on the brain long term functionality, I personally see how being able to switch from one language to the other helped me analyze situations in a deeper and more complex way.
One concrete example of this is with the social etiquette and what they betray of the social hierarchy. Typically in US you would typically call people on a first name basis no matter if it is your housekeeper, your friend, your boss or a client you wish to attract. In Germany you would call everyone except for your friend with Mr, Mrs (Herr / Frau) adding eventually a doctor if they have a P.H.D in any field. In India, you would use different form of you and title depending on the relative age of your counterpart, family relation, social and corporate hierarchy.
- It’s tough on your ego and full of frustration
Having the language skill of a 3 year old native speaker, is a lesson of humility. I have a long list of situation where I felt embarrassed about what I said or understood in a foreign language, like that time when I told my older male colleague that I was looking for a Rückbildung Kurs (a postnatal training) when it was called a Rückengymnastik Kurs (Back strengthening class)…. that was awkward!
Sometimes the effort I invested didn’t seem to pay off for a long time before I started to notice some progress. There were all this time where I thought I finally understood a notion to be reminded shortly after that I actually did not or just partly. Learning a language is a marathon and while its rewarding to see the track you have covered, you have to keep pushing through the pain and remind yourself of the goal.
It is as much about the language as about the culture and the people
The part which I love the most is when you can get in touch with someone you would never have had a conversation with if you did not speak the language. You can read all the books, watch all the documentary, backpack or even live everywhere in the world but the only way to understand a culture in its diversity is by talking to its living representative.
The best example for me is understanding the incredible and mysterious India. I have learned much more about the culture and the position of women there, talking to my mother-in-law, many friends and aunties than by reading hundreds of articles and books.
I do not know about you but I have become a language junkie! I need the challenge, crave for the new social interaction and experiencing progress triggers my brain reward system. The good thing is that the more you learn the more efficient you are and the easier it gets to take on a new language challenge. My current goal is to be able to give direction to the driver and go shopping alone on my next trip to Nagpur and what’s your next language goal?