There is a joke I have heard on a couple of occasions that goes like this: What do you call someone who speaks two languages?
It’s true. The average American doesn’t speak a second language. The United States has incredible linguistic diversity, however, thanks to a rich history of immigration. Unfortunately, the nation as a whole doesn’t really value second-language learning, which is sadly reflected in our public-education system. Society suffers from the pig-headed mentality that English is all you need. It’s short-sighted, as it fails to take into account what the world will look like in 20 years when our children are older; this mentality also turns a blind eye to the gradual economic decline of the United States as other nations, and thus languages, come to take on growing importance and dominance on the world stage.
Somehow, and I have no good explanation why, my relationship to language evolved differently. I was never encouraged to learn languages; I just always liked them from a young age. In the next few posts, I’ll share my own language journey with you, starting with French, then travelling through Latin, Spanish, Japanese, Russian, Armenian, Portuguese, German and ending up at Arabic. And I’ll cut to the punch line: I don’t even pretend to speak all those languages. Mostly, I just dabbled in all of them but can speak a few of them.
I first started French, via one class for one hour per week (essentially nothing) in grade school, and I loved it. By middle school, I breezed through two years of Latin and was fascinated to discover so many English-language roots embedded in the language. I can still remember the opening lines to these books we read: In pictura est puella nomine Cornelia. Cornelia est puella romana quae in italia habitat.
High school was where I developed an obsession with French. I placed into the advanced French classes, went on a two-week exchange to France, watched every French movie I could find at the video store and obnoxiously spoke French with my high school best friend, another Francophile, every chance we could.
Language tip: Do things you love in the target language to increase your language input. Talk to a friend even if you make mistakes, or better yet, practice speaking the language to a child. Watch a movie. Read a book.
By the time I went to college, I spoke French well and placed into an advanced class. I started on Spanish but decided after one year I could learn it on my own and that I wanted to branch out beyond the romance languages. I picked Japanese, a language that ended up kicking my ass. The language is not necessarily too hard in terms of the characters (except for the third alphabet—kanji—influenced by Chinese) or the grammar. The hard part was the time commitment needed for learning. We had one-hour classes five days per week, pop quizzes every day and at least one hour of homework every night. I barely kept up and decided not to pursue it the following year as I wasn’t sure what I would do with Japanese in the long term .
I graduated college and fulfilled my desire to speak Spanish by moving to Ecuador, where, thanks to living with an Ecuadorian family, I spoke very little English in my year away. In Ecuador, I learned another tip about language learning.
Language tip: Get a boyfriend or girlfriend in your target language who doesn’t speak your native language.
Partners who don’t speak your native language are excellent for boosting language learning, especially in those early days when all you want to do is talk and get to know each another.
I also figured out another way to help myself learn a language: I developed a habit of reading the newspaper after lunch and writing down words I didn’t know. I usually didn’t get beyond one or two articles because there were so many damn words.
Some years later after grad school, I started a career as an economist that required me to live in various countries as I worked on water and wastewater projects. I was assigned to Armenia initially. I spent the first few months vacillating between studying Russian or Armenian—which should I learn? Armenian was the language I liked, but Russian was the language that was more practical in a professional context as it could enable me to work in other post-Soviet countries. But Russian didn’t appeal to me.
Language tip: Don’t try to learn a language that doesn’t interest you. You will fail.
In the next post, I’ll continue with how I failed at Russian.
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