How to Fail at Learning a Language

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Continuing from my first post, I am going to tell you about my own language journey in three parts, with a special mention for a language I failed at: Russian.

Language tip: Don’t try to learn a language that doesn’t interest you. You will fail.

When I arrived in Armenia for work, I wrestled with whether to learn Russian or Armenian. Armenian was the language I liked but Russian was more useful professionally as it could enable me to work in other post-Soviet countries.

So I half-heartedly started Russian lessons while memorising the Armenian alphabet on the weekends, which should have given me some hint of where my allegiances lay. I acquired enough Armenian and Russian to go to the store, take taxis and have very basic conversations: Vonses aper-jan? And that usually ended with me saying that I don’t understand: Che haskanumem. But I never learned either well.

In my experience, language and culture are so intricately linked. When I feel an affinity for a culture (e.g., Latin American, Armenian, Middle Eastern), I get excited by the language and gravitate toward it. The reverse is also true for me. In hindsight, I would have chosen Armenian exclusively as I never felt passionate about Russian.

I also discovered that no matter how useful you deem a language in a larger, global context, don’t underestimate the utility of a language, even one with a small population of speakers worldwide. That certainly proved to be the case with Armenian. Even though Armenia’s population is barely nine million worldwide, I’ve met so many Armenians all over the world (Syria, France, U.S., Germany) with whom I would have loved to have spoken in their language.

While making my feeble attempts at learning Russian, I was developing another language interest: Arabic.

Armenia has a substantial Arab influence. In part, it could be because of its history of having been conquered by the Arabs for about 200 years, but a large share of the influence is also contemporary. Many Lebanese- and Syrian-Armenians have migrated to Armenia. The popular bars in town (that were not the strip clubs, as those were truly the most popular) were all largely Lebanese-Armenian owned. The sound of Arabic fascinated me, and I was culturally fascinated by the Middle East, even more so after trips to Syria, Egypt and Yemen. But my interest was put on hold by an interval of learning a new language: Portuguese.

Work moved me to Georgia and to Brazil somewhat simultaneously. I spent about four months in each country flying back and forth between them. I learned Portuguese well enough in Brazil to work. Initially, to learn the language, I took a two-week crash course but spoke very little at the end of those two weeks. It took about two months of living in Brazil for my Portuguese to improve enough to participate in any conversation—work or social. And most importantly, I could largely understand the TV (about 90%) if I really paid attention, which has always been my personal marker of passive fluency. My Portuguese was also helped along by living with a Brazilian colleague, who did not speak English, during this time.

Language Tip: Watch TV in your target language. It gives you valuable insight not just into language but into the culture, which is an important booster to learning a language. Kind of like building a house without a foundation, I don’t advise learning a language devoid of a cultural context. They support and reinforce each other.

Stephanie_GreekI revisited Russian again in Georgia after an embarrassing incident at the store one morning. I had just successfully purchased my morning hlieb from the baker and went to buy some jelly.

Izviniti, pajalusta. Mojno kupit jam?

Blank stares. I swear I remembered the word for jam and it was jam but spelled with a “dzh” since Russian has no letter for “j”. I could see the Russian letters in my mind and wanted to ask for a piece of paper and pen to write it but forgot the words for paper and pen so that was no help. I figured it was my pronunciation.

Jaaaam.

More blank stares. And perhaps I should backtrack for those not familiar with shopping in the Caucuses and I suspect what is probably much of the post-Soviet world. Most everything in a grocery store is behind the counter, and you have to ask for it.

Jem.

A short “a” sound also got me nowhere. I tried a few more times and finally walked out with just my plain bread and no jam. When I arrived at the office and asked my colleagues the word for “jam”, they concurred I had the correct word (spelled dzhem in Russian). My pronunciation obviously sucked, so that morning I found a Russian tutor and studied Russian again for the next month every morning for one hour. Grammatically, Russian is a challenging language because of its declensions. The same noun, say “apple”, can have up to six different endings depending on if it’s nominative, accusative, genitive, etc.

I made some progress as I found the intellectual challenge of Russian appealing. But I never grew to love the language, and thus never achieved speaking Russian beyond the basics.

Next up: how I fell in love in French (it’s almost a cliché).

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Stephanie Meade is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of InCultureParent, an online magazine for parents raising little global citizens. After living in four countries and working in many others as an economist in international development, she can speak four languages, including Spanish, French, Portuguese and English. She is passionate about all things related to language, especially raising bilingual children, as well as bringing up children with a global perspective. She is raising her own Moroccan-American daughters bilingual in Arabic and English at home while recently introducing Spanish. She always assumed she would speak Arabic by the time her oldest child was able to talk (which was four years ago now!) and she is finally making the time and effort to learn this year.

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