Toying with languages


Recently I’ve been spending a good portion of my time trying to learn both Spanish and Mandarin. And as I’ve been studying, I’ve noticed that a fledgling theory about the process of learning a new language keeps rearing its head, so I’m going to try to write about it here to get a better idea of what it looks like.

But first, some backstory.

I’ve always been a bit of a language-learning poseur. My friends can tell you about the time I was learning French. Or the other time when it was Russian. Or Spanish. On my bookshelves there is a stack of seldom-opened grammars, dictionaries, notebooks, and phrasebooks in Russian (aunt speaks it), Arabic (I was dead set on backpacking Morocco), French (no particular reason that I can recall, but if you ask Garrett he’ll say it was for the romance), Spanish (high school), and now Mandarin (girlfriend speaks it).

Up until a few months ago, though, I couldn’t have gotten much beyond “Hi, how are you?” in conversation in any of those languages. (This in spite of 4 years of Spanish in high school that somehow granted me 2 college credits and graciously exempted me from Auburn’s foreign language requirements.) I’ve had the ambition, and I’ve made the attempts, but I’ve always stalled out somewhere just south of “elementary proficiency

I’ve had romantic ideas about foreign languages and the people who speak them for a while now, and I’ve long aspired to know multiple languages. Like, a lot of languages (10 seems like a good round number to me). But I’ve never gotten very far into the process. I like the idea of multilingualism, don’t get me wrong — the connotations of cosmopolitanism that it carries, and the promise of exotic adventures I perceive it to hold — but the problem is that ideas tend to lend themselves to idealism. Knowing a language requires learning it first, and learning is a messy, time-intensive business better suited to realists than idealists. It’s exhausting, discouraging, and sometimes boring.

So, back to the present.

Recently, I’ve been making some real progress towards learning a second and a third language. And this is where my theory comes in. Because I’ve noticed that my attitude toward a foreign language starts out in one place and begins to shift slowly away from that place as I learn more. And I think it’s the inertia of this incipient attitude that’s been the downfall of my language-learning attempts in the past.

In the beginning, I tend to think of and to treat a new language as a kind of toy-language. I see it as a collection of funny sounds and constructions that, if I put them together just right, can elicit laughter and sometimes understanding from people who already speak the language. I learn the vocabulary and grammar necessary to talk about some of the things I’m doing throughout the day (maybe some profanity), but that’s it. I don’t take it seriously because any conversations I have in the language are superficial or banal or both. Its utility doesn’t go beyond that of a parlor trick. I know it’s not true, but I feel as though the language isn’t real, as if it couldn’t possibly be used to express complex ideas, thoughts, or feelings. It’s just a childish code that’s fun to play with for maybe a few days or weeks, but that will eventually lose its novelty and fade away.

Obviously this isn’t intellectual. I know that literature is written and scientific research conducted in the new language, that people spend their whole lives speaking it with those they love and those they hate — that it’s just as complex and nuanced as my own “real” language. But knowing that doesn’t help me shake the feeling that all of the time I’m spending learning pronunciation and vocabulary and grammar is nothing more than useless amusement.

And I don’t think this attitude is just a reflection of my own proficiency in the language. No matter how much I learned in the past (I got the farthest in Spanish and Russian), the languages stayed abstract to me. Learning was a largely academic exercise without any emotion in it, without any reality.

I’ve found that hearing the language used for real, by real people for real things, really seems to accelerate the process. I know this is old news — that immersion in your target language accelerates your acquisition — but the way I see it, the reasoning is different from what I’ve always been told. It doesn’t work because of sheer brute force. Because you spend more time with the language or cram more of the language into less time, or whatever it may be. It works because it erodes the early attitude that says this new language is a largely trivial, abstract thing. It gives the learning process social stakes rather than just educational or personal ones. It makes the language real.

Watching a movie, listening to conversations between native speakers, trying to read the news: all of it forces me to look at the language seriously. To realize that I can use it to say more than just, “Where is the bathroom?” I can say important and serious things someday if I spend the time and put in the effort. To me, that’s a more powerful motivator than amusement.

I’ve found that overcoming the initial attitude I have toward a new language is something I have to work through. Maybe now that I understand it better, I’ll be able to make the going a little easier in the future. Maybe that’s why people say learning your second language is the hardest and it gets easier after that. Not because you know more about languages than you did to begin with, but because you understand the learning process more fully and can anticipate obstacles and respond to them before they slow you down too much or stop you.

Or maybe it’s just me.

In any case, in the spirit of putting things in perspective, here’s an discomfiting video that makes English sound pretty silly:


2 thoughts on “Toying with languages

  1. Interesting thought-provoking post. Your distinguishing between the sense of a native language and a learned one feels right. I wonder how kids raised in a bilingual household would view this

    More provocative, accessible ideas about time can be found in the book Einstein’s Dreams by physicist Alan Lightman. In it time behaves differently in each chapter.

    • Thanks for the recommendation. I’ll have to check it out.

      I would think that someone who was raised with more than one language might have trouble identifying with this, but I’m not sure. It’s an interesting question.

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