We have all heard about how important it is in the 21st century to be multilingual. In an ever-diversifying world, it is more important than ever before to be able to break the language barrier and connect with people who didn't grow up the same way you did.
Despite the unavoidable truth of this reality, I have found it incredibly difficult to pursue a second language. This is something a lot of people seem to have a problem with and I think it's time I stop pretending it's not possible for me to learn another language.
In the seventh grade, I started learning French as a mandatory foreign language. While a lot of my classmates were unenthusiastic about learning French, putting forth the minimal amount of effort required to pass, I had a good reason to want to learn. My grandfather is French-Canadian and when I was asked to choose between French and Spanish for my required foreign language, I felt an immediate connection to my ancestry through the prospect of learning French. Maybe that is a melodramatic way of putting it, but I wanted something to connect me to my family.
I threw myself into studying French. I studied my butt off on every chapter in the textbook (skipping ahead because I was impatient), I started listening to French music (Noir Desir & Alizee), I even wrote to a handful of penpals via an app I downloaded. But after three years, I hit a brick wall: I could not use French conversationally.
At the height of my French-speaking ability, I could at best read most of anything in French and what I couldn't translate I could work out through context. I could write passable French, but only over things that I had specifically studied. I could speak French, but only if I first thought about what I wanted to say in English and then translated before I spoke. I could understand French if spoken slowly and even then only if I already knew the specific context of the conversation (being asked for directions as opposed to discussing restaurant menu items).
My central problem was that I could not think in French. As a lifelong English speaker, my brain is hardwired to look at the moon and think "moon." I unconsciously identify the world around me with the words I have always used to describe things, which creates a mental bottleneck when learning a new language. I think fast, but there is a limit to how fast I can translate back and forth into English.
If you ask a bilingual person how they manage to speak multiple languages fluently, they'll say they don't usually translate back and forth when interacting in their second language. Rather, they have learned to think in that second language when they need to, some even using their second language more primarily than their original.
Additionally, people who learn a second language as children have an easier time than adults because adults have many years of conditioning to reprogram, always viewing the world through the lens of their native language. For me to learn a second language, I have to first overcome the lifelong reflex of labeling the things I experience with their English terms.
So then, we've clearly defined the problem that has prevented me so far from learning a second language. What am I going to do about it? Well up until now, I just quit. I quit French after three years and now I can barely remember the basics. I've tried to pick up German but once again I found myself giving up, this time being more difficult without anyone to teach me. Recently I once again decided to pick up German as a foreign language. This time, I'm going to do things differently.
First, I'm going to set aside daily time to practice German. I was told about a useful app called Duolingo and I will be using it daily to practice German. In addition to the exercises provided, I will be doing my best to speak it out loud so I can sound more fluent.
Second, I will be reaching out to a friend of mine who does speak fluent German and asking her to talk with me in German. Real personal conversation is one of the best ways to really understand another language and it will also help me with the little details she can explain to me that an app like Duolingo just couldn't provide.
If you don't know a fluent speaker of the language you wish to learn, it might be a good idea to look into a penpal-type app that will let you communicate with a native speaker. My advice, though, would be to avoid using a translator app like I used to. It ends up being a crutch to rely on and doesn't help you think in the second language if you're reading and typing in your original language anyway. Besides, translator apps often do not translate very well.
Third, I will make a point to go through my everyday life with this second language in mind, trying to retrain my brain to conceptualize the world around me not only in English but in German as well. It will be vital that I carry around a translator app for simple things like streetlight or tree, anything that I encounter that I don't know the word for in German.
Learning a foreign language is as important as it is difficult. If I am able to learn German, I will have opportunities in the workforce that I would not otherwise have access to. As the world continues to globalize, these skills will only become more important.
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