I’m learning a new language. It’s a pretty big deal and here’s why…
Up until a couple of weeks ago, I was 100% sure I was awful at languages. If I ever met a polygot, I would tell them, “Wow. How can you do that? That’s incredible! (It is obviously) I could never do that.”
In high school, I was so bad at every language (other than English). To be honest, if my Spanish/French/Japanese teachers heard that I’m teaching myself a new language, they would probably laugh.
Yet I very firmly believe that anyone can learn a new language now, although some people may be more gifted in this area than others. (I promise I’ll get to the language I’m learning in a minute).
I never thought I would be one of those cliches thinking, ‘Ugh! I have wanderlust!’ (because I mean seriously, what kind of word is that?!) Lately, however, this has been me:
School is great but I think the reason I didn’t enjoy languages at school (and the reason I hardly remember a word of Spanish and I’ve forgotten the entire Japanese hiragana) is because I had no personal investment and no genuine interest in going to those countries and immersing myself in these cultures.
Have you ever studied really hard at a subject only to retain none of the information once you past the exam? Well that’s probably because you were literally only studying for short-term retention. Learning is entirely a mindset and the human brain is powerful. If you tell yourself: ‘Okay, I only need to know this information until 31st August’…guess what? Your brain will only keep the information memorised until 31st August.
That doesn’t make you a slow learner. It doesn’t make you unskilled at languages; it just makes you deliberately ignorant. Which is what I was for years.
(NOTE: I am no language expert. I speak one language, understand two, and am learning a third. I read the third language much better than I can listen to it, which I am currently working on. I also only understand the second because my parents spoke to me in it, meaning that I learnt it pretty much the same way as I learned English. If you are monolingual – I feel you!)
In order to realise that I actually can learn a new language, I had to take a look at my past.
How do we learn languages when growing up? Apparently when I was a kid, I learnt to read and write super quickly. But that was no surprise because I absolutely loved stories. It’s not like I woke up one day completely fluent in the English language. None of us did. I’ve thought back to how I learnt English and how I (presume) I learnt Twi, and these are some factors it comes down to:
a) Be a child
When you’re a kid you just point at stuff and babble. It doesn’t matter if you can’t pronounce things correctly; apparently I called myself ‘Tito Wawa’ for a long time because that’s how I thought my name was pronounced.
But who cares? You babble. And you point at things. And you joyfully exclaim ‘plane!’ while pointing to the sky and people applaud for you.
Learning a new language as an adult is very much the same…
Only nobody actually cares so you’re very unlikely to get any applause. Consider yourself blessed if you do.
b) Having a reason
I once tried to learn Japanese without any real knowledge (and therefore no real passion) for Japanese culture. Guess what? It didn’t work. I initally learnt hiragana which looks like this…
Passion is KEY. It will get you through those difficult times because after struggling my way through this alphabet (and I mean, STRUGGLING), I was then told that in order to write in Japanese,I would have to learn kanji and katakana.
I didn’t go to another lesson.
I just couldn’t imagine learning another alphabet. I also had no deeply-rooted motivation so going through all that struggle was just not worth it.
Anyhoo, I’m currently learning Portuguese and I mean it when I say that no amount of adversity is gonna stop me. My adult self (very much unlike my child self) is actually super interested in languages. I love hearing languages. When I go abroad, I’m always the one asking the locals how to say certain words, and making sure I pronounce them correctly (or trying to lol). I really do find it fascinating. I think I always found it fascinating but never believed I could learn one. In the same way you might watch an artist and say, ‘I wish I could paint but I simply can’t. It’s not for me.’
But yes. I am obsessed with Portugal and my heart longs to speak the language fluently, so actually, it’s not difficult to be motivated at all. Having a true reason takes care of that.
c) Movies, movies, movies
Learning a language is so fun because it’s such an excuse for me to watch films dubbed (or ‘dublado’) in Portuguese.
Also, I’ve discovered something interesting about children’s shows. I recently watched Peppa Pig in Portuguese (yes, I really did) and I discovered that children’s shows aren’t only about entertainment but so much about education.
I think it’s so beautiful how everything in a kid’s tv show is so well catered for younger audiences. For example, I can very easily understand what’s being said because the speech is coupled with dialogue which complements the images. i.e. ‘bicicleta!’ Peppa says, whilst an image of a bicycle appears on the screen. Isn’t normal TV like that? Kind of, yes. And kind of, no. Children’s TV takes much more time to focus on matching the visuals with the dialogue, which I, as a language learner, truly appreciate. It makes your realise that everything on a children’s show, from the speed at which they’re talking, to the images chosen, to the repetition of words (seriously, if I hear ‘muito bem’ ONE MORE TIME) is curated intentionally for children to learn. I think I forgot that as I tend to think of TV shows as entertainment.
d) Don’t be embarrassed
This is something I hear a lot when I watch language learning videos – ‘Don’t be scared to make a mistake when you first start speaking a new language.‘ Initially, I was confused. Scared? Scared of what?
But then recently I went to Italy.
Note: I actually learnt so much Italian while I was in Italy, because I behaved like SUCH a child (see point 1) and every time I had dinner with my host family, I would point at the randomest of things and ask how to say it in Italian. Fortunately, my family didn’t tire of this – they loved teaching me, and furthermore, they loved hearing how I said the exact same thing in English. i.e. pear –> pesca, line –> fila
But then every now and then I would meet somebody outside of the comfort zone of my Italian family or the people I worked with, and I was filled with this complete and utter EMBARASSMENT of trying to speak a foreign language with native speakers. Even when I knew the word, I would speak it very hesitantly, ashamed of my pronunciation and how I might ‘butcher’ the language.
You know what happened? 8/10 times they understood exactly what I meant, so all the worrying was for nothing. Nobody was ever rude to me or laughed at me. Don’t allow fear to build up in your head and stop you from speaking. Speaking is how we learn. And because I was so eager to ask what everything was, I found that by the end of the seven days, I was able to communicate: ‘Can you help me? I left my blue bag here yesterday…I’ve looked and I can’t find it’ and BE UNDERSTOOD.
(There may have been some miming and TERRIBLE grammar involved. It was probs more like: ‘Hi. Please help…I…blue bag here yesterday…me look, no see.’)
Although considering I could only say ‘ciao’ seven days prior, that’s not so bad 😉
Anyway, a bit of a strange rambly blog, but do let me know below if you’re learning a language and whether you’d be interested in me talking about the more specific ways in which I learn (language learning tools, etc)