Learning a Language is Hard

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I might be stating the obvious here, but I haven’t really talked about the cold, hard, truth that learning a new language (especially as you get older) is quite frankly hard. Once you have a general understanding of the language it gets increasingly more complicated. Direct translation no longer works. Slang and regional speak rearrange everything you learn (Ex: Je ne sais pas = Chai pa). Studying and learning in the classroom environment always worked fairly well for me. But as I have repeatedly discovered during my time here, comprehension and speaking (ESPECIALLY speaking) are a whole different ball game.

At first it was exciting- like a game or puzzle. “Oh! I understand that! That word plus that word equals that sentence! I know this fits here! Yay me! I understand!” My entrance into France was a quick swim or drown scenario as I was plunged into paperwork, adult tasks and navigating a new area, and as a result my French rapidly increased.

But then it plateaued. True, I was speaking less French on a daily basis as I teach English classes, have friends who all speak English and don’t have many (or really any) opportunities in Montbeliard to meet French people my age. But I also reached a level where learning was becoming increasingly more difficult. I no longer had the excuse of speaking like a two year old, I had upgraded to elementary school…possibly even middle school and it felt difficult. I had to push myself to advance, which I rebelled against by becoming slightly lazy. I entered a plateau funk where I felt lazy and disheartened- frustrated at my lack of improvement but stubbornly resistant to making difficult efforts to change…until New Years rolled around. I used resolutions as a springboard to kick my language learning into gear. I bought a French magazine, listened to the top French songs (which actually wasn’t too helpful as the vast majority of them are American), reviewed French lessons online, revised my vocabulary notebook, watched movies in French with the other assistants and forced Diego (he’s a French professor in Mexico) to give me lessons. And it helped. I was amazed at my ability to watch a movie in French with French subtitles and understand.

But unfortunately life’s not quite like the movies- there are no subtitles, no previous plot to provide context and accents aren’t always articulated. I was confronted with this as I visited Antoine for February vacation where I was fully immersed in listening and speaking to French. And while ultimately it was amazing for learning and the best thing for my improvement, I’ll be honest- it freaked my shit out. I realized that my time in Montbeliard has been cushioned. I speak French with my professors and the other assistants, but I can always fall back on English. And unfortunately, most of the time, I do.

Similar to the start of my time in France, I treated the opportunities for conversation with Antoine’s friends like a game. But this time the game had changed. I was with people my age, people speaking fast and in slang. As I stood outside of a bar with Antoine and his friends, I got lost in a sea of French. The surrounding French seeped into my ears and I actively had to try hard to regain focus on the conversation at hand. “Ok. What are they talkin- Singapore! I know that word. Easy. Yay! I understand! But wait. Why are they talking about Singapore? What they hell are they saying about Singapore? They’re not even talking about Singapore anymore, are they?!” Luckily I had Antoine there to help with translations and his friends were nice enough to slow down or say a few words in English. But needless to say, it was difficult.

When I met Antoine’s family, it was all French all the time. I was pleased to comprehend the lengthy family discussions but apparently I spent too much time on self congratulation to speak. As they shared stories on childhood memories, I not only ignited with internal excitement on my comprehension, but also in the formulation of my own story! At last! I could partake in my own conversation! I crafted the beginning of my memory, adding details and humorous remarks to this story that I would engage them in. But as I prepared to regale them with my tale, the French filtered back in and I realized that the time for that tale had long since passed. And here I was, lost in translation again. Dommage.

I can only imagine how immigrants to a new country felt or feel. Immersing yourself in a new language is challenging and alienating at times. To not have your voice, to feel lost and tongue tied and unable to express things that were once so simple can be disheartening. I at least have had cushions, a translating boyfriend and a prior basis of the language. 

I have realized that I am not the most patient of people. I don’t like not getting things. I don’t like being unable to communicate. And I don’t like feeling lost or stupid. But who does? These are the things that test us, that help us evolve. Learning something completely new and foreign is not easy. But growing is so rewarding.

So here’s a little learning language advice:

1. Start with the essential basics. Learn what can get you by- hello, goodbye, excuse me, I don’t understand, and food.

2. Immerse yourself as much as possible- listen to music, read, watch movies, write

3. SPEAK. To yourself if you have to, but practice speaking. Practice is the only was this will happen

4. Have patience. Be kind to yourself. Celebrate the growth and accomplishments rather than the roadblocks. As the French keep telling me “Ca viendra”. It will come.

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2 thoughts on “Learning a Language is Hard

  1. Pingback: “To Be Lost is to Live” | I'm not lost, I'm just exploring

  2. Pingback: Adventures of Language Learning | I'm not lost, I'm just exploring

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