My Language Learning Journey

About a month ago I started college. One of the courses that I am taking is English Comp I. One of our assignments was to write a literary narrative about a learning experience. I wrote about my experiences learning other languages. I just got back my essay, for which I did well, and I would like to share my work. Well, here it is!

Cooperation between parties begins with understanding. Understanding is not possible without effective communication. This premise has long fueled my desire to learn other languages. I first became aware of other languages around the age of seven, when my dad mentioned that it is necessary to speak Spanish in South America. A few months later, my great-grandmother mentioned that people speak French in France. My great uncle has lived in Germany for many years. When he came to visit around this time, I found out that he speaks more German at home than English. While I found all this interesting, the main thing that ignited my interest in other languages was a fifth grade discussion of ethnicity that occurred when I was ten.

The subject of ethnicity had never come up at home, so my sense of self was only “American”. Thus, I was fascinated by the discovery that we had all originated from different areas all over the world. This was the spark that started the blaze of what will no doubt be a lifelong interest in other countries and languages.

For years, I was unable to pursue this interest, as my mom preferred that I focus on English. In twelfth grade, I studied German. I continued studying German and Spanish after high school through courses I bought from Borders. I learned a little, but did not feel like I had that strong a command of either language.

However, thongs began to change when I got high speed internet in 2008, and I started downloading podcasts from I-Tunes. After listening to Spanish learning podcasts for a time, I glanced at the Spanish instruction versions, and realized that I understood them. It was a great feeling to know that something that had been unintelligible was now understandable. Eventually, my Spanish learning fell by the wayside due to my being enticed by other languages.

One such language was French, which, at first, was lower on my priority list. This changed when I was browsing the I-Tunes store and grew curious about the podcasts Mission Paris and Coffee Break French. I was interested in the former because I had listened to Mission Berlin to learn German, and in the latter because I had listened to Coffee Break Spanish to learn Spanish. After I downloaded and listened to a few episodes of each, I not only continued to listen to these podcasts, but also started listening to other French learning podcasts. Over time, as in the case with Spanish, I was able to read instructions in French.

I even bought French-learning books from Barnes & Noble. Pretty soon, I was reading short stories in French, which expanded to include blog posts and articles. It was a wonderful feeling to be able to go to a website in French, to be able to read what was said, and to tell other people about what I had read. I actually liked a few posts so much that I sought out the authors on Twitter to request permission to translate their posts into English and to then post them on my blog, which they granted. (You can find them here.) In the translation process, I discovered that I needed an unabridged dictionary, because my beginner’s dictionary didn’t include a lot of the words and expressions used in the posts. I also found it inconvenient to keep changing tabs on my smart phone to look things up online. I realized that translation is hard work, but, ince finished, I enjoyed a sense of accomplishment. In fact, my brain released adrenaline into my bloodstream and the parts of my brain associated with happiness lit up. This feeling of euphoria was enhanced when I remembered the days in which anything in French was completely incomprehensible. However, while I can do all that, and can listen to some podcasts, I am not yet fluent enough to watch television without subtitles. 

Now let me talk about my methodology. For years I worked as an electrician, and during most of that time I worked for many hours. However, the jobsites on which we worked required anywhere from a half hour to over an hour of commute time, during which I listened to language learning podcasts. Later on, my old church started a major building project, and I was assigned to help pick up the food donations in the evening. Since we had to drive about an hour one way to get the donations, I utilized I utilized that time to listen to my podcasts. I decided to split up my language study, so that I would learn one language on the way to the jobsite, another on the way back, a third on the way to get the donations, and the fourth on the return. This method was a modified form of some advice given on a Spanish learning podcast; namely, that amyone attempting to learn two languages at the same time should study each language in a separate location.

Not far from our donor was a Barnes & Noble, where I often browsed, and sometimes shopped. On one occasion I bought Fluent Forever by Gabriel Wyner, which I’ve found to be helpful. While I don’t follow everything he says, he has influenced my language learning strategy. For example, as a result of what I read in his book, I now, whenever I develop an interest in another language, look up pronunciation resources first. Wyner suggests learning pronunciation first in order to attune one’s ear to the distinct sounds of the language, thus facilitating learning, and to help ensure the learner will be understood when speaking. Another practice I picked up from Wyner is to find frequency lists of the 1000 most common words in the language, and focus on learning those words. His reasoning is that these words constitute around 75% of the words used on a regular basis. Furthermore, Wyner recommends resources for a number of languages both in his book and on his site. When I am interested in a language, I go to his site to see what he has recommended.

During and since the time I read Wyner’s book, my interest in and desire to learn other languages has increased.

A few months ago I started learning Arabic. It is widely spoken and is the language of the Qur’an, the holy book of Islam. I followed a number of Wyner’s tips for this. I started by watching Wyner’s pronunciation videos on YouTube, which even showed where one’s tongue needs to be placed to make the sounds. I did not follow his advice in getting a frequency dictionary, but I have obtained his recommended course, Mastering Arabic, which I highly recommend. In addition I made use of Memrise to help me review the words. For the time being, I have put Arabic study on hold. I do intend to continue it, as it is on my list of possible majors for my bachelor’s degree.

This essay would be incomplete without mentioning the reboot of my German learning. Main main resources were Deutsche Welle’s interactive course “Deutsch Interaktiv” and “Harry, Gefangen in der Zeit”, which is about a man trapped in a time warp, like in the movie “Groundhog Day”. German in particular interests me due to my familial connection to Germany and Switzerland, and my desire to studying in Germany. Other factors that make study in Germany attractive are relatively low tuition costs, and my enjoyment of the works of a number of German authors. Unfortunately, I am not as fluent in German as in French. However, I am able to follow along in a monolingual telenovela that Deutsche Welle, a German media outlet, made for German learners.

In the beginning of this essay I mentioned that I had seen myself as only “American”  was shocked to discover that we originate in different parts of the world and my interest in other languages was a result. This has not impacted my notion of what being American means. What it has done is to contribute to my notion of global citizenship. I have learned that most people perceive the world differently from Americans, and hope to understand those perspectives better. I have come to see that concern for others should not be limited by national borders. By learning other languages, I have more access to issues that concern people in the lands in which these languages are spoken. With this knowledge, I can make better decisions. In addition, I can reach out in solidarity on social media with native speakers. 

Why do I do this? Apart from the reasons given for specific languages, there are a number of reasons that I learn languages in general. As I mentioned in the beginning, I want to increase the number of people with whom I can effectively communicate and whom I can understand. Promotion of friendly relations among nations is essential in today’s world, and learning another’s language is an affirmation that is needed to accomplish that task. In addition, I have long wanted to live and work in another country, and I realize that I will be more employable if I speak the local language. I know that much of the world is already bilingual, so mastering a second language is not necessarily impressive. So I seek to learn multiple languages, a less common skill, which will make me more desirable as an employee. My plan is to follow the advice on a dialog from a German learning course: to learn languages and to find a field in which to specialize, as that seems to be a way to increase employability. But, in closing, the three main reasons for my language learning are as follows: it’s fun; it opens up more resources to listen to and to read; and it allows the possibility for relationships with more people, since relationships requore a common language. There is an old saying that we should make love, not war. A common language with understanding is the first step in that journey.