Thoughts on Language Learning

I haven’t written much recently for various reasons, but the primarily because language learning isn’t as romantic or eventful as it initially seems it would be.

It is a fascinating and infuriating experience all at the same time. Progress seems so certain yet so elusive. Whenever you feel you have something “down,” you just have to wait a few days (or hours) to see the irony of that misconception. Eventually you look back and realize that you can say more than you used to be able to say, you’re just not really sure how.

The beginnings of language learning are always so exciting. You’re learning how to greet people, introduce yourself, and order food (and the essentials like finding the bathroom). You feel smart, capable, and charming. Many native speakers appreciate your (admittedly horrible) attempts at speaking and life just feels good.

And then you realize that you actually can’t say anything of any real significance. You feel so narcissistic. Everything is about you: where you’re from, what you’re doing, and where you live. You’re learning to ask questions, but that’s more dangerous than useful. All you end up doing is staring blankly at the person’s response.

That’s usually when impatience strikes. Language is simple only on the surface but becomes magnitudes more complex if you try to say more significant things. In addition, because significant things are closer to people’s identity, native speakers are less forgiving when you make mistakes in speaking.

I like to think of these beginnings like a teenager embarking on his or her first romance. It’s just plain awkward.

You stutter. Your voice cracks. Your accent stands out like acne. You get sweaty just introducing yourself. You respond to compliments with a blank stare as every vocab word you learned escapes you. But as the relationship deepens, the potential to hurt the other person increases.

Learning a language is like growing up again. And it’s good to be surrounded by forgiving people as you pass through the “teenage stage.” Kindness gives you the courage to keep going, to keep making mistakes, because you know that eventually something might work out.

Still, as you go deeper there’s the discouraging fact that hits you every time you hold an extended conversation: you will pretty much always remain an outsider. There will always be that hint of an accent, that structure that evades your best attempts to grasp it, and the humor you just can’t seem to find funny.

Despite these difficulties, language learning is extremely rewarding. It gives you access to people you never thought possible. It opens windows into the thinking patterns of others, especially with the worldview-laden character of language. Just as building relationships with people very different from you can be difficult yet rewarding, the same goes for language. The struggle pays dividends beyond the time invested.

The key is simply to keep going. You have to keep reminding yourself that failure is a bridge to fluency–but only if you learn from it.

My Arabic teacher likes to say that Arabic is ocean. So at this stage, I’m probably still in the shallow end with my floaties on. And that’s OK. You have start somewhere to end up somewhere.

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4 responses to “Thoughts on Language Learning”

  1. xpatdiveguide says :

    You’ve expressed my experience so well! Keep with it, it will get easier!

  2. sam says :

    “Your accent stands out like acne.” I liked that sentence. 🙂

  3. vitabydesign says :

    My biggest obstacle: for 2 months I was never able to express who I was as a person, even to those that knew English as a 2nd language, because who I am is intricately tied to American English. Cross-culture experience was a lot more depressing and humbling that I expected. Keep at it though! You’re being stretched and grown in ways many will never get to. And have humility many can’t ever have 🙂

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