My first kiss was Austrian. Age fourteen, early evening, standing at a fountain in front of a bus stop in Salzburg, saying goodbye to my Latin-looking crush. Named Horst.
You’ll forgive me that I didn’t make it kissless to sixteen. But talk about thrill.
Not about the kiss, mind you, but about having understood word-for-word the sweet goodbye promise Horst whispered into my ear, as clear to me as if he’d spoken English. With that, a surge went through me – ba-shwiiing! – and my passion (even more for languages than for Horst) was ignited.
Five languages by 40, I decided right there as I hugged teary-eyed Horst good-bye, stepped onto my bus, and pulled out into the sunset and my dusky future.
Did I know what I was vowing myself into? Of course. . .naw. But it was my first kiss, the sun was setting over Salzburg’s Festung, and, well, forty-years-old? Humph. That seemed as far away from 14 as did my hometown back in the Rockies.
Now, well past forty, I can look back on my decades of learning languages, and share some truths I was to come to know after getting “bitten” by a love for language. And for Horst.
1) It’s Work
Hard work. Inevitably, there will be times your head will hurt like your quadriceps did when you hiked Kilimanjaro with a piano on your back. Or like your biceps did when you singlehandedly pulled that boat filled with molten lead out of the bay. That kind of hurt. Why? Because your brain is doing gymnastics. While wearing chain mail and armor. With the sheer voltage of all the neuro-transmission blazing away in the brain while you try to learn a new language, your gray matter could honestly light up Fenway Park on a Saturday might. It’s that demanding. To stick to the task, you’ll have to be pretty motivated.
(A love interest never hurts.)
2) Ego? Leave it at the Door
Our Dalton insists this be no more than #2 on the list. Although he phrases it like this: “Be ready to be so embarrassed, so humiliated, so reduced by the mistakes you’ll make, that you want to dive under a table and pull huge brocaded drapes over yourself while you crawl out the nearest door.” And then he goes on; “You’ll ruin any reputation you ever had of being even this smart. Be prepared to look really, really dumb.”
This, of course, happens when you’re learning languages at any stage of life after your childhood years, when you’re oblivious to people’s judgements of you and the bloopers you’ll pop out in your new tongue. Think of being stripped down as close to the bone as you can be.
Then go below the bone.
There. That’s how self-assured you’ll be while learning a new language.
3) Younger, Better
Which makes you want to learn all your languages before the age of 12 or so. (Before 8 is reported to be even better.)
My polyglot friend, Irina, will never unlearn her Russian or Bulgarian, learned at home and in primary school. And her Czech learned from extended family from her early childhood on? Also like a second skin. Her French, perfected during university studies in Paris, took a bit more effort because she was older, she admits; but it has become a polished – native – over the years. English, she began using in earnest later in life, as she did Italian.
The research is extensive about how nimble the child’s brain is with regards to language acquisition. You know this already. But did you also know that the acquisition of a foreign language (or two, or three) before puberty will increase general cognitive ability, acuity with other subjects, and lead to greater academic tenacity overall, will facilitate a closer understanding of one’s native tongue, heighten cultural sympathy, and lead to deeper compassion?
4)You Can Get By, But You Can’t Get In
If you move to a foreign country, lucky you! You have every opportunity to adapt to a new culture and learn a language. If you chose, however, to not integrate and not learn the language, you’ve missed an opportunity. Of course, you might get by. Even well. But as research proves, you cannot enter in. By “in”, I mean into the deepest heart of any given culture without at least a rudimentary facility with the language. Think of it like this: the language of any people is like the smell and taste and sight and sound and texture of their cuisine. Until we have it in our own mouths, chew on it, swallow it and digest it so that it’s a part of us, it’s almost as if we’re staying in the living room and never going into the kitchen where it’s whipped up. In the living room we’re in their “house,” yes. But we never really taste what makes them who they are.
5) The More, The Easier
We talk glibly about laying tracks for language learning. But that figure of speech might not be so wrong. Once your brain has been trained (or tracked) for a second language, it is more capable of laying another language on top of those same tracks.
Beyond that, when the languages are related (Germanic, Romance, etc.), the structures and vocabulary are similar, and the learner has a distinct advantage. For example: German, Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, Dutch, Afrikaans, Flemish and Icelandic are language cousins. If you master one, you already have an aptitude for acquiring the next language cousin.
6) Your Ear Helps Your Tongue
My mathematical skills are abysmal.
Which seems to surprise people when they learn that I love to learn languages.
“But. . .I thought language was all about math,” some say. To which I say,”If language had anything to do with math, I would have dropped out of this international lifestyle on day one.”
So how do I do this language thing? Where I lack the head for quantum physics (or algebra), I make up with an ear for music. I was raised by professional musicians, and was a professional musician myself (a concert soprano) for years. When I approach a language, I am listening primarily for its music. I hear its cadence, its rhythm, its tones and phrasing. And then after listening and watching everyone’s mouth while they speak it, I do what I do when I sing: I mimic. I learn languages the same way I prefer to learn music. By ear.
The grammar (or math) of a language I figure out later, osmotically. So I don’t ruin the whole melody. (And that takes a lot of #1).
7) Stockpile. Then Spew.
You know, of course, that children are stockpiling the rudiments of language for months – years – before ever producing it themselves. Your snooglie-wooglie isn’t just passively watching your lips while you coo and patter away while feeding her those strained peas. She’s hurriedly building language basics. In the process, she’ll grunt, squeal, howl, belch and cry – all efforts to transform what she’s stockpiling in her brain into the complex coded cooing system you’re feeding her with her peas.
Then one day, it all erupts into active language: “Peeeeeeeeeeeeeas!”
And she’s off!
With adults, it’s really not much different. You’ll sit in your Mandarin Sunday School class (well, at least that’s what I did). And at first you’ll only hear a string of undecipherable sounds. You’ll watch everyone’s lips. Like they’re feeding you strained peas. And since they’re loving folks, they’ll try to spoon feed you.
You’ll manage a grunt.
Then your brain will snatch a word. A little conjunction, maybe. Or two words. You’ll squeal. You’ll howl.
The next week you’ll grasp a full phrase. (And that’s where you belch.)
Then next month, you understand whole sentences, concepts, a paragraph! You’re feeling so confident, you might raise your hand. . . to . . .to make a comment. Which you do. But you can only say a sentence or two.
That’s where you cry.
First, you stockpile the words. Then you produce them. Don’t be surprised if you have to receive for several weeks. Or months. One day, just watch. You’ll be spewing your own peas.
8) Not All Languages are Created Equal
Languages are different, ranking in difficulty because of size and complexity of vocabulary, grammatical structure like number of declensions, jargon, syntax, tones. A fellow blogger, Richard, has been learning Somali in his home state of Minnesota. If you want a peek at how linguists rate the difficulty of languages (and Somali rates stratospherically on that scale), stop in on his blog, Loving Languages.
Depending on your mother tongue, certain languages will be (or should be) easier than others. Nadja, my Swiss German friend, speaks Swiss German, High German, Dutch, and English. And she claims they are fairly easy for her. She studied French growing up in Switzerland and has perfected it living for many years in Paris, and also learned Spanish to serve a full-time mission for our church. Maybe – maybe? – Somali would be a challenge for her, given that it is neither a Germanic nor a Romance language, being completely unrelated in structure and tones to what she has already learned.
9) Classroom Vs. Street Language
“What you taught me was German. I trust you. But it ain’t what they’re talking at me here!”
This was a letter from a young volunteer for our church, who had been in our near-immersion courses in the Missionary Training Center where my husband and I had instructed for a combined five years. Sure, we’d given this missionary all the rules and phrases, and had done so in the cleanest, most comprehensible High German we could.
But he’d landed in Basel. Basel’s Swiss German sounds as much like High German as Beowulf sounds like The Nightly News. There’s some overlap. I swear it. But I’m not finding it.
When you learn language in a classroom, it is bound to be too artificial (and static and padded) an environment for you to have to navigate the true break-neck-speed bumper-car world of active language exchange. Don’t be surprised when you land in Palermo and your crash course Italian doesn’t match the dragon blaze coming out of the mouth of the rabid taxi driver. Or when the three semesters of high school Russian drain out of you in a lifeless puddle as you face down a burly train conductor in Moscow’s Kalishnikovo station.
10) Promoting World Peace
I’ve noted that visitors in a new culture who say, wincing with disdain, “Oh, that’s soooo French/German/Italian/Norwegian/Tanzanian/Russian” are most often those who’ve not made the effort to speak that language. They’ve chosen, in effect, to remain outsiders, the ones left standing in the living room, never eating the feast. (#4)
Learning another language besides your mother tongue allows you to look at people in a totally different manner, as real, complex, multifaceted and fascinating creations. And once you really have it swirling in your cells, it becomes part of who you are, and your judgements of that culture and of its people will be altered profoundly and permanently. You will have melted down the rigid walls of prejudice, xenophobia, rigidly destructive hyper-patriotism, and will be on your way to becoming an active agent in healing the too many breeches in humankind. You will be a vociferous defender of those people and their culture. You will – imagine this – sincerely love them.
Even more than I thought I did Horst.
What truths about learning languages would you add to this list?
What languages have you learned, and how?
What has learning languages done to your view of yourself, others and the world?