10 Truths About Learning Languages: Let Me Motivate You!

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.

Fourteen in Florence, with Maxi, Horst, Kelly, a bad perm and Hash buckle jeans

Fourteen in Florence, with Maxi, Horst, Kelly, a bad Toni perm and Hash buckle jeans

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.

First visit to Rome's Coliseum

First visit to Rome’s Coliseum

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.

My baby brother Aaron, who began learning German in an Austrian kindergarten. He still speaks it along with other languages.

My baby brother Aaron, who began learning German in an Austrian kindergarten. He still speaks it along with other languages.

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.

First glimpses of Geneva, Switzerland, over 30 years ago.

First glimpses of Geneva, Switzerland, over 30 years ago.

SA19 1977 IT Slz CH259

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.


Still fourteen, and still playing the cello.

Still fourteen, and still playing the cello. Back then.

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!

Chen Xihua, my Mandarin teacher, visiting me in my new home outside Geneva, Switzerland.

Chen Xihua, my Mandarin teacher, visiting me in my new home outside Geneva, Switzerland.

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.

My first ever visit to Switzerland. Fourteen again.

My first ever visit to Switzerland. Fourteen again.

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.

Salzburg, Austria, 1978. View over the Festung.

Salzburg, Austria, 1978. View over the Festung.

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?

25 thoughts on “10 Truths About Learning Languages: Let Me Motivate You!

  1. I learnt German and French in school. I never really mastered German but probably because my Dad was so anti-German so I never got the opportunity to go. Today when I have been to Germany I was surprised at how much I had actually learnt and what I could remember, it just came to me naturally.
    French on the other hand I lived there for 22 years and have only just returned to the UK. I agree it opens your eyes, you see people differently, you understand their way of thinking because you understand their language. You appreciate their way of seeing the world because you understand their culture completely. It is amazing to speak another language.You can agree to disagree with someone because you can speak their language.
    I only wish I had time for to learn more !

    • How wonderful. I’d love to know how school did or didn’t help, especially from a UK perspective, and how that differed from living in France.

      And where did you live in France? (You know I’m curious 🙂


      • School did help. I was lucky that my French teacher was French. So she always brought magazines for teenagers etc from France making what we were learning more real. Having a solid grammar base was useful, although I learnt so much in my first six months in France. I could learn a word and use it the next day ! I remember learning the word “carrément” meaning a sort of “really” but only in certain situations, being in France I was able to use it quickly. Reading and watching TV is so important when learning a language just keep listening to intonation, rhythm and pronounciation.
        I lived in Paris for 16 years, 4 years near Grasse on the Riviera and 3 years in Montpellier. Paris will alway be my adoptive city.

      • Lovehound, That’s another “Truth” that people should know: if you learn even one new word each day, the strangest thing will happen, you’ll find a way to employ it the next day.Every single word is a triumph. And phrases?! You are on your way.

        And I remember the moment I learned “au fur et à mesure”, which I then tried to use in every conversation. The daily usage is what makes it stick. And then the TV, yes, it was an enormous help in Norway, with little children who had to learn and quickly. French talk shows taught colloquialisms and inflection (and how to gesture and purse the lips and let out a puff of air, of course). And German crime shows. Mandarin. . lots of old martial arts movies, which are quite difficult to follow. When outside of the environment where the language is floating around you all the time, reading is an excellent means of keeping it alive.

        Such a pleasure to make this connection!

  2. Thank you for your insights in learning other languages, it has really encouraged me as I am in the midst of trying to tackle Korean. 🙂
    I learn languages much as you do, by ear. I can’t tell you how much trouble I would get in German class for saying something not “quite right” to which I would say “but it sounds right”! Yet I think that is, in my opinion, how one learns languages and culture the best, through the actual experience with the people and tongue.
    Thank you again, and best wishes! 🙂

    • Korean, Kudos!!! That’s a far cry (emphasis on “Cry”) from German. I’m so happy for you. I’ll love to hear how you do this, who makes up your Korean community, and when you’ll live in the heart of Seoul. (You aren’t there yet, are you?)

      I love your comments, Jennifer. They’re helpful and generate careful thinking.


  3. It’s Dalton’s comment I need the most. Check my ego at the door. I live in a houseful of linguists (you’ll see). Erik is extraordinarily gifted at languages as are my children. But me? I have no EAR. No ear for music, none for language. Goodness, I pronounce “gesture” and “glower” wrong 90% of the time. But I’ve determined– just because I’m not as good as them doesn’t mean I can’t try. And yes, I may never gain perfect cadence and rhythm, but I can still stumble along.

    My boys love Harry Potter books for learning languages and they swear by the iPhone Duolingo app.

    • Michelle, Not to despair! I had a German professor whose grammar was impeccable, whose vocabulary was vast, whose knowledge of early Romantic German lit was staggering (he’d quote things verbatim from obscure texts and footnote them as an aside), but whose pronunciation was closer to South Chicago than High German. Still, his ability to communicate was intact and disarming. That’s what counts! And he had a powerful effect as a pedagogue. Great man.

      And. . .I’m going to have to educate myself about iPhone apps for language helps. I’m essentially a dictionary stalker.

      Warmth all the time-

  4. So true, true, true! All of it. Being a land-locked American with Canada my closest neighbor (where they all speak at least two languages but where every American knows they can get by with English if they visit), it’s hard. It’s hard work, you really have to seek out a non-classroom experience in some parts of the country, and motivation can be hard to come by. It’s not difficult to understand the intellectual reasons why you should speak at least two languages, or why it’s important for your kids. But making it happen in a rural part of the country can be tough.

    Jeg snakker litt norsk, som du ved. Jeg kan forstå enkel setninger vis jeg kan lese dem. Men vis jeg høre norsk, det er som jeg har aldri lært enn ord. Husk at jeg studerte norsk for bare 6 uker og det var mange år siden. Men jeg husker noen og jeg hoper å studere mer i Provo. Jeg har ingen å snakke med, so jeg har limits. See? Jeg kan bruke Mango Languages gjennom min bibliotek og jeg kan bruke alle min gammele norskurs bøker og jeg kan snakke med meg… men det er ikke nok. Jeg trenger mer. Mer er vansklig å finne i Vermont. Ja, det er mer på the internet… men det er som å svømme opp elva. Hvordan kan man progress? (Btw, I didn’t check that through google translate so you could see the full effect of years of neglect.) (I hear rumor that my new neighbors in Orem are Norwegians. Hurra! And, yikes!)

    As you said, much of the magic of learning a new language comes as small victories are won. They do so much for the continued motivation. Learning to direct the taxi driver to my house in Cairo or Ankara were red-letter days for me. But I never became fluent and always stood outside the cultures there. (Not enough time in the country was my excuse.) However, whatever I was able to absorb definitely changed my thinking and opened up the culture so that I began to understand their worldview through the vocabulary, grammar, idioms, and social customs. It’s humbling. And also addictive. 🙂

    • Maren, du kjære deg (og her skrev jeg ikke “du kjære kjerring”, som er noe helt annet. . .) jeg er mer enn litt imponert! What is so thrilling about learning languages in the world of today’s finger-tip access to technology, is the facility with which we can passively (and actively) engage in a language. Imagine: when I first began doing this, over 20 years ago (and that was after several international residencies without a family in tow), I had no email, no FB, no Google translate, no online language anythings. I had my dictionary, my mouth, my ears, my eyes, and torso rumbling with motivation.

      Only recently (like…last month), I allowed myself for the first time ever to resort to Google translate. (I was tired of switching keyboard languages for my international emails.)

      Oops.Do I sound like I’m making myself look heroic? I think it’s more an issue of just being out-of-the-loop. And loopy. I just never thought of looking for short cuts.

      How I now wish I’d had all these language-aids back in the day!! Theoretically, those wanting to learn language today have every reason to be learning it faster, with greater ease and with less expense. The obvious hitch, of course, is that you’d have to be a user of technology to benefit from all the Internet offers in this regard. In truth, the World Wide Web has more holes in it that it does strings.

      What I’m afraid might nevertheless be happening (caveat: I have no research to prove this hunch), is that instead of technology increasing the anglophones’ facility with foreign tongues, it’s predominantly increasing the foreign speaker’s facility with English. Why? because the language of the Internet is generally some phonetically derived, text-y form of English. Check this out: http://www.cs.tut.fi/~jkorpela/lingua-franca.html

      So. . .backing away from my little language pulpit here. . .:-). . .It’s all a highly interesting development to be watching and participating in. For you, Maren, I can already envision your Lørdagskveld med grillmat og en stor flaske med Mozell. Jeg er rett og slett sjalu!

      Thanks for always leaving thoughtful, invigorating comments. Gotta love technology.


      P.S. Cairo? Ankara? I need some more time for an interview with you, a true Global Mom!

      • Oh, and now that I reread my comment, I see at least two spelling errors and several grammatical ones! Ugh. Yes, if one of the languages you want to learn is English, you’ve got it made in today’s world. And, yes, I think learning other languages is easier now, too. But there is no substitute for trying to learn it IN A COUNTRY WHERE PEOPLE ACTUALLY SPEAK IT. Ikke sant? How else will you learn the natural cadence of tone one and tone two? Cairo: one summer, no kids. Ankara: 9 months, one kid.. and what was probably clinical depression.

      • Maren, agreed 100%. Because of course it’s not just vocab, grammar and pronunciation one’s learning. It’s the weight of the sand in the air in Cairo. And it’s the smell of local olives in Ankara. And it’s the texture of sucking the raw eggs out of the tail of shrimp on Midaggsbukta behind Brønnøya. All those things. They are part of the symphony of language, just like the air and olives and shrimp under the midnight sun!

        Come back again (when we take up a new thread) when we can talk frankly about Ankara-9 months-one kid and what happened there.

        Thanks for your presence-


  5. I loved French when I began it at school, but that turned into a farce when we were given a new teacher who wasn’t interested in teaching anyone. We were left to catch up on homework! Then at another time, there was an opportunity to learn Spanish, which I loved. I was taken out of that class because I was needed to become more efficient in – wait for it…MATHS!!! Ugh, I was awesome, NOT with that subject…

    Then I met a German woman who became all effusive in teaching me German. I was in my 30s by now. She disappeared into her own life and I never heard from her again. Ah well, such is life.

    Love your page, love the photos

    • tellthetruth-

      No kidding. You see? A teacher can ignite or extinguish one’s passion for a language. And what a shame that Spanish got preempted by Maths. NOT that I discourage maths – not at all – but we know how maths is not really a language I speak. And how I get this eye twitch…

      So glad you’ve come by-

  6. MDB: OK, I admit I’m jealous of Horst for extracting your very first kiss—whew! Lucky Guy (and if my German revved your motor, I can only imagine how his thick Salzburgerisch must have turned your crank). But count me as one of your great admirers and fans as you have conquered Norwegian and French, and got off to a great start with Mandarin, and given the choice, I would definitely opt to be your last kiss—da’ wird’s scho glei dumpa, gel?


  7. Dear Melissa – not quite sure how I got here but I was on the point of messaging you on FB to ask when Claire left for her mission (we report to Frankfurt on YSA baptisms/marriages/missions) when I thought rather than a message, I’d do some “peeking” at your timeline to see if I could find it mentioned. No luck! But from there I found my way here. You are indeed one prolific wordsmith! One comment from me as a rather lame linguistic (and as a music Luddite but lover), is that I have always loved the sound of language – any language. On a business trip to Italy many years ago, and with absolutely no Italian, I wanted to be able to politely say so. So I learned to say “Mi dispiace io non parlo italiano”! Trouble is, I practiced the sound so much, my hosts were convinced I was merely being modest, and prattled away as if I was! The highest compliment I was ever paid on my first mission to France was, “Elder Cairns, you can’t say much, but what you can, sounds French”! Thank you for very helpful hints. I especially like the notion of overlay from one to the other – Italian here I come!! PS When did Claire leave? Love and blessings EC

    • EC: What a gift to find you wandered into this space! Thank you for sleuthing until you turned the right doorknob. Knowing your linguistic gifts, I’d bet your Italian goes beyond the one apology you write of above. I’ll bet, in fact, you can pronounce a whole pasta and pizza menu. Non e vero? 🙂

      –So gald you’re here!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s