The Strange Path to Language Learning

No one tells you when you select Spanish or Latin or Chinese in secondary school just what you’re getting into. Neither do they tell you that the chances of you graduating with any real proficiency is close to nil. Even the most motivated students struggle to comprehend real life conversations after four consecutive years of language learning in US schools. My own experience corroborates this, and I was among the most highly motivated language learners on the block.

That said, if you want to develop proficiency, you can. If you are willing to take

what I call the strange path to language learning.

The path to language learning begins in different ways. Mine began at the moment I realized that others spoke languages different than mine. I was around seven when I realized I did not understand what my great-grandparents were saying. Ever. This first-hand experience listening to family members converse in a mysterious tongue made me curious and jealous at once. Why didn’t I have the key to decoding their words? Maybe my brain wasn’t open to it, I remember concluding.

Most children don’t have the self-awareness to go to Mom and Dad and tell them that they want to learn another language; I certainly never thought of it. Instead, I spent hours creating languages and teaching fake words and made-up sounds to my siblings, creating dictionaries, folk stories, and cultures which needed to be copied and applied in order to play the game right. Sometimes the language employed guttural sounds English did not. Other times, quick codes supplied the basic vocabulary needed and creole-like, we strung along just a few staccato utterances to communicate. How vividly I remember my giant sketch pads propped up on the picnic table, and the enormous effort with which I belted commands at my siblings. I’m sure their memories were bent in another direction.

My parents might not have known right off the bat of my love for languages, but looking back they must know they influenced it. Both Mom and Dad took German in high school and peppered dinner conversations with simple commands around the house. “Kommen Sie her bitte schnell,” Mom would call. “Come quickly,” she was saying, although later I learned this was a formal rather than colloquial way to beckon us. Another favorite she tossed around to my dad “ich liebe dich” or I love you. I don’t remember my mom translating these little phrases, but what I recall is I didn’t ever hear my friends’ parents doing anything similar to this. Language games were unique in my family I concluded. Most of all, they provided the positive worldview about language learning and an attitude of openness about the possibilities learning one might unlock.

Fast forward to middle school. Just before I began 7th grade I discovered the language resources in our local library. I quickly discovered people from Latvia spoke Latvian, not Latin; at the same time, I learned Latin was no longer a spoken language. No matter, I forged on and determined to search for Latvian language tools. Unfortunately, there were none in our township library. Rather than checking the downtown library which I am sure would have had plenty of options, that path steered me to a different idea–why not Russian? It was the Russians (Soviets) who took over Latvia and forced my great-grandparents out of their homeland in the 1940’s. Perhaps I should try my hand at Russian.

Thus the strange path to language learning turned…to the unlikely candidate–Russian. I taught myself Cyrillic in middle school, and I filled little notebooks with block letters, unaware of the manuscript style actually employed by Russian-speaking people. I loved the way some Cyrillic letters had look-a-like letters which made it simple to read street signs like Baskin Robbins and Coca-Cola. Even better were letters that were false friends, letters which carried a different phonetic sound than what you’d expect. (Imagine seeing the letter N but always thinking of it and pronouncing it as P.) The best, however, were the altogether foreign letters and sounds which I had to simply commit to memory. These were like a new code!

The path to language learning would wind away from my goals again in high school. No one was teaching Russian in Indianapolis so my forays into that language halted. Instead, I was given the choice of French or the more practical, Spanish. But more disappointing than not getting to study Russian was the fact that NO ONE was teaching the language in the way a language should be taught. Through use.

I would so anticipate the first class of each semester. I was certain that my instructor would open the class “in character,” by speaking only the language we were learning. Yet class after class, year after year, language after language, I was disappointed to hear “Good Morning, students,” with the word Bienvenidios staring back at me from the whiteboard. It wouldn’t be until college that I would get an immersion experience. And then it wouldn’t be until graduate school that an expectation that I should produce the language with my own voice would come.

Who are you?

It was Galina Galinsky in Chicago, IL, who asked me who I was in Russian, expecting an in-Russian response on Day 1. I had somehow convinced the administrator who’d helped me populate my course schedule that I could skip Russian 101 and jump right into year 2 as I’d been studying the language on my own. It did help that I had also taken a trip to Russia and at least recognized the sounds and some very basic phrases. Expressions like thank you, please and the like. That move of confidence moved me along on that path further than I’d ever before moved.

“Who are you?” She asked in Russian. I stared back her, my eyes wide and mouth dry.

I have no idea what exactly it was that I said, but I will tell you I learned more in 30 minutes than I had in 10 years. I furiously took notes, realizing that NO ONE wrote in block letters, while trying to copy everything Galinski wrote and said verbatim. I wish I had that notebook! I learned a couple months later that March 8, my birthday, was International Women’s Day, and how important that was around the world. Why had I never heard of it before then I wondered. Most of all, Galinsky challenged me to use the language daily, pruning my pronunciation, giving me poems to recite—the whole first stanza of Tatyana’s letter to Onegin by Pushkin, which I learned and performed in front of an audience of Russian-speaking students and their families later that year. Without missing a beat, the words come back to me. Я к вам пишу – чего же боле? Что я могу еще сказать? Those few words translated seem so simple, yet changed the way I understood language forever, “I write to you—what more? What else can I say?” I felt the language in the poet’s heart, I gained a sense of the way words bleed one into the next. I began to grasp the emotion behind the words, and once that was done, I had no trouble letting the words tumble out one after the other.

When I returned to Russia that very summer (it had been three years since my first trip), I arrived with the knowledge and power of expressing myself. I quickly discovered phenomena that seemed hilarious to me–like the way a 2nd language (Spanish) pushes itself into a 3rd language (Russian) and creates a sentence neither a Russian nor Spanish speaker would understand. I discovered the curious-behavior of code-switching, and finally the all-too frustrating experience of not being able to answer a question you understand because you don’t have the words to do so. In the path of language learning loomed a great big sign. I saw it with excitement.

Let language happen.

That following year I left Chicago and moved back to my hometown Indianapolis, a place I’d been absent six of the previous seven years. I committed myself to letting language happen. The path of language learning was strange, I reminded myself. It wasn’t going to happen in a linear way, by building block upon block of knowledge. I wasn’t going to ever be able to speak or understand others by repeating phrases from my Berlitz texts. Rosetta Stone wouldn’t even do the trick (and I had gotten my hands on it!) because there was no substitute for a true conversation partner. I needed native or near-native speakers, anyone who would talk to me to do that—TALK.

That summer I found three Spanish speaking friends who did just that. I was traveling to Mexico for a trip and wanted to be able to communicate. I enjoyed reading signs and deciphering the traveler’s guides, but I wanted to be able to talk with real people who were there. I planned to bypass everything I’d learned about language learning and go by what made the most sense to me—just talking to others.

The only direct instruction I received during that time was this—listen for the verb. The verb carries the direction of the sentence and everything else revolves around it. Why hadn’t my 9th grade Spanish teacher taught me that? Why instead had I pulled my hair out in frustration trying to make the Spanish ser and estar fit into my English schema?

That July when we arrived in Tijuana I realized with a gulp of disappointment yet a final twist in the path to language learning. While my instructors—my conversation partners—were from three different parts of the Spanish-speaking world, none of them had prepared me for the way the very poorest of the poor in this sprawling town would speak. We were there for 10 days. By day 10, the middle-aged woman for whom we were building a home and I understood each other well. I proclaimed that I would write her and that we would stay connected forever. While my conversations had made it easier for me to learn how to understand her, here was yet another lesson learned on the path—the flexibility to pick up and use of colloquial expressions, vocabulary and structures.

There were plenty of positive memories made too! In those 10 days I suddenly began journaling in Spanish. I couldn’t possibly retell what was happening in English, when I was doing so much thinking in Spanish. Such were the milestones in the journey, along that path.

In conclusion

That tug and pull of comprehension and production must absolutely be present in the learning process is what I concluded. All the curiosity in the world would only get me so far—into the curls and curves of foreign letters maybe, but not much deeper than my National Geographic magazines alone could take me. The real learning would take place in the conversations, in the continual working of the thing—a process of learning which resembled no other discipline I had tried (or have tried since).

After several trips abroad, I settled into one this truth about language learning, and it is for this reason that as an instructor of American English that my classes are nearly 100% conversation-based. Yes, grammar pops her head up, and pronunciation lessons emerge, but the language itself teaches you how to teach, and the culture around it does the same. I promote the idea that exposing patterns in language like conjugations of verbs and irregular endings and prepositions helps with sense-making, but without immediate and repeated real-life application of those discoveries, these things don’t and won’t stick.

The path to language learning has been strange for me, and has been anything but complete. I don’t speak Spanish fluently and the proficiency I could claim in Russian is quite sad (but my journey isn’t over!) Perhaps this is simply an American problem, specific to kids born in the 80s who moved through secondary school in the 90s and college in the 00’s. Whatever it is or was, it’s one I would love to challenge. To see kids’ minds being opened to new languages before middle school and not just in private schools where those with money can afford, but in public schools where anyone in any state could choose an immersion option for their children.

And so it is here I finish, with the very point which stirred the beginnings of my own strange path to language learning. English is a wonderful language, but it’s far from the only one!

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