I’m usually a pretty productive individual but I must say that I’ve been struggling with having things done in the last two months (because COVID). My workload is the same (touch wood) as before and if anything I have more time for doing cool things such as working on my Russian. And yet, I haven’t even done a Duolingo lesson in over a month.
I don’t think I have to tell anyone that life is tough at the moment, even for those fortunate enough to still have jobs. All I’ve been really doing is reading a lot and playing computer games, which are both coping mechanisms I’ve been using since childhood.
I think this is a perfect opportunity to speak about my language failures. I’m fluent in four languages but I could have been fluent in at least 7 had I been more consistent, motivated and productive. Why would I talk about these failures? Because there are lessons there to be learnt there, of course.
The Unheimlich German
German was not my language of choice. In the early 90’s German was THE language you learned as a second foreign language after English in Polish schools.
I was definitely not excited about learning it. I liked school but languages weren’t really my thing back then plus I didn’t find German particularly appealing. Also, my father’s wife at the time was a German philologist and she never failed to remind me how little of German I knew and how many mistakes I made. The school experience was full of grammar exercises, memorising vocabulary and little speaking practice. After 3 years of German and knowing only the bare essentials I was thrilled to move on to French traumatising my parents outraged at my decision of abandoning what I started. Their reaction was nothing else than sunk cost fallacy and I proved them wrong quickly.
Learning French in high school taught me I loved learning languages. After 2 years of learning with a group of beginners, I realised that by ACTUALLY learning what’s assigned you can get to an intermediate level in that time. While others still struggled with the basics, I decided to spend three weeks of my summer on a French course. When I got back to school I asked to be moved to a more advanced group of people who had 3 years of French ahead of me. The teachers didn’t love the idea and everyone expected me to fail. I was stressed, I was shy but I ended up being completely fine. I finished the year with a B in French and concluded it with the matric exam (A-levels equivalent) on both the basic (CEFR B1) and advanced (CEFR B2) level. I got 98% on B1 and 78% on B2.
What was different between my German and my French? In both cases we’re talking about 3 years. In high school I had 5 hours of French as opposed to 2 hours of German in middle school, but this doesn’t account for the difference. Most people who started with me as beginners in French spoke little French towards graduation, not more than I spoke German after middle school. Similarly, as much as there was no evil stepmother to discourage me from French, I had a number of teachers against me and the population of Paris during my course.
What really differed was: my motivation, my determination to succeed, my eagerness to show that the system is outdated and my genuine interest in French.
The Evasivo Spanish
If you google my name, you’ll find some bios of mine saying that I’m currently learning Spanish (to be fair you’ll find some saying that I’m learning Russian too, sighs). Spanish has been on my wishlist for years and years and I’ve had numerous attempts at learning it. I had two language partners during my studies I’d see regularly (it didn’t help with my Spanish that I made out with one of them and then he told me he wasn’t ready for a girlfriend!). I tried studying with books and with apps later but without much success.
In the meantime I became fluent in Italian by attending two intensive summer courses with two girlfriends and doing some annual courses in between. I took my first intensive summer course in Italian in summer 2008. In summer 2010 I took the B2 exam at my university and got a B+, leaving my examiners on the oral exam with their mouth agape.
What was the difference here? For Italian I had the structure and girlfriends to share my passion with (all hot Italian boys didn’t hurt either). For Spanish I had a liking for the language, for sure but no real structure. Also, by the time I was fluent in Italian between my French and Italian I understood a lot of Spanish which made me additionally lazy.
The Onoorkomelike Afrikaans
When I first came to South Africa, the social circle I ended up hanging out with was predominantly Afrikaans-speaking. That meant that whenever they got drunk (and we got drunk A LOT) they’d switch to Afrikaans, the language that I didn’t understand. I got an exchange partner I saw four times a week and within few months I was able to understand quite a bit of Afrikaans and have basic conversations. When the group and I drifted apart I just lacked the motivation to keep going and today I can only tell people that I speak Afrikaans a bit (n bietjie) or not at all (Ek praat nie Afrikaans nie!), depending on whether they look like someone I want to make the effort with or not.
What went wrong here? It’s complicated. There are millions of reasons why I’m no longer learning Afrikaans. One is that the people who speak it usually also speak English. The other that I feel that maybe a different South African language such as Zulu or Xhosa would be a better choice. Last but not least, my life wouldn’t really change in any positive way if I spoke it.
What about Russian?
I think it’s too early to count Russian among my language failures. The first time I tried to learn was two weeks in high school one summer with a book and CD recordings. Thanks to that experience, I can proudly say “Excuse me, does this train go to Minsk?” (Извините, пожалуйста. Этот поезд идет в Минск?) to this day!
The second time was a month before our trip to Azerbaijan in March 2019. I learnt to read Cyrillic and important survival expressions during a self-made crash course. The third time was three or four months ago when I decided to give it a try again and as you know I failed to build on my newly regained enthusiasm because COVID 19. And also, because I’m myself which means that I tend to have too many irons in the fire and apart from learning Russian I was trying to prepare to my C2 exam in Italian and make myself sound British.
Lessons From This TLDR Post
I’m certainly capable of learning languages and learning them fast too (and so are YOU and anyone who’s willing to put in the work) but the learning process requires the right circumstances to happen:
- You need something you’re excited about that has to do with the language you’re learning, in other words, you need a strong WHY for choosing a given language in the first place
- You need motivation and determination
- You need structure, ideally not entirely self-imposed (get a motivated exchange partner or even better a language tutor or enroll on a course)
- Strike while the iron is hot – maximise on your initial excitement with learning a new language and get as much done as you can then
Good luck on your language journey and good luck to me too!