Saturday, November 14, 2015

Thoughts on Teaching Yourself a Foreign Language

For years, I've wanted to learn French, in the same vague way that I've wanted to go to yoga every week or start meditating. But in high school I took Spanish (French wasn't an option at my school) and satisfied my craving for France by watching subtitled foreign films while eating chocolate and feeling very glamorous.
In high school Spanish wasn't something I ever looked forward to because, like any class, it meant deadlines and homework and those nerve-wracking oral exams where you had to convince the rest of your classmates that you knew exactly what the linguistic dance tripping out of your mouth meant, even if you couldn't roll your 'r's. 

After quitting school and deciding to focus on things that I really wanted to learn, I realized that holy crap, I actually wanted to know how to talk to people who didn't speak English. Kids across the world grow up bilingual or trilingual, and here we are in America expecting everybody to know English. I mean, really! But I digress. My point: I actually like languages and I want to know more of them.

By now I have realized that I actually don't dislike Spanish. I dislike being bad at speaking it. I want to be fluent. So the solution? Work hard, practice and get better! The thing is, I'm good with Spanish. Spanish is fun. I've used it in a bunch of different work scenarios when I've encountered customers who don't speak English. I'm making my way slowly through a Spanish copy of "El Cuaderno de Maya" by Isabel Allende, which requires a translation dictionary but which I can grasp the main idea of pretty quickly.


I want to learn French! Luckily for me, since I got back to the US I haven't had much else on my plate besides running and work, which means I can basically set aside a few hours each day to create my own French class. I think this is a fantastic idea and everyone should try it because

 a) it's important not to be the American tourist who visits another country and gets confused when no one speaks English 

b) language-learning is good for your brain according to all sorts of research, I'm sure, and 

c) being able to speak another language is FUN. 

However, as with all things, there are both ups and downs when learning a new language. So without further ado...


In other words, why this is an awesome idea and also kind of tricky to pull off. 

1. It's easiest if you already have experience learning another language, especially one of similar origin. For me it's been pretty easy to switch from Spanish to French, because I can recognize structural patterns, and the way things are conjugated and organized is pretty consistent. I spent 8 years working on figuring that all out in Spanish, though, so I think if you are trying to teach yourself your second language instead of anything after that, you will need to work a little bit harder at learning the structure. 

2. Along the same vein, you'll probably be better off if you know the definitions of things like pronouns and infinitives and all that because to be honest I'm still not clear on half those terms. I have a weird thing where I understand how to use grammar really well, but not how to explain the way I'm using it. So maybe give yourself an online grammar refresher before you start (note: this can be accomplished for free through excessive Googling).

4. USE DUOLINGO. For those of you who haven't heard of this bit of brilliance, it's both a website and an app (an app that works on even MY phone, which is so outdated it doesn't have a front camera or SnapChat and refuses to progress from the beta version of Instagram). You can pick from any number of languages (I'm working on French like a maniac, refreshing Spanish when I feel like it, and trying Italian on occasion) and you go from basic words into more complex phrases and sentences. It's free, too! The best thing about this, apart from it being a great learning tool, is that it encourages you to practice every day by letting you know how many days in a row you've met your personal target (which you get to set). I'm currently on a 153 day streak, and I'll be DAMNED if I'm going to break that! It's good motivation if you're weirdly competitive like I am.  

5. Once you start strengthening your understanding of the new language, work on your comprehension by finding a ton of reading material in that language. Don't freak out, you don't have to understand it all right away! Surrounding yourself with that language through music, films, or blogs written by people overseas is a great way to familiarize yourself with the feel of the words.

Pictured above is my collection of French reading material…

- a copy of French Vogue
- a French translation of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
- an evil French textbook that assumes someone is teaching me French as I struggle through it, occasionally throwing my hands up when it asks me to translate a bunch of words I've never seen before or hold a conversation with an imaginary classmate
- an old copy of French for travelers a coworker gave me (her daughter-in-law's French mother doesn't speak English)
- a cute book of Parisienne French slang

6. Hold yourself accountable! Again, this is why Duolingo works so well. Practicing for even five minutes a day will keep you fresh, though longer is preferable. But don't let yourself slack off, or you won't learn! Language learning has to be consistent to be effective- that's one of the reasons language immersion programs are so successful. 

7. The biggest challenge you'll run into is knowing whether or not you're pronouncing anything right… but this is what YouTube is for! There are so many French pronunciation videos on there it's ridiculous.  Virginie Paradis has a channel that highlights some unusual slang and phrases. I've been to couple of her in-person events as well, which helped with my pronunciation and improved my knowledge of language quirks!

8. Try to find other people who speak the language you're learning and beg them to listen to you stutter through phrases you've only seen on paper. I signed up for a bunch of French conversation groups on, and though I haven't made it to an event yet, I've heard it's a great way to get your tongue accustomed to making foreign noises.

9. HAVE FAITH. At some point it will start to click. Even if you can't even begin to say you're fluent, even if all you can ever remember is the ability to greet people and ask them where the bathroom is, it's still something. It's still progress. Just remember to practice every day, don't be afraid to make mistakes, and enjoy learning how a new way to communicate!


I'd been working on this post for a few days, already focused on it's French theme when I found out about the attacks on Paris. To me, and to so many other dreamers, young and old, Paris is an emblem of light. Of beauty, of hope, of peace. I'm not saying it's perfect. Nowhere is. But nor does any place deserve the kind of horror that the those in Paris have had to go though this Friday. If you have the money to help, donate to one of these organizations, and if not than please join me in sending love, hope and thoughts to those affected. 

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