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Monday, 22 June 2015 09:34

Why I learn languages

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Hi, my name is Lindsay, I’m 22 and I’ve just finished a degree in Spanish and German in NUI Galway. The most important things to know about me are that 1) I’m from Cork and 2) I’m an extreeeeeeeme language learner.

My early background in language learning is nothing extraordinary. Like many other Irish people, I learnt Irish in primary school then I learnt Spanish and German in secondary school. Since then I’ve done courses in Italian, Portuguese, French, Polish, Basque, Swedish and Turkish. I say I ‘learnt’ these languages or that I still ‘learn’ them, because I don’t like saying I speak a certain language- you’ll always meet people who are out to prove you otherwise! Nor do I like to put numbers on languages when people ask me how many I speak-you’re better off being humble and people will get a pleasant surprise rather than have people say ‘she’s not all that good after all!’.

People always ask how to learn a language. What I believe is the most efficient way to learn a language is, whatever you do in your native language that makes you happy, do it in the language you are learning. If you don’t have the patience to read a book in Spanish because you know you’ll have to look up every second word in the dictionary and you don’t particularly like the book in English anyway-don’t bother reading the book! Instead find another book, or turn on a comedy or a series you like watching in English, but instead, watch it in Spanish-you’re going to have the craic watching it no matter what language it’s in. And once you get this will to learn through enjoyment, you will get motivation to learn from looking forward to learning, rather than dreading it. Bouncing from that springboard, the momentum is easy to maintain, because every social interaction in the foreign language can be considered as an achievement, another milestone and hence a further incentive to keep going. In my own case with Polish, I’ve only been here a few weeks, but on the first day I felt it was an achievement that I could say ‘Hello, thank you, goodbye’ in Polish without anyone looking at me strangely, a few days later I felt the achievement of constructing a sentence longer than four words, a week in it felt great having really long conversations with people and they don’t even feel they have to switch to English, even though we both knew their English was better than my Polish. At this stage, I now feel really comfortable in terms of my speed and fluency and I genuinely feel like I’ve reached a new milestone (or maybe pebble stone would be a better word) when I use a word I learnt the day before in a book, or when I manage to nail a grammar point, because in Polish there’s a lot of grammar to be worrying about!

Many fond experiences I’ve had when starting off using a language have been times like; speaking Polish in Polish shops in Ireland; giving directions in Spain to a guy in Basque; meeting an elderly Iranian woman living in Germany who could only speak Persian and helping her put phone credit into her phone; meeting another elderly woman from Spain visiting Germany, who refused to believe I wasn’t from her country; helping a German couple communicate with a Spanish policeman at an airport after they missed their connecting flight; learning Turkish through German in university, playing soccer with a German soccer team; sitting in bus in Spain talking in Swedish for hours with the person who sat next to me; spending Friday nights at university at the Doner kebab shop where you have a deal that if you buy a kebab, a member of staff will help me with Turkish for an hour. And then I get a great kick from the confused look people give when you tell them you’re Irish. With languages, you can be who you want to be, when you want to be.

 I didn’t always particularly like languages. Like most Irish people, the first language I learnt was Irish, and to be honest, I didn’t take any particular interest in it-but neither did I hate it. I think the reason why it didn’t spark an interest in me at the start was because I could never understand why I was learning it, or why someone would want to learn any language at all. It was only half way through secondary school, when I was also learning Spanish and German, languages that are spoken in whole countries where many people can’t even speak English, that I started to love an appreciate Irish because I started viewing Irish as an actual language like Spanish and German and not as this gibberish Peig probably just made up because she had no one else to talk to. Aided by my studies of both Spanish and German in secondary school, I began to understand this and now I have an extreme pride of the Irish language, even though the language’s current situation frustrates me and I’m very doubtful about its future.

Another thing people always talk about this ‘language talent’. I don’t believe a ‘language talent’ exists, but I do believe that certain personality traits and academic strengths do assist the learning of languages. In my own case, I think that apart from having a huge interest in foreign cultures and getting super excited with the sight of a grammar table or a vocab list, I think that my good memory for words, my no-fear mentality, my love of vocal communication and my previous experience make language learning easier for me. But there are also many parts of my character which have a negative effect on my language learning, like my lack of concentration on one particular language, my ‘selective’ hearing, my lack of patience with myself and other people, and of course that Cork accent of mine needs regular moderation.

I spent a few months in Italy improving in Italian, then I spent another summer in Spain improving in Spanish and learning Basque and then I spent a year in Germany on Erasmus and now I’m in Poland on my current language adventure. I’ve been learning Polish for a while already, but not very intensively. Because I wanted to finally dedicate myself to this language for a while, I’ve come to Gdansk, Poland, where I’m now writing this.

I think you can learn a language very well in your home country as well, there are even a lot of advantages to learning a language in your home country rather than in the country where it is spoken. In your home country you are socially comfortable and settled in terms of habits and routines which can be more easily adjusted to language learning than someone who has a more unsettled lifestyle away from home and familiarity. Living in a country where you don’t speak the language very well, refusing to resort to English is a very difficult lifestyle however. Even though I consider myself a person of adequate social abilities, there are times when I avoid talking to people or entering social situations because I know my capabilities in the language are going to be stretched; I probably won’t understand what they are saying, and I’ll be embarrassed and stupid because the person I’m talking to is looking at someone in their early 20s and hearing the equivalent linguistic abilities of a two year old polish baby.

Being an experienced language learner, I now know that this language learning process isn’t about showing how great you are, it’s about being humble in your knowledge and capabilities, and fully open to new ways of saying things and new ways of thinking, in the effort to become a more cultured, multilingual, tolerant human being. It’s a hard feeling knocked down and rejected when trying to communicate in a foreign language, i.e. If you say something cringy by accident or make a stupid mistake you should have learnt 10 years ago when you started learning the language. But at the same time, most people you talk to appreciate and admire the courage and discipline you’ve invested in learning their language and, people telling you this, against all the corrections and misunderstandings, remind me that I should be delighted to have found myself a hobby that makes me a better person in all areas of life.

But refusing to speak English has its downsides. Last week, for example, I had the worst Sub at Subway ever because I could only ask for the fillings I knew the names of in Polish, rather than taking the smarter option and saying exactly what I wanted in English. So in the end I had a pretty awful salami, tomato, cucumber Sub with ketchup. It’s experiences like this that make me envy tourists who are not looking to practise the language, but I view my long-term goal of speaking amazing Polish as much more rewarding than a good Sub!

Anyway, that’s a brief summary on why I love language learning, don’t be afraid to get in contact if you’re a fellow language learning fanatic!


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Read 5020 times Last modified on Wednesday, 13 January 2016 10:14