What I Learned While Trying to Learn a New Language

Hello, hallo, bonjour, buongiorno, epa, hola, and cześć!

I’m at it again — every few years I am overcome by a desire to learn a new language. I’m a proper language nerd and have spent months of my life obsessing over the most obscure bits of grammar. I have spent a lot of money on dictionaries. I also own Mickey Mouse magazines in seven languages, although that probably only sounds exciting in my own head. But for all the gadgetry, I’m not a complete fake. I have actually managed to learn a few languages and gain qualifications in three of them. I still can’t count in French or flirt in Italian, but hey. Theoretically, I’m qualified.

And now, for reasons of love and family, I need to learn Polish. I have decided it’s going to happen this time (because I’ve tried before, oh how I have tried!), and I have picked up my books again. If I’m able to go to my local Polish shop and strike up a conversation with the staff by next summer, I will have succeeded and can work on realizing my plan of spending a gap year in Warsaw. Until then, my life will be a mix of a wide range of “s” sounds and a whole lot of frustration. But it will happen, because I’m old and wise and have learned the following:

  1. Find an old-school textbook. An old school one, even. I’ve tried many a Teach Yourself book, and they don’t work for people like me. While the concept of diving straight into real-life conversation is appealing, I need to know what I’m doing. I need grammar. I love grammar. It’s logical, and full of rules. I love rules. If you want to scare me senseless, tell me to improvise anything. If you want to make me happy, teach me a conjugation rule and give me a list of verbs.
  2. Don’t bother with tapes. Or whatever they use these days. I used to have a Teach Yourself Basque tape, and I only remember one sentence. It translates as, “There are no Americans living here, only us.” Don’t ask, although I have to say that I once stunned an entire travel group of Basques with this gem. My point is that hearing new words doesn’t do a thing for me. I can’t remember anything unless I’ve read it. Which is why textbooks are the only way forward for us visual types.
  3. Teachers are only as good as their grammar knowledge. I have a Pole at home and am generally surrounded by his compatriots. But ask any of the friendly folk whether a certain noun requires a third person singular, or an accusative, and they will all say the same thing: “I don’t know, I just… know what to use.” While good for them, this is no use for me. I need a grammar nerd to give me a quick answer, so I don’t have to leaf through my textbook. And while some teachers are grammar nerds, mine usually weren’t. I had a French teacher who would constantly ask us to learn little essays by heart and then grade our recitals. Which is why the only complex French sentence I know is, “La Loire prend sa source dans le Massif central et se jette dans l’Ocean Atlantique.” You never know when that might come in handy, I guess. The French teacher after that would just show us his French holiday photographs. My Polish teacher at university often had her pronunciation ridiculed by Polish-speaking students. I never trusted her after that. And my daughter’s German has become worse since she started having German lessons at school…
  4. Group settings are not for everyone. I suppose it can be helpful to have someone with whom to share your troubles and successes, but if you suffer from social anxiety, you will be better off studying alone. The before-mentioned Polish course at university was full of second-generation Polish native speakers who wanted to learn to write and read the language. It was terrifying for me to even read words out loud because I felt I was being judged by a bunch of people who were already soooo good at it. I was too embarrassed to continue the course. The same goes for trying to use my Polish husband as a sounding board. I love him dearly, but I can’t stand the thought of him inwardly giggling at my mistakes. So I plan to learn everything first and then speak in complete, perfect sentences. (You may laugh, but that’s exactly how my daughter learned to talk. I hope it runs in the family.)
  5. Immerse yourself in the culture of your dreams. I know exactly why my Italian sucks: I was never even remotely interested in Italian culture. I refused to go on exchange trips, I never even tried to search for Italian radio stations, and I didn’t try to order in Italian in an Italian restaurant. Of course it couldn’t work! These days, I listen to the music, eat the food and watch the movies. Polish is already a big part of my life, and although I’ll never be as awesome as the 13th warrior, I will get there.

What languages would you like to learn? Which ones have you mastered, and how did it happen? Let’s have a conversation down in the comments!

By Karo

Schnazzy East German translator and cricket obsessive residing in England. I have other qualities, too.

10 replies on “What I Learned While Trying to Learn a New Language”

I speak Spanish ok — well enough that I can get the gist of what I’m hearing when native speakers are talking, but speaking it, I’m not as good. I can get it out, but I’m slow to immediately think of it. I read and write it much better!

So I definitely have found myself saying, “Lo siento, mi español está malo” — “I’m sorry, my Spanish is bad.”

I also know tiny bits of French — again, better reading it — and “Hello” in a handful of languages, as probably most people do.

I studied German at the university level for two years because I had a lot of German friends at the time. Unfortunately, I no longer have any German speaking friends I regularly speak to, so I’m very rusty. I recently took a semester of Spanish. My grandfather was from Puerto Rico, and so I look at trying to learn Spanish as an effort to reconnect with that part of my heritage. But, I haven’t had an opportunity to learn more. Finally, I have been learning Oneida, my Indigenous language, in bits and pieces for my whole life and recently completed my Master’s project on the shift from Oneida to English in my family. I hope to begin taking Oneida language lessons soon through the Tribe’s language department and learn a bit about or new two year immersion academy.

Good luck with the Polish!

It’s such a cool language, and I actually got pretty far grammar-wise before… well, life happened. I’ve never been to the Basque Country, but it’s not that far away, so soon enough I’ll go and order an ice cream in Euskara. NOBODY will understand me, hehehe. (Oh, and if you were wondering, it’s “Hemen ez dira amerikarrak bizi, hemen gu bizi gara!”)

Ich studiere (?) Deutsch y español right now! I started Spanish in high school, kept it around during college and ever since has been trying to keep it up through Duolingo.

I picked German because I’m frustrated that I love to visit Berlin but don’t feel comfortable going around alone without my German-speaking boyfriend. Jetzt geht an!

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