Some days I adventure without taking a single physical step outdoors. I begin by navigating the choppy waters of conjugations, conjunctions, and clauses. Then I arrive at an unknown frontier, one where I have to hack through the jungle of new vocabulary and construct a sentence that bridges the abyss from my vernacular to this new terrain: Spanish. My thoughts in this land are halting and deliberate. My ideas are simple:
—El tiene muchos libros. He has many books.
—Yo hablo ingles. I speak English.
Progress is difficult, some days impossible, and I am left struggling on the shore, repeating quiero, quería, querré for hours. I keep at it, however, a bit everyday because this landscape of language fascinates me. I have the keys to further my study of words and structures. Someday these keys will allow me to dream in this tongue. They will lead me to climb the summits of Márquez’s thoughts, swim in the embrace of Neruda’s phrases, and walk upon the roads fashioned by Matute.
Learning a new language has made me more aware of the one I use. Complicated rules and compositions in English I mastered without knowing their intricacies crop up with new questions. Thoughts I have designed without ado break apart and turn out to have singular names — participial phrase, appositive, past imperfective — which prance around the page.
“I am now a foreigner in two places, discovering novel facets of speech I thought I understood.”
This is complicating and adding meaning to both spaces I inhabit. Acquiring a form of communication from the outside is not the same as growing up with it. There are rules I am memorizing, but nuances I will not be able to attain. I am building a foundation with boulders instead of bricks. Inevitably, some meanings are lost to me in the translation. Learning how to speak, how to live in the argot is not something I am going to manage soon, but the possibilities ahead are part of the experience.
I marvel too at the personality of the content I am asked to ingest. These are not expressions I hear my Spanish friends utter but they are the ones I must study for perplexing reasons. The sentences themselves are a mystery, an enticing door into the infinite imagination:
—Ella debe encontrar a su marido.
She must find her husband. Where did he go? How did she lose him?
—El perro come pasta pero no bebe leche.
The dog eats pasta, but does not drink milk. Curious type of dog. Would it also eat fries? Does it prefer wine with the pasta?
A thousand tales erupt from these elementary sayings and I wonder if this is what is also taught to native Spanish speakers. Does it make them born storytellers? Even the words they choose to teach me give the language a personality different from the flavor of English: libertad, revolución, violencia, pobreza. My gained vocabulary is forcing me to pay attention to content I do not consider in English, to a larger consciousness. This too adds color to my daily adventures.
Exploring this linguistic landscape is recreating me, forging a new existence. As I delve deeper into the uncharted, I also expand. When I started learning French in school we were all given new names. The moment I stepped past Madame Moreau’s threshold I became Monique.
“A new name, a new identity in order to acquire the new speech.”
Though I keep my name in Spanish class, I have that same feeling. Soy diferente, a hidden me revealed. The brisk shortness of Spanish sentences, the ability to obfuscate the single subject, the cadences of speech are becoming a part of the multilingual me. Without the full weight of its culture, I experience the lightness of the language’s being. It is an exhilarating relationship I am looking forward to deepening for years to come.
The best linguists are ones who begin at an early age. Research shows that bilingual brains function differently than monolingual ones. Learning more than one language restructures the neural networking system and enhances structural plasticity. This allows those who frequently speak more than one language to process and control the intake of sound quickly and easily in challenging or new environments.
How have you dealt with tackling a new language? What language has been the hardest for you to learn and why?
Very interesting post!! I feel like a different person when I speak Italian, I’m almost childlike. Sometimes I’m amazed at the kind of language learner I am. But like you said, progress is difficult It’s so slow to the point that it can get demotivating and frustrating. That’s why I almost mock those articles which claim to learn languages in a few months!! Hahaha!!
I agree…language is a lifelong learning process as you said. Even the languages I feel most comfortable in I know I haven’t learned everything there is to know. Plus language is not a fixed thing…it changes as society changes…as cultures develop. I’m currently intrigued by the ways in which new ideas of how to be human are being introduced into many languages around the world. Thanks so much for stopping by to read and chat!
I love languages period and speak 3 myself fluently. I could get in and out of trouble in French but I wounldn’t put it in my resume. Such a great post. Learning a new language whether out of necessity or curiosity changes you. You become more aware of the small intricacies of your own tongue and you realize and pick up on similarities. You realize certain words or thoughts just sound better in one language over the other but either way you appreciate both. Kudos to learning a new language. And like anything in life, practice makes perfect 🙂 Good luck!
Thank you for the encouragement. How true that certain thoughts sound more poetic or seem to carry more weight when said in a particular language. I was always fascinated by the fact that my French teacher would allow us to swear in French while in the classroom, but not in English. 🙂
I took German in high school, didn’t learn all that much, and then took it up again along with Italian as an adult, reaching advanced levels. Learning a language is hard work, but it gets you so much closer to the culture. There’s nothing like having a meaningful conversation in a foreign language – on so many different levels. From the shear sense of mastery and accomplishment to the wealth of opportunities it opens up in terms of really getting to know someone from another cultural background. It allows you to see things differently, to view the world from an alternative perspective, to use the logic or the ambiguities or the certainties of another people, complete with their own set of rules and modes of expression. But it’s not something you can learn and set aside, particularly if you don’t live in the country of the language. It’s a commitment – and if done right, enjoyable. Kudos to you for savoring the experience.
Thank you for sharing your experiences with German and Italian and also for dropping by to read the story.
Amazing post, I love your way of writing, it’s super pleasant to read, and the message this article conveys is something I completely agree on.
I’m a language passionate too, I chose to attend a high school whose main focus is on foreign languages and I thought this way I would have become proficient at at least three of those, but the path to follow when learning a language, just as you said in the article, is much more difficult than what I thought.
I had studied English for 9 years at school before going to Ireland for a month when I was 16 and when I got there I realised I was still extremely bad at it. However, that’s what instilled in me the determination to go further and to try harder and in a couple years I had improved significantly.
Then I decided to set off for China last summer and I spent a month there living with a Chinese family. I was pretty cool about it because, even though my Chinese was nowhere near proficiency, I still thought I could express some basic ideas. Well, I couldn’t haha
It was extremely hard for me at first because I couldn’t understand anything they’d say to me and they couldn’t understand me due to my super wrong pronunciation and my weird Italian accent. But after a couple weeks I was starting to understand more and more and I was really starting to appreciate every single thing of their daily routine as well, I was learning about their language and their culture at the same time and that felt amazing.
As you said, it’s impossible for a non-native speaker to get some nuances of a foreign language, but learning it is the best way to get to know a culture and to live it!
Love your blog! Have a super nice day! 🙂 xx
Thank you for sharing your story about learning different languages with us! I think practice is definitely the key to mastering any foreign language and it must have been a wonderfully immersive experience to get to try your Chinese skills with your host family!
Lovely post. I have to say, it’s not so easy to find people that link language to culture: I am a language and translation student, and so many of my fellows just study grammar completely avoiding literature, for example. I just can’t, I think that language evolves with culture and reverse: it’s an unbreakable connection. I have experienced a little what you said in the first paragraphs, about getting more aware of the first language we speak, while we start learning a new one. My first language it’s not learned world-wide, and that makes me a little sad, because when I started with Spanish and Chinese, I found that grammar structures are very different – in an easier way, for what concerns Chinese. I am experiencing some struggles in Spanish, I’ve been abroad to correct things like pronunciation, but I have to say that I love to read in Spanish, sometimes I like to speak it, but I hate to write it. For me, it’s even more difficult than Chinese, and that’s a nice thing, because you cite studies about how the brain works with languages. That’s probably because Chinese Language uses a different part of the brain, not connected with language learning, especially for writing: it’s a different “hemispheric dominance”, as they call it.
I have been in countries that speak the languages I’m learning many many times, always trying to be alone if the purpose was studying, that’s a thing I love, try to melt in a different environment, and I have to say, I always find it in your blog, with very nice words, well portrayed. This particular article made me look at Spanish in a different way, and I’m glad for that. I’ll try to remember your words, next time I have to deal with a hard spanish text.
Thank you for sharing your experience both learning Spanish and with Chinese. Eastern and western languages do not share grammar or sentence structure or a common alphabet to work with and this makes going back and forth between the two extremely difficult. With Chinese, so much also depends on tone which makes it even harder to master as a non-native speaker. Tackling the two is surely giving your brain a challenge! Good luck with your studies.
A lovely post. I remember learning English, the excitement when I first could understand a paragraph, then the joy when I could sense volumes unsaid in that paragraph, and later still when I could FINALLY feel the beat of the language in English poetry. I’ve been an English speaker for 25 years, living in the US 17 years. All of my adult education was in English to the point where I simply cannot hold a complex conversation in Russian with an equal ease — Russian now is the language I learn from the English base. And with all that, I JUST NOW began to truly enjoy poetry in English. Finally truly, deeply, instinctively feel it. After 25 years. Does this mean I am bilingual? Can I still call Russian my “native” language? I no longer rely on it as my primary expression of thought. Did that change my personality, the way I experience the world? Thanks for making me muse about all this.
I think the language we dream in and think in becomes a part of our cultural heritage. At the same time, though you may no longer speak Russian fluently, some aspects of growing up in that culture must still be a part of you?
Interesting piece. I learned Spanish when I lived in Spain, and I feel it is slipping away now as I don’t use it very often – but even when I speak Spanish, I do feel I have a new identity so to speak and I think that is inevitable when we take on another language. That is, if we do it properly. In my opinion, you can’t just learn a language by learning word patterns and grammar rules: you have to learn the culture, understand the people and get to know the language as more than a set of language rules presented neatly in a book. I teach English to speakers of other languages, and that’s the line I take with my students: it’s more than just a language 🙂
I think the cultural context is what makes it so difficult to master a new language, because it is something native speakers are immersed in from the beginning and do not often give much thought to since it becomes natural to them.