The Perils of Language Learning

In 9th grade I had to pick between Spanish or French and even though I had French speaking family at home, I had absolutely no interest in either. And to make matters worse, I had a pretty serious condition called “computer programmer” – which made my 8:20 AM class about the last possible place I could ever learn anything. I chose French, and specifically remember waking up (having fallen asleep) watching some totally useless and uninteresting educational French video of two terrible actors standing in room talking about the appliances in their kitchen. I mean, what else are they going to talk about when it’s designed for 15 year olds? You can’t exactly talk about what France is actually good at — you know; food, wine and romance.

I endured this torture for two years, two different teachers and stacks of booklets trying to teach vocabulary – which were all lost on me. I do however specifically remember a good friend of mine picking the language up like crazy. She went on to take advanced French, visit the country with a class and eventually speak the language fluently. So I’m not blaming the system for my failures, it clearly works for some people. I’m actually quite jealous of people who took the opportunity to learn a language as a young person, because I’m convinced it’s significantly easier and much stickier in your brain.

A year ago September I had the opportunity to attend a technology conference in Berlin, and having never spent any time in Europe I thought to myself “When in Rome”. So I found myself some German language learning software and started at the very beginning. At this point, no one had told me that German is an obscenely hard language to learn. And after two months for an hour a day, I got on a plane and flew to Berlin. I immediately landed and jumped into a cab where I used the 5 German words I knew, and then listened to him speak in lightening speed German for the next 20 minutes of the ride (and I understood absolutely nothing). At that point it was painfully clear that in two months you can’t even learn enough of a language to properly talk to a foreign pet gerbil.

See languages are funny, they aren’t like anything else you learn – they are a magical combination of thinking and specifically not thinking – and that’s where the journey begins. My most important realization was when I realized that English was easy to me, because I never knew anything else. English is my Operating System, and I have been running it for 27 years – other people have been learning, evolving and using their language for years and years and years. How could I possibly be short sighted enough to think I could make any kind of usable progress in two months? I dunno, I’ve learned programming languages in less time.

Here’s how a language works:

Another way I like to envision it is that you start with this giant blurry photo of all the possible phrases, cultural understanding’s, vocabulary, and slowly overtime they become clearer and clearer until enough of them touch that you can identify pieces of the photo. The best thing about this metaphor is that when you look at the photo, you don’t think about each piece — your brain does all the heavily lifting automatically to help you identify the context of the photo.

As the human brain is so amazingly good at pattern recognition — you don’t actually require a super high percentage of clarity to know that this is a picture of a guy hiking in the woods next to a lake and a mountain.

So instead of giving up when I got back from Berlin, I kept at it — for another 11 months and as I built up more vocabulary — I tried as hard as possible to expose myself to new instances of the language. Each time I felt like I knew nothing, wrote down words and noted epiphanies. I must say, it really helps having people around who speak the language that you can ask questions. So much of a language is context and culture.

One of the most ground breaking parts of my learning experience was the discovery of music and television media that interested me in the language. (Go find yourself a native speaker and rack their brain). Starting with good music – because when you don’t even realize it’s happening, your brain is setting up patterns in your head that you will be shocked by later. Secondly, watching TV and movies really helps with an understanding of the flow of a language. As I found one of early, more difficult parts of learning was knowing when one word stopped and another began. We take our mother tongue for granted, we know where to expect pauses and have heard word combinations so many times that we know what to expect to come next.

Each word needs an enforcing moment, I’ve heard some people say – repeat it to yourself 3 times. Others say, correlate it with another concept as a mnemonic device. I actually found the best way to learn a word was to use it wrong, and get corrected. The simple moment of being embarrassed solidifies that word into your brain. And the only way for that to happen, is for you to go out there and try to speak to others that know the language. This is perhaps the most difficult part for me, as I prefer to practice presentations 5 times before I get on stage.

A helpful tip I found was to not attempt the translation of every word you hear, because you can never do that fast enough to understand a spoken paragraph (and it just makes you want to give up altogether). You have to just let the words pass through your brain, and over time you will realize that you understand more and more of what is being said. When you experience that for the first time, it’s pretty magnificent. I first noticed it after watching an episode of Family Guy – I walked into the kitchen pondering and forgot which language the episode had been in. I went back to the TV and found that the whole thing had been in German and inside my brain I had a full understanding of the episode void of any language attachment.

Don’t be afraid to fail, when kids first learn a language — they say things wrong constantly, and their parents constantly correct them. So why as we get older do we have such a hard time with being corrected? I see it in myself, but have grown to appreciate the effort in other people trying to help me out. This tip is specific to German, but don’t mix up “mich” and “mir” – man, they really don’t like that one. I suggest spending a couple extra weeks just working on using those two correctly. I specifically remember trying to practice my German one night here in San Francisco with a visitor from Munich, who politely, but firmly said “Please speak English to me, you may want to consider giving up on German”. And again, in Berlin where a German native said “Why would you want to learn German, you speak English right?”.

So this September a group of friends and I visited Munich and had a native German tour guide (now living in SF) to show us the Bavarian way. We spent some time at the Oktoberfest tents and touring the city – which was great fun. And I have to say, I’m quite happy that I didn’t give up because there were some moments of incredible satisfaction in my ability to communicate at least a little bit in another language. There was also a moment where I was faced with demonstrating my German language skills to a 6 year old that speaks 4 languages — I was terrified and my language skills reverted to the level of a kindergartner.

Some people would still say, “why learn another language?” – and I’m not going to try to convince anyone that it’s something they need to go out and do. However, I must say that it has exercised and affected my brain in ways that I don’t think I have ever experienced before. I have noticed that when I start to pay attention to a German song, or watch a German show that it literally feels like my brain is stretching. It’s an amazing sensation like nothing I have ever felt before, and recently for a few minutes everyday my brain has started to crave it. I think it’s easiest to compare to working out at the gym – it can be painful, but rewarding, and stretching afterwards “hurts so good”. And once you get into a routine – you start to feel a little out of sync when you don’t do it. I have noticed my memory has improved, and my problem solving abilities at work have received a boost. But the most interesting thing is that now I notice all kinds of things in the world around me that I never would have. A large percentage of the English language is heavily based on German, and I have a totally new understanding of why we say things the way we do.

I am currently taking a conversational German class at the Geothe Institute in San Francisco – and I must say it was a bit terrifying to walk in there with no academic backround in the language. But it was inexpensive, no pressure and has turned out to be a great experience.

Anyone with an interest in learning a language can do it – but I would urge you to seriously consider the size of the feat you are tackling. To really “learn” a language you have to make a serious time investment, but the more you put in – the more satisfying the experience can become.

I feel like I have just begun.

And remember.. some cultures are easier to get into than others. You can tell that I had a really rough time – but, “When in Rome”…

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3 thoughts on “The Perils of Language Learning

  1. pneumonic device — that sounds kinda like an iron lung
    did you mean mnemonic? you shoulda learned Greek
    yah get it wrong and get corrected — kids have no inhibitions about telling you you said it wrong (for some reason adults are hung up about it), and besides language keeps changing — they are the cutting edge, they are taking it where it is, like, going.
    Yah there are lots of people who don’t get why you would want to learn another language, but there are a heck of a lot more that 1) are overjoyed that you will take a whack at their language; and 2)like you, can’t stand to be cut out completely when they go somewhere a hundred miles sorry kms away. Es ist die Zauber dass, wer Sie schaut, Sie auch Kampfen muss. — Nietsche

  2. Adam-
    Danke, Danke, Danke for writing this post! I am a Spanish teacher and this year I have 9th graders that are struggling with their learning and understanding the amount of time they need to spend practicing. I am sharing your post in class tomorrow as a way to re-energize them. Thank you!

    1. Hi Alyson,

      I’m so glad that you found it useful! I remember being in that same spot in 9th grade, and if I could go back and really put in the time to learn a language at that age I would do it in an instant! Best of luck to you and your class.


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