On Learning Languages

Well, I haven’t written in quite a while, so hopefully some of you will still come across this blog post! If you do, I hope you enjoy although it ended up being rather long. I really want to write about language learning now that I have been here for a while.  I’ve never had opportunity before in my life to formally study the language in a place where it is being spoken. Which I hope partially explains why my 8 years of studying French never made me fluent. Even though I practiced really hard and memorized lots of words and grammar, I would face major disappointment every time I tried to just listen to someone speaking French at a real-time pace. In fact, there were only two times in my life where I actually got to use French in a practical situation outside the classroom (as in, my French was better than their English, and something needed to be said)

The first was when I was about 13 years old we went to Quebec, and I really wanted to speak French, but the only person who spoke to us the whole time in French was when we were wondering across this bridge when a drunk guy finally broke my monolingual bubble and talked to me. And the second time was this random time in Red Deer when I was 20, when I needed to visit somebody’s apartment, but I couldn’t remember what the apartment number is, so I could not get buzzed in to the apartment complex, so I ended up pressing a few different numbers before I got the right one. Anyways, I had inadvertently woken someone up from a nap. I think he was from Somalia, which is a somewhat Francophone country, and when approached me he was clearly annoyed and confused with being woken when I accidentally buzzed his room. And he couldn’t speak English, but he asked me if I spoke French, and so I diffused the situation en francais. And suddenly those 8 years of studying French became entirely worth it??

Anyways, I have been working hard on my Korean and attending classes, and have finally had many opportunities for those practical application of language learning. And then last Monday was a holiday so I was able to go to this meet-up called Language Cast Seoul, where people (mostly Korean and English learners, but also French, German, Chinese, Japanese etc) all meet up at a café and sit at tables according to the languages that they are learning. It was a super friendly atmosphere, and when I sat at the Korean table with a mix of Koreans and foreigners it was pretty rewarding to see how we could all converse together using mostly Korean. However, I later ventured over to the French table and my brain got really overloaded. I could hardly remember my French and I had to resort to English, but then whenever I tried to say really common words like “oui” or “tres” it came out as “네” “너무”.  And strangely enough “trois” came out in Spanish as “tres.” And I don’t even speak Spanish.

Anyways, I feel that communication can be easily understood when compared to transportation. Or more specifically, learning to speak a language is like learning to drive around in a new city. I could make a lot of different connections, but the thing that strikes me immediately is that no famous city is built on a grid. Ultimately, from high-ways and back-alleys of a city, to the dead-ends and elaborate boulevards, manny of the oldest and most unmoveable paths were largely created in an illogical fashion that is guided by history going back potentially back to wagon trails, which came from hunting paths, which came from trails of deer, who cared more for stealth than immediate access to a frappucinno. And once a road has been established millions and millions of people will continue to follow it for no other reason than precedent. Certainly a city always changes, but no amount of construction can ever completely stop the flow of traffic. People by nature will find a way of getting to their destination somehow. In the same way, we are compelled to communicate, and I communicate in English using countless bizarre irregularities that may be traced back to original meanings or intents that no longer exist. One of my favorite absurdities in English is “Aren’t I?” Only a split personality could say, “I are”  instead of “I am.” However, “aren’t I” sounds normal while “Am I not” or Amn’t I” don’t work. But whose going to change it now.

Yet 1.5 billion people in the world can now speak some degree of English and are bound to learn to say “Aren’t I”, and the trend continues to grow. Just a minute ago, as I sit in this coffee shop, a Korean father brought over his 3 year old kid, who has just began studying English and nervously asked if the three year old could practice English with me. “How are you?” the kid asks me, beginning his journey to bilingualism much earlier than me and will probably cost his parents thousands of dollars over the next 15 years. Yet around the world, children at younger ages are mastering English more quickly while those of us from English speaking countries must swim against the current.  But of course, language is a rewarding journey.

Thanks for reading. I’d love to hear how your language endeavors are going.


About mwitster

Blogged about teaching English and language learning in Korean and the Middle East. Now, as a Speech-Language Pathologist, hope to post some new info and possibly reflections from private practice.
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2 Responses to On Learning Languages

  1. Hello, I know this is an old post, but I enjoyed reading it nevertheless 🙂
    I also used to study French and what surprises me is how the French words will somehow fight their way to the surface of my brain when I need e.g. an Italian word. I suppose our brains are also a bit like old roads 🙂 About French in Quebec, a French aunt of mine moved to Canada and had no clue what was going on. She didn’t understand them either even though her mother tongue is French 😉

  2. mwitster says:

    Glad you enjoyed it. That’s interesting that you had a similar experience with French words “fighting their way” to the surface while speaking Italian. How our brains use language is so amazing that it is always worth studying, and so complex that we continually make mistakes. So I find that comparing it to how people gradually learn to navigate a new area helpful. Also, I would add, language is similar to theology and philosophy. I would say everybody has theology or philosophy that guides how they make choices. But to that person, they only seem to be reacting spontaneously. And yet deepening of one’s theology and philosophy of life leads to better choices. And so it is with language. If we never examine our language habits (or our driving habits, or get a new GPS, we might continue getting lost or missing the shortcuts. Anyways, I didn’t mean to write this much, but I haven’t written this blog in so long. Maybe I will start it up again (although not from Korea), since I’m studying speech pathology (so linguistics) now in Vancouver.

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