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How to fail at languages? Let me count the ways.
At one of our summer parties this year, I said three sentences in French and the crowd broke out into a unison song of “Ohhhhh. Ahhhhh!”
My monolingual friends are often amazed when they hear me speak a foreign language. It’s a reaction that I find hilarious. Partly because I didn’t realize speaking another language would turn out to be a popular party trick. And partly because I’m pretty amazed myself.
You see, I tried learning languages 10 times before finally finding success with French. Let’s recount each of my blunders… with the lessons I learned along the way.
Language Attempt 1: Learning Russian with my Mom
My mom migrated to the US from Belarus with her family just after World War II. She was eight years old and quickly became bilingual in Russian and English. I heard Russian spoken whenever my mom would talk with her sisters or her parents.
When I was as young as six years old, I remember begging my mom to teach me Russian. It felt otherworldly to me. My mom’s voice and facial expression would change when she spoke her mother tongue. My aunts’ laughter would be deeper, warmer, more intimate in Russian.
I desperately wanted to be a part of that world but she didn’t have the time. Working two jobs and raising a family with a monolingual husband didn’t offer her the space for teaching a second language to her youngest child. Also, she was taught early on that one must be proud to be an American.
Sigh. How does national pride equate to fewer languages? I’ll never understand that logic.
After a bit of pleading on my part, she attempted a lesson during a Thanksgiving dinner but it quickly fizzled out when she had to concentrate on carving the turkey and keeping the kids in order. It was my first bitter taste of a language learning fail.
Lesson Learned: Being exposed to your target language day in and day out will not magically make you fluent.
Language Attempt 2: Learning Spanish in Elementary School
My elementary school offered an elective class. Imagine my delight when I was shuffled off to my first Spanish class at age nine. I was practically wiggling out of my tiny seat when I was given my Spanish name, Isabella. Sadly, that’s all I remember as we moved a month later and I transferred to a new school with no language options.
I still want to learn Spanish!
Lesson Learned: Creating curiosity around a second language can ignite a flame of interest that will last a lifetime.
Language Attempt 3: Three Years of French in High School… And I Still Couldn’t Speak It!
I excelled at French classes in high school. Our teacher was enthusiastic. The sounds coming out of her mouth were divine. Even after three years of high grades, conversing was not an option. I didn’t even realize it was possible for a high school student to speak fluently.
Lesson Learned: Getting great grades in class doesn’t mean you’ll learn to speak confidently.
Language Attempt 4: Russian (Again!) at University
Realizing that language classes were easy for me, I decided to take Russian in college. Although I still wasn’t learning much, something important clicked. For the first time, I started seeing language as a simple code that I needed to learn. I felt a little like Russell Crowe’s character in the film “A Beautiful Mind” where all these patterns were popping out. Only I wasn’t losing my mind. I was merely seeing languages as a fascinating communication game.
My college didn’t offer a second course in Russian and I didn’t realize there might be other ways to acquire a second language. So, I stopped language learning until after graduation.
Lesson Learned: Language is a puzzle. Get enough pieces linked together and you’re well on your way to comprehending those strange, new sounds.
Language Attempt 5: Carpool Lane Spanish
My love of languages hibernated until age 26. I moved to a sleepy beach town in Southern California where my corporate job bored me to tears. So, I picked up language learning and guitar. I was able to stick to my guitar self-study because I had a book of chords and a lot of songs in my head. I wrote songs based on the chords I was learning.
Looking back, I see that I had accidentally found my motivation for getting up early to practice guitar for 30-60 minutes each day. I was expressing myself from day one. Sounds a lot like speaking from day one, doesn’t it? With the goal of writing and performing my own songs in Los Angeles, learning new chords didn’t seem like a chore. It was invigorating.
Unfortunately, the concept of expressing myself did not filter into my language learning. I bought a CD for learning Spanish and had one friend who was bilingual. Those were my tools. I would listen every day on my commute to and from the office.
I knew how to say, “Where do I put my luggage?” and other travel phrases. My Spanish speaking friend would giggle whenever I peeked over her cubicle wall to regurgitate my very shiny yet useless sentences. This attempt lasted two months before I threw in the towel.
Lesson Learned: Expressing yourself in a new language (in this case, guitar) with a visible goal (performing my songs publicly) can make the habit stick. Finding your motivation is key.
Language Attempt 6: Private French Lessons (Crèpes Included)
Fast-forward a few years and you’ll find me giddy in love with my then fiance, now husband, Chris. He loved France so much that he couldn’t wait to share it with me. Being slightly nauseous from all the clichés of Paris, I agreed to go so long as we didn’t visit the Eiffel Tower.
Side note: I’ve seen the Eiffel tower hundreds of times from our travels but never up close and personal. That’s right. Iconoclast is my middle name. Sort of like Jame Bond’s dorky American cousin.
My first visit to the city of lights knocked my socks off. We’d stroll from café to église (church) to bookstore and back to café. I had found my favorite European city.
Which meant, of course, I’d have to learn the language. Chris decided to join me in this language learning quest. And we hired a French teacher who lived in our town.
Once a week, we’d drive to her house. Notebooks in hand. Eyes bright. We were ready to learn. Except we didn’t. All that I can recall are a few grammar lessons and a lot of homemade crèpes.
Lesson Learned: Having a boatload of motivation while getting private face-to-face lessons is not a guarantee you’ll speak your target language.
Language Attempt 7: French Classes and Chocolate in San Francisco
The language bug hit us again.
This time, we were serious. No crèpe will distract us. No friendly chit-chat. We’re going to fuel up on decadent chocolate and head to school where they will shove French into our brains and we’ll walk out of the building fluent.
That lasted about three headachy classes. The teacher spoke entirely in French but there were ten students of differing levels. One student had been studying French for five years but felt shy. That’s right. Shy.
What was she doing in a beginner class?! She didn’t need another starter program. She needed Shannon’s Say Goodbye To Shy course. The teacher kept talking to Ms. Bashful while the rest of us became more and more lost.
Lesson Learned: A costly class with a native speaker as your teacher is not a one-size fits all.
Language Attempt 8: Picture Dictionary
My husband found a website for information swapping. Sometimes you teach. Other times you learn. There was a fella who was fluent in French and wanted to show others how to do it. BINGO!
We met him at a nearby cafe. Finally, a person who figured out how to learn languages on his own. This guy was our very first language hacker. Only he had just one hack.
Buy a picture dictionary and memorize all the words.
I know what you’re thinking. I was just a naive little language learner willing to buy any snake oil that comes my way. Well, you’re right.
Just last week, I finally gave away that *&^%ing picture dictionary. It survived moving house and several years on my bookshelf. Seriously, I could have sold it as “like new” on eBay. Looking at the picture dictionary every day for two weeks did not make me fluent.
Update: My friend returned the dictionary to me yesterday. Am I doomed to have it haunt my bookshelf forever?
Lesson Learned: While the journey of others can help, it’s important to get more than one opinion on how to learn a second language.
Language Attempt 9: Chinese in Graduate School
“It was in this 10-week graduate level course that I finally mastered language learning and now speak Chinese at a native level,” said no one ever.
To be fair, this was one of the most useful language classes I attended because I was taught things that I needed for my degree in Traditional Chinese Medicine. I still remember some of the colors we learned because they correlate to different types of actions in a medicinal herb.
Imagining the tones as miniature songs, I was able to get a handle on them rather easily. Once again, there was no Chinese II offered and I started to think dabbling in languages was as good as it would get for me.
Lesson Learned: Learning things that I can apply in my everyday life make words easier to memorize.
Language Attempt 10: Spanish (Again, Again)
During the years, Chris and I continued to travel abroad. I noticed that many of the waiters and hotel staff in tourist hotspots spoke excellent English when talking about things that concerned their profession. For example, one waiter had nearly no accent when he explained the chef’s technique for his housemade sauce. When we ventured into other areas of conversation, I would see their fluency crumble to bits.
I was fascinated.
They could speak a second language but only within their professional world. A light bulb went off. I could help myself and other acupuncturists learn Spanish within the confines of our medical practice. For example, we’d learn how to speak about symptoms and take a medical history.
Speaking only English, I organized an online Spanish class for acupuncturists. I created an acupuncture-specific script which was translated and recited by a bilingual colleague. We made two YouTube videos.
Inspired by this idea, I bought another CD/book combo for learning Spanish. This time would be different. I started speaking only Spanish to my bank tellers. They were obliging, but five minutes of greeting and bank talk didn’t do the trick.
Many “Thanks for the great Spanish course!” emails later, I stopped learning Spanish. I found that willpower alone was not cutting it. Another language learning hibernation occurred.
Lesson Learned: It’s possible, and even helpful, to study language islands such as restaurant conversation.
Language Attempt 11: Finally! Success in French!
Life continued to flow right along until a seemingly silly conversation and Julia Child’s autobiography brought on a sudden spring. I was visiting my absolutely favorite teen in San Francisco when she asked me a question that led me back to my language learning quest.
Teen: Have you ever seen the movie, “Groundhog Day”?
Me: The one where Bill Murray has to relive the same day over and over again?
Teen: Yeah, that one. If you were stuck in the same day over and over again for 10 years, what would you do?
Me: I’d pop down to the library and learn French. I’d also hire the same teacher each day to help me.
The answer came so easily to me. I would learn French! So why wasn’t I learning it now?
As I drove back to my home in Southern California (the introvert in me lives for long road trips and audiobooks), I grabbed Julia Child’s biography. I didn’t know a thing about her, but I love biographies and this was on top of the heap of CDs I borrowed from the library.
She describes her life in Paris where she learned to speak French while taking cooking lessons at Le Cordon Bleu, a famous school in Paris. Her descriptions of living in Paris while learning French in her late-30s gave me a burst of motivation. If she can do it, why can’t I?
Lesson Learned: Reading about someone who has what you want is a great source of inspiration.
Learning How to Learn a Language
A few days later, I sat in front of my laptop and googled, “Rosetta Stone review”. I knew a friend who said it was an expensive but useful tool. If I threw more money at it, I might finally be a success.
The first and only article I ever read about the costly Stone was a review by some young, sweatshirt-wearing guy named Benny Lewis. In the photo, he was throwing some serious stinkface at the product. Ok, he’s honest. One tick in his favor.
Here’s the sentence that kept me reading, “I guarantee that you can learn a language without ever sending me money…” I clicked on the link within that sentence and learned how to practice a foreign language for free without traveling.
And That’s How my Fluent in 3 Months Journey Began…
As it turned out, Benny was right. I learned how to speak French without ever giving him a dime. Although months into my success, I bought his Premium package as a way to support his efforts. The package turned out to be extremely helpful.
I learned French by speaking from day one. I recommend clicking on the links that interest you in each FI3M article and then putting at least one idea into practice for a month. For me, I started with Duolingo once a day and one italki lesson per week. 18 months and many tools later, I’m conversationally fluent in French.
Know this. This blog has everything you need to learn how to learn a second language.
Bear with me while I gush for just a moment. Being asked to write for the FI3M blog on a regular basis is a tremendous honor. Benny is the Oprah of language learning. Without FI3M, I might now be on my 25th unsuccessful attempt at learning my target language.
To this day, it still astonishes me when I say something in French to a stranger and we have a full-on conversation in my target language. After so many misfires, I cherish my ability to speak a second language.