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“I Learned This Language Just for You”: How to Save the World One Language at a Time

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To learn a new language, you need a fire inside you.

My identity as a language learner was forged by a spark that left me in tears. I made a little girl cry.

Now, I actually started “learning” languages when I took French my sophomore year of high school. I thought it would be fun to learn another language. I also thought that it would be easy. Halfway through the school year, I was kicked out of the class and given a failing grade because I was caught cheating on a test.

I didn’t even hang on to bonjour because I found absolutely no joy in memorizing conjugations and taking written tests where I would fail if I forgot an accent mark. It left such a bad taste in my mouth that my brain forcefully scrubbed every last morsel from my memory.

How My Hero Complex Backfired and Left Me in Tears

Fast forward to grown-up Amanda. I acquired a bit of a Messiah complex. I want to save every dog, feed every starving child and house every homeless person.

One of my humanitarian efforts led me to Juarez, Mexico. This town is about six hours from the Phoenix, Arizona suburb that I call home, but it might as well be on a different planet. Resources are scarce, the infant mortality rate is high, and disease is rampant.

On my second to last day there, I joined the group I had traveled with on a visit to an orphanage. There, a vibrant, little girl came up and began excitedly talking to me, in Spanish. It was clear she wasn’t given much attention. She was one child in an overpopulated, crumbling little building that was understaffed. I said the only three words I could say: no habla español.

This little girl, who was only maybe five or six years old, sat down on the dusty ground in her tattered clothes and started to cry. Not the tantrum type of cry that we parents know so well, but the heartbroken and let down type of cry. Not surprisingly, I cried, too.

Then My Broken Heart Led Me Back to French

No matter what I did during the rest of my time there, I couldn’t get her out of my mind. Weeks later, I was still dwelling on her while orchestrating a monthly sewing night for a charity that I am a Chapter Leader for called Days for Girls. One of my regular volunteers struck up conversation with me about a need for kits and volunteers in several areas such as the Ivory Coast, Haiti and Chad. She mentioned that she had gone to the Ivory Coast a couple of years prior and had spoken to the group about sustainable agriculture.

“And they understood you?” I asked incredulously.

“Well, no. Obviously, we needed a translator. They all speak French,” she replied.

We had a translator for our trip as well, but there was one of him, thirteen of us and several dozen orphans (not to mention the other people we met). None of the natives told us their stories. None of them talked about life with us. We went, gave them the items we collected, and built a few houses for them. Then we left. Without ever really meeting them. We learned their names from our translator, nothing else.

What a dreadfully impersonal way to try to connect with someone!

“French, huh?” I had mused to her.

I shrugged it off and laughed with her, but inside, I felt a spark in my heart. After all, there was a reason I had taken French all those years ago. I really had wanted to learn it. It had just seemed too difficult.

I felt deeply compelled to investigate serving these areas, but I was never going to repeat that experience with that little girl.

My First Experience of Getting Back into French was Like Drawing a “Horse” in Art Class

“Well,” I thought to myself. “Put your big girl boots on and go out there and save the world! Do this!”

I found a language learning app that promised I could learn French with just ten minutes a day. With a young child and a variety of obligations to my business and my charity work, I didn’t have a great deal of spare time. Or so I told myself, But I could commit to ten minutes day! I downloaded it. I got to work. I feverishly took notes.

This experience was very similar to an art class I took once. I was directed to draw a couple of varying sized circles, a few lines, and then shade it in with perfection. Voila, I was supposed to have a horse. I did not, in fact, have a horse. I had a blob. An asymmetric amorphic mess of scribbles. With the app, it eased me in with simple things like counting, introducing myself and colors. By the end of the first week, it wanted me to conjugate verbs in the past imperfect tense. Umm, what?

That clearly wasn’t for me.

And Then I Got a Little Closer to What I Was Looking For…

Then, I bought a textbook. The process was largely the same. Here’s some vocabulary, let’s learn a few survival phrases, now explain the difference between an interrogative pronoun and a relative pronoun. I don’t even know what that means in English (my mother tongue!).

I reached out to a young man named Benjamin, who is the founder of French Together. I had zero direction, but lots of passion. When I explained why I so desperately wanted to learn his language, he took me under his wing. He pointed me to Fluent in 3 Months as well as several other websites and apps, giving me a few pointers. The first of which: I needed some solid goals.

Jumping into the Deep End

Lists? I love lists! I am a compulsive list maker. I suffer from anxiety and to keep it managed, everything needs to be organized and reasonably planned out. So, I pulled out a fresh piece of paper, clicked my pink pen to the ready position… and probably stared blankly for at least half an hour. What were my goals? Well, I only had one, and that was to be fluent in French! Duh.

Coincidentally, Benjamin sent me this link about effective goal planning for language learning.

So, I made a list. A few of the items included:

  • Being able to send an email in French within 30 days
  • Reading Harry Potter in French within three months
  • Being able to understand every word of a Harry Potter movie without subtitles in six months
  • Being able to have a fluent conversation for one hour with no errors within the year

Yes, those were my goals. No, I wasn’t huffing glue. I don’t think I read the aforementioned article closely enough. Because I was so excited, I found it extremely difficult to focus. I downloaded nearly a dozen apps, joined groups, bought books, and read tirelessly about grammar. Do you know what I didn’t do? Speak my language. Or really listen to it much for that matter, except the single phrases my apps spouted out in their slow computerized voices.

The Letdown

After three or four months, I thought I was making progress based on the assessment of these apps. So, I scheduled a lesson with a tutor on italki, thinking that they could help me clean up my accent and I would be moving right along.

I logged into Skype for my lesson and started the call with my tutor. First, I didn’t understand a word he said. Secondly, I could not form sentences on the fly. After two lessons, he flat out told me that I would never speak French. At the time, my brain wasn’t thinking, “What kind of a prick says that to a student who just wants to learn something?!” All I could dwell on was what a failure I was and how I wasted a lot of hours (turned out, I found more free time than I originally admitted that I had).

I cried in my office for the rest of the afternoon before curling up with a glass (or three) of wine and watching Netflix. That got me through the night.

The next day, I woke up hungover from wine and disappointment. I reached for my phone to use my French app out of habit. Remembering my tutor’s words, I grunted, rolled onto my stomach, and covered my head with my blanket. I could hear battle drums inside of me starting to beat as my ego went toe-to-toe with my heart.

Despite my tutor’s cruel assessment, I still craved the language.

French Music to the Rescue!

I settled for listening to some French music, as one of my favorite bands of over a decade happened to be French Canadian. I pulled up my YouTube and sang along to French lyrics. Lyrics that I understood. Holy guacamole.

Sure, maybe I couldn’t order food or debate religion, but there was this other language entering my ears, and I was understanding it!

I hadn’t been having fun with the language. It was a chore that I did every day, like the dishes. It was a means to an end, nothing more.

“Nobody can judge you for listening to it,” I thought to myself.

So, I decided to do just that. I found that most of my favorite movies have a bande annonce (trailer) in French. My favorite show, Dexter, had clips and there were short videos out there, which I soon learned were much more suited for me.

I was a few months in and letting some jerk convince me that I wasn’t good enough because I didn’t have the level he expected me to have.

“Prove Them Wrong,” I Told Myself

“What did you do when people bullied you like this growing up?” asked a voice inside my head.

“Proved them wrong,” I answered instinctively.

I remembered the scene in my favorite movie, Legally Blonde, where Warner (the ex-boyfriend) told Elle (the protagonist) that she wasn’t smart enough for law school. In fact, I found the scene in French. “I’ll show you,” I thought, just like my idol. On cue, my chihuahua jumped on my lap, reminding me in some abstract way that anyone can have Elle’s strength and determination.

Maybe I didn’t understand every word, but I found much more enjoyment in this than methodical and complicated “lessons” and “studies.”

Several months later, I had added two of the apps back into my routine just to get a little more vocabulary and sentence structure down. I had since made more reasonable goals, like being able to understand the three-minute Dexter video and having a 15-minute conversation where I didn’t resort to English (unless I was asking how to say a specific word).

Suddenly, I Had No Choice

Then, I got the kick in the pants I needed. The trip that I had wanted to go on for my charity practically fell out of the sky and into my lap. I couldn’t say no. Voila. Just like that, I was signed up to go to Haiti in six months.

In my case, because of the nature of the topic of menstruation and the fact that there were no female translators available, I had no choice but to give the presentation myself. In French. Otherwise, I would be giving these important kits to a group of girls, many of which knew absolutely nothing about their bodies and their natural functions. It was common to believe that monthly bleeding was a curse from God or a disease, as no one explained the process to girls in areas such as Haiti.

A nuclear bomb went off in my head as I came to terms to what I had just agreed to.

I had to amp up my skills. That night, I got an email from italki offering a small credit if I gave them another shot. The Universe was not being subtle. This time, I found a woman because, well, girls stick together, right? Around that same time, the website started a challenge to do twelve hours in thirty days. My dad instilled me with the desire to jump into things with both feet, often blindfolded. I bought enough credits to cover twelve lessons because I knew that I wasn’t going to waste that kind of money.

My experience with the tutor I chose this time proved to be much better. She had the patience I needed and met me at my level.

Between the lessons, I did fun mini assignments the teacher gave me, and listened to the first Harry Potter audio book in French while following along with a physical copy. Halfway through, I realized something. When I first picked up that book, I understood about four words on the first page. Now, I at least knew what was going on.

To follow the “Legally Blonde” theme, I made my very own Snap Cup. This accomplishment went in there and I sang the little jingle to myself.

Speaking French in the Real World

After a few months, I found a local meet-up at a little French bistro. I didn’t know this existed anywhere in the state, let alone in the Valley.

I RSVP’d. In fact, I RSVP’d three times over the course of six weeks. Each time, I made an excuse not to go. When I did finally go, I sat in my car for twenty minutes before the event and cried.

Finally, I convinced myself that worst case, I never had to see these people again. But can you guess what actually happened? I spoke French. I understood French. Neither were perfect, but I didn’t spontaneously combust, nor did I die of embarrassment. I was welcomed and guided. Another card in the Snap Cup.

I was so proud that on the way home, I listened to a few clips from the app News In Slow French. I also treated myself to a pastry that I ordered in my target language. Success never tasted so good.

The app became my new go to for longer car rides (which were frequent considering I lived in a suburb and most places are at least thirty minutes from me). My son had begun a French immersion summer school program that was just under an hour away during the daily rush hour.

It gave me a less stressful way to be creative and practice the language. I made fun little games with him, such as Pêcher (Go Fish) and Pierre a Dit (Simon Says) and suddenly, I could write TV time off as “educational” and didn’t feel guilty adding more into our schedule.

The Final Push

By the time my trip was on the horizon, I wrote up a speech for the girls that I wanted to serve and sent it to a new teacher. To my pleasant surprise, most of the corrections that she made were simply cultural preferences on how to say certain things and a few grammatical errors.

I read it until my eyes wanted to bleed. I recited it in my head every night as I fell asleep. I practiced in the car and on the plane and at the airport during my layover.

After just over a year of practicing French, I delivered a coherent and informative speech educating women on their bodies and their self-worth. I distributed the kits that we had sewn for them so that they had the basic materials necessary to cope with their menstrual cycles without having to miss school. I succeeded despite having fallen notably ill that same morning.

The Greatest Success of My Life

When they came up to me afterwards, I could not only answer their questions, I could talk about their lives and their struggles. I learned their names and their talents, their favorite colors and their dreams. I could understand them when they told me how much these gifts meant to them and that I learned this language just for them.

Am I fluent? That depends on your definition. I can speak and be understood. And so long as the other person isn’t rambling at an auctioneer pace, I can understand most things. I still don’t know technical grammar terms, I still mix up tenses and I still occasionally stare blankly at the person I am talking to until they restructure their sentence.

I have lived dreams that many never will. I have traveled the world, shot for Playboy, and met many of my favorite celebrities. None of that will ever compare to being able to connect with these girls on their terms. Nothing will ever feel as powerful as knowing that I taught myself a language.

author headshot

Amanda Webster

Humanitarian, Model, Writer

Amanda is a writer, a humanitarian for animal and human rights, a model and a mom. She is also a Global Ambassador for Duolingo, a Chapter Leader for Days for Girls and a language blogger.

Speaks: English, French

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