Les Langues Etrangeres

It took me a moment on Google Translate to get this phrase corrected. Goodness, how easy it is to forget French if you don’t use it often enough. And right now some readers may be thinking, “well at least you must’ve known French to forget it! Lucky you!” Indeed, it is lamentably hard to learn a new language, especially after the age of 6, which is apparently the oldest best age to be learning a new language. Maybe one can even argue that it is easier to learn the sciences, or critical writing skills, or any new information than language. But everybody wants to have learnt a foreign language. It’s like classics. Everyone wants to have read classics but nobody really enjoys the reading process.

But well, having learnt French and Japanese at the same time, I must say it is not as tough a challenge as some other things (such as learning how to ride a bike, or sew, both of which I forget the moment I learn them). Of course, some people are better poised to master foreign languages, such as certain language prodigies and people with certain natural talents, just like how there are athletic and non-athletic people in this world. But I can try giving you some tips to make your learning experience a more enjoyable, and maybe even more successful, one.

1. Feel the language

This is my Number 1 tip. Language is more than a combination of words. You must remember that it is the way of life for a certain group of people, that they have grown up communicating, thinking and expressing their feelings in this language. I would recommend you not compare the language you learn to what you already know, though of course it will help if the languages fall under the same category, such as Japanese and Chinese whose grammar are very similar. But if they are different, then forget your native language and think like a native of your learnt language. For example, in Japanese, people speak in the passive tone. Instead of saying “I ate rice”, it goes something more like “rice was eaten”. Rather than comment on how vague and roundabout they are, imagine yourself as a Japanese. The Japanese hate singling people out, especially themselves. They have to be modest about themselves and respectful to others. In this case, you do not use pronouns as much.

The best thing to do is imagine yourself as a native speaker entirely. Change your gestures to suit theirs and alter your tone of voice to fit what they would say in that occasion.

2. Experience their entertainment

You learn a lot from being entertained. Have you ever watched videos in school about “the right ways to behave in public” or “a typical day at a park”? I know that when learning languages especially, people love to show you educational videos of what you should say and behave, and I’m sure most of you find the videos artificial and cheesy. No one does that in reality, surely! I would agree with you there, and therefore you have to seek out the truer picture — or at least the one that the locals themselves agree with. So do watch TV shows, movies and listen to music from that country. These are what the locals are actually emulating from, just as we behave like what we see on TV. And if you like whatever you see, then you will acquire greater motivation to learn the language in order to understand those shows and songs better. Passion is always key to learning anything.

3. Challenge yourself

If you learn a language and do not use it often, you will lose it very easily — just as how I’m doing with French. You should put your lessons to practice regularly by finding someone to converse with (preferably one that knows what they are saying) or translating TV shows and songs. Of course you will not make much headway with these practices, but at least you retain what you do know. Even if you know only 10 words in a song, I assure you that you will have a sense of accomplishment and a feeling that your learning had been worthwhile. Not only that, these translations test your listening and oral skills, which are important when you go to the country, and a lot more stressful to pick up than written skills.

Not everybody goes on to learn languages at a high level — and my friend used to say that the more languages you know, the more difficult it is to pick up a new one (I think that is a gigantic lie) — and sometimes the difficulties of language at a high level may extinguish any liking you used to have for it. That is quite common and nothing to feel guilty about. There is nothing wrong with stopping when you feel you have reached your limit, or learning advanced portions at a slower pace than before. And sometimes one ought to reflect and think back about why one wanted to learn the language to begin with. One needs extraordinary passion to go through with learning a language at a high level, and it is perfectly okay not to have that much passion. At least, if you know even a small part of a language, you may occasionally chance upon a text of that language and be able to show off some decent prowess to your unfortunate friends who know not a single symbol.

And if worse comes to worst, at least you’re able to tell whether something is in Tamil or Russian…

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