Since I’m forced to be less active than usual due to my recent hip replacement, I thought I’d touch on a subject near and dear to my heart: languages. I consider myself a bit of an expert on the topic since I speak, read and write eight of them. I admit, I cannot take credit for four (French, German, English, Spanish); they came with my upbringing, and therefore went from my subconscious to my conscious with very little effort on my part. The other four (Italian, Hebrew, Russian, Chinese) I actually had to sit down and study, and therefore have found certain “unalienable truths” about learning that hopefully will benefit anyone who’d like to master a new language. Lately the idea of writing a “How To” book on learning languages has been brewing in my mind. Surely my obsession with Chinese these past few years has driven this desire.
Languages are magical on so many levels. They transform your persona; they propel you into another culture thanks to pronunciation and word sequence; they stimulate your mouth as well as your brain; they automatically expands your horizons. The euphoria and satisfaction of being understood in a tongue other than your own is immense.
If any of these feelings ring a bell when contemplating learning another language, perhaps it’s time. But before you start, before you delve into a love affair that must last a lifetime, make sure you have the most important feeling of all: passion.
Surely this is true for just about anything in life. If you’re passionate about it, you’ll be good at it. But let's stick to languages. Once I’ve made up my mind to dedicate time and effort to a new language, I get butterflies in my stomach, my heart pumps fast, my mind races, I’m utterly excited. Now, I’m ready.
If I’m taking a class, I’m “in love” with the teacher because he/she’s my gateway to my goal. A new language book becomes my bible…or better. I’ll actually study every word in it (which is more than I can say for a bible). Both the teacher and the book are motivating tools; both will challenge my ability. It’s all about how much I can take in, how much I can retain. Intonation, pronunciation, tongue-twisting words turn me on (not only in Chinese but any language. Each has their own musicality) retention becomes an association game.
I’ve never learned a language through translation. I have, however, retained a great deal through association. In Chinese, the word for “president is “zongtong” (总统) When the meaning was first explained to me (in Chinese), the teacher said that zongtong means president of a country, guo jia (国家), not a company, gon si (公司). So in the explanation of the word zongtong, I leaned two more words key to understanding that one word. I’ve just increased my vocabulary by three (zongtong, guojia, gonsi) instead of one thanks to association.
As soon as I’ve become familiar with a minimal amount of vocabulary, I’ll repeat it at nauseum in my head. I’ll create as many constructions as I can find, whether they’re correct or not. The point is to have them stick through repetition, improve my pronunciation and awaken my curiosity how to expand on the constructions. My next move is to surround myself with people who speak that language. I’ve never shied away from making mistakes or saying words incorrectly. In fact, I’m a big fan of speaking poorly. Why? Apart from languages, it has been scientifically proven that our brain is more likely to retain moments that deviate from your routine. We all remember stories that make us cringe, or laugh, or cry. This is because a chemical process, which enhances our memory, takes place during that moment. On a smaller scale, being corrected is such a highlighted moment in your brain. It becomes a retainable language lesson.
Although I spoke Hebrew at the time I was married to my Israeli husband (now ex), I wasn’t entirely fluent. He pointed at the lampshade and asked me what it was called in Hebrew. Why would I know how to say a word I don’t think I’ve ever used in any language? I had no idea. Then he said, “ahil” (אהיל). Although I’ve never used the word since (besides this very moment), it has stuck with me for no other reason than the association of that moment with him.
Retention, association and the other important factor is connectivity. I’m anything but mathematical. I’m amazed I’m able to calculate a tip…actually I’m not…I just double the tax. However, when it comes to languages, they all have “mathematical formulas” to create sentences. No matter what you speak there will always be the use of verbs. While vocabulary is obviously number one, verbs come next. They are the connecting element, the “one plus one equals two” of language. As soon as you’ve acquired your new foreign friends, always ask how to say verbs and tenses before you ask to translate vocabulary. This will give you more to work with in your mind when you’re making all kinds of constructions using the few words you know.
Not everybody learns languages the same way. Whether you’re visual and need the new words written down, or verbal and learn through repetition, I’ve tried to give you a taste of fundamentals useful to either learning methods. Languages are fun if you let them be. Never take them too seriously, at least in the beginning. Enjoy tongue-twisting words and impossible expressions. Eventually you’ll want to delve further into that language and in doing so will emerge a different person.