July 22

a sure way to fail – learning languages

Let me tell you about my failure to learn French. Well, failure is maybe a bit harsh, but despite 7 years of 3h/week of French in school I can’t say much more than ‘Oui’. I understand even less than that. Last time I was in Paris, I could barely order a coffee. When I’m in Montréal they might as well speak Mandarin for all I understand.
To be fair, right out of school I could get by, but I’ve always been far from what I would call fluent.

This is something that I think happens/happened to a lot of people. In school you’re forced to learn something and it’s rarely your own choice. For me for example, I really wanted to learn English, because of the music, tv, movies, etc. But English wasn’t a subject we could choose until the last couple of years of High School.* French, being the second most spoken language in Switzerland, was mandatory. And I hated it. I had zero interest in learning, I hated the sound of it and I couldn’t stand my teacher. These days I recognise that all these issues were a sure way to guarantee that I would never be fluent. Though I did manage to pass all exams, it was always by the skin of my teeth. I still vividly remember my oral final in French which was an absolute nightmare and probably to date the most nerve racking exam I ever did. Though the pathology exam later on was quite awful as well, but on a whole other level.

Lucky for me though, I did get to study English before I was turned off foreign languages for good. In contrast, English I wanted to be able to understand and I wanted to listen to my favourite actor in English. I remember watching a lot of movies with original soundtrack and understanding maybe 20% if that, but I didn’t give up, because the crush of a teenage girl doesn’t just go away by a pesky little thing as not understanding.

This though is exactly what a lot of people miss when they start learning a language. You have to have an interest in the culture and the people. You have to have a passion for it. You have to be interested in watching TV or movies or in interacting with someone from that culture. For most people a reason like ‘Oh it would be cool to speak xy’ is not going to do it long term.
Neither is just an interest however, learning a language is not complicated, but it requires a lot of time and dedication.

You have to be invested in it and you have to truly want it. I think that is the most important advice anyone could give someone starting to learn a language.

*Switzerland has luckily changed its ways and puts a lot more emphasis on English these days.