How I learned four languages

Sitting in my German class last night, I began to reflect on the languages that I’ve learned and how it came about. Moving to a new country without knowing the language and buckling down to master it is no small feat. I hope that sharing some of my experiences will encourage you.

I grew up in a monolingual home, and my first real exposure to a foreign language was studying German in high school and college. You may have studied Spanish, or French, or even Japanese or Russian. All I really remember from that class is three goofy boys making stupid jokes about German and ruffling the teacher’s feathers (who was by the way Swiss, and my husband says Swiss German isn’t really German). I sat there thinking, ‘let’s get on with it’!  In college, I continued the study. This time my teacher spoke proper Hoch Deutsch. Lots of books, reading, and writing. Basically zero interaction with native speakers. Looking back, I think no wonder it was so hard! I later traveled to Germany, and I distinctly remember visiting the home of my German pen pal Bettina, sitting with her father in their living room after dinner sipping Sherry (which I hated). I actually managed to keep a conversation going with him for an entire hour. I collapsed into bed later proud of myself and exhausted.

Now I find myself sitting in a German class again. But guess what? Something stuck from all those years ago. I was able to jump in at a B1 level, basically a year into an intensive program. People often ask me, ‘if you’ve only been in Germany for two years, how come you speak German so well?’ I mutter something about having studied in school many years ago, perplexed that it has somehow helped me all these years later.

What has helped me the most in learning a language?

Above all else, living with locals. This means that the new language is spoken in your home. Learning a language while single and living with locals is by far the best trick to learning well and fast. If I lived with an English-speaking team member or a spouse, it would have shielded me and slowed me down. Going overseas single was the best thing I did. My housemates were my language teachers in real-time. You can’t learn a language in a vacuum.

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Here are a few things I remember from my language learning experiences:

When I first started studying Thai in Thailand, I couldn’t even HEAR the differences in the five tones. They all sounded the same to me. “Maa” pronounced in five different tones has five different meanings. It was so frustrating that they all sounded the same to me and that my teacher insisted they weren’t. I thought she was kidding.  She wasn’t. She also pronounced “Pa” and “Ba” (with no puff of air after the P), and I thought it was the same sound. Nope. I had to train my ears and my tongue in new sounds. It takes time and it felt like I was not making any progress day to day. But somehow I got to fluency.

Which brings me to another point. People ask me things like “how long did it take you to learn Thai?” I honestly don’t know how to answer that question. At what point have you “learned” a language? When I can do basic daily tasks in the language? When I can communicate my feelings to someone? When I can make a joke in the language? I don’t know. I’m always learning. I’m not even sure I’ve learned English yet.

When I studied Thai, knowing the phonetic alphabet was really helpful for me. I could write down exactly how to say the words without using the letters I hadn’t mastered yet. Because the writing system is hard, it was good to get myself speaking and using phonetics, which later helped me to write better. With Shan, however, the writing system is so easy that it was better to learn that first rather than depend on phonetics. After one year of learning Thai, I started learning Shan. Shan has 2 different tones than Thai. The other three are the same. It took me four months of mispronunciation before I finally got those two tones right. It felt like forever. I am very grateful to my patient Shan friends who nursed me through it.

I discovered that there comes a point in language learning where you’re able to keep learning without classes or studying. You may need to look up words sometimes, but there’s enough momentum to keep you moving forward. Study is always helpful, but once you’ve reached that point the learning isn’t going to stop even if you put the books away. Typically I’ve found that if I leave the country for a while and come back, my language has not been lost, but rather compacted down deeper into my brain. Some breaks are good.

Do I get languages mixed up? Yes. I never mixed up Thai and Shan, I have no idea why, because they are actually quite similar. But I do mix up Norwegian and German a lot. They are also similar. In the beginning, when I tried to speak German, only the Norwegian words came to my mind. Now I find it the other way around. German has taken over completely. That’s because I’m immersed in it every day. I have to think really hard for a minute to engage the Norwegian corner of my brain. I’m confident it’s still in there somewhere though. I’ll find out this summer when I spend two weeks in Norway. The good thing is that it comes AFTER I’ve taken my German language exam. Otherwise, I’d be in trouble.

When I studied Shan, I carried a small notebook with me everywhere (that was before smartphones) and wrote down words I heard that were either new or that I wanted to look up later. Even if I never went back to the notebook, just writing it down helped me learn it. I have always been able to understand more than I can write or speak, so writing it down helps you move from merely comprehending to being able to use the word yourself.

In the beginning, I translated everything in my head, but the need to do that lessened over time. Eventually, I understood words and meanings without having to go through English. This is a huge step in moving toward fluency. There are certain things that just can’t be translated. Language is culture and culture is language. Culture is influenced by the environment, religion, worldview, history, etc. There will always be unique words and expressions that exist only in that language. This can sometimes make whatever language you’re speaking seem limited. It is. Knowing more than one language opens your eyes and heart to a different way of looking at the world.

Everyone says that it’s easier for children to learn a language than adults. One of the reasons this is true is because kids aren’t afraid to try. Adults get hung up on themselves and fear the embarrassment of saying something wrong. So we tend to only want to say something if it’s RIGHT. It’s hard to learn a language if you’re perfectionistic about it. It takes humility and a willingness to mess up, say something really stupid once in a while, and trust the patience and graciousness of your hosts. Relationships do tend to be shallow in the beginning, and it can be lonely as a result. It’s important not to get stuck there, however, and to use it as a motivation to keep trying!

One thing is sure, the more I learn of a language, the more I feel I don’t know it yet. There are constantly new horizons to explore. Learning a language is an exciting adventure and journey. I hope that some of my experiences and observations encourage you.

4 thoughts on “How I learned four languages”

      1. Haha, I have been thinking about taking a trip to Myanmar for years! I taught myself a bit of Burmese and I had a Burmese colleague here in China. I am very interested in the links between India, China and Myanmar, and I also worked in Chittagong, Bangladesh, which has strong links with Myanmar.

        At one point I even considered taking a job as an English teacher at a college in Shan state. I have blogged a bit about Asian/ non-European language learning, and so your post appeared at the bottom of a different post that I was reading, probably suggested by an algorithm!

        Like

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