I’m not telling anyone anything new when I say that it takes a momentous effort to learn a foreign language. Most people are forced into taking one up at school, only to ditch it as soon as the curriculum permits. And who can blame them? Poring over grammar exercises and vocabulary lists can be deathly boring, repetitive and time consuming. The much hoped for pay-off, i.e. being able to hold a conversation or read an enjoyable book in that language without having to resort to the dictionary for every fifth word, seems about as close as a functioning Middle East peace agreement.
Much easier just to bake a cake for some instant gratification. Or get a certificate in advanced origami skills to hang up on your bedroom wall to feel proud of for the rest of your life without straining your fingers (never mind your brain cells!) any further in that direction ever again.
The do-it-and-forget-about-it approach doesn’t quite work with languages. I may well be shot down for saying this, but formal qualifications are pretty meaningless where languages are concerned. We’ve all come across people with A-levels and university degrees in a foreign language who, a handful of years later, weren’t able to string an intelligible sentence together, and as for participating in a colloquial native-speaker conversation, forget it.
I remember interviewing someone for a job once in German, and all they were able to do, despite convincing paper qualifications, was to recite a pre-learned speech. When it came to responding to any of my questions…well, let’s just say it was an epic fail.
Anyway, getting back to my original point, even if we’re not obliged by the educational system to knuckle down, and we choose to embark on a language learning project of our own volition, more often than not, we give up before our hard labours have borne any really juicy fruit.
I’m no exception here – I’ve left three languages, in which I’d invested quite heavily, by the wayside.
Why did this happen?
I studied Russian for two years, aged 14-16. It was not part of my school’s curriculum, but offered by a neighbouring school in desperate need to boost numbers to keep the class going. A classmate of mine had suddenly developed a burning interest in Russian (her mother, at that time, was dating someone who spoke Russian, and she was competing for attention), so I went along with her. I enjoyed it and I always did my homework, but one lesson a week didn’t get me very far in terms of competency. I barely reached A2 proficiency by the end of it.
Remember, this was before the internet, at the height of the cold war with 99% of native Russian speakers held captive in their country, so there wasn’t much of a chance to practice outside of the classroom.
Once I left school at 16, I had no access to further teaching, and even though I had found the experience interesting and rewarding, I hadn’t sufficiently fallen in love with the language or the culture to take it up again.
My interest in Chinese was first sparked over a decade ago, through a university friend who was learning it at the time. He later went to live in Beijing for a few years. I visited him there in the summer of 2008, and after that visit, I seriously considered moving out there for a bit, and that prompted me to start learning Chinese.
I primarily used a podcast-based course called Chinesepod, which was very entertaining. However, after about six months of working at it, I started to ask myself the question of whether I could REALLY see myself living in China. The honest answer was no, I couldn’t. The pollution, such a profoundly different culture, political repression and inconvenient internet firewalls… my initial excitement over the prospect had waned, little by little, and so I stopped learning Chinese.
Japanese culture and language first started to intrigue me in my early twenties, when I was working for a large travel company in the UK. One of my co-workers was Japanese, and there was also a lovely Japanese-speaking American colleague I made friends with, who had lived in Japan for many years.
Nearly a decade later, in 2003, I had a Japanese flatmate in London, and I actually started dabbling a bit with the language. In 2005, I made a more concerted effort for about six months with books, podcasts and other teaching materials. Plus, I found a Japanese woman to meet up with once a week for language exchange lessons, which I enjoyed greatly. But after she returned to Japan, the whole thing fell flat. I’d have loved to have gone to Japan at that point to do an intensive course for a few months, but it just wasn’t financially feasible.
After giving up on a language, I always experience a profound sense of regret, which never seems to fully dissipate. They are achievements never fully realised, like sprouted seeds withering in barren soil. They were once windows to other cultures, people and friendships, but the shutters came crashing down, and there’s barely a ray of light coming through.
Of those three I’ve abandoned, it’s the Japanese I lament the most. I’m determined to get back to it at some point. Right now, though, I’ve got enough on my plate with Spanish and Portuguese.
What about you? Are there any languages you were once into that have since bitten the dust? What attracted you to them in the first place and why did you veer off course? Are you intending to take them back up again…?
[If you’re missed my post on how I almost remained a monoglot, click here.]