Languages are hard

Recently, I read a blog entry that mentioned study techniques and I got hung up on the bit about learning a language. I started to write a novel in her comments before realizing that I should just blog about it! (I adore when other bloggers inspire me about blog topics. Lessthanthree.)

Now, onto my language acquisition thus far in life…

I grew up with English. And I was quite good at it. By the age of one, children, on average, can say around 15 words. My mother started to write down all the words I could say after hearing that little fact, but stopped when she got to about a hundred because the scrap of paper she was using was full. (She showed me that paper once. I doubt she still has it, but I would die to know what silly things I was chatting about as a one year old.) I did very well in school, although I was demoted to “regular” English my senior year of high school because I refused to do annotated reading. (True story. But it was worth it because non-honors students are extremely entertaining and fun. Also, we had to fill in a map of Africa and I got a boy I had a crush on to do it for me. He did it all from his brain and set the bar extremely high for all future crushes.) One of my majors in college was English. I now teach English. I dreamed of being a writer once upon at time to spend even more time with English words…. English is my jam, yo.

I also speak tolerable Spanish. Despite never spending any significant time in a Spanish-speaking country (for shame,) I’ve been told my accent is spot-on Mexican (which is a good thing for a gringa) and my grammar is passable. I acquired this language almost entirely through schooling. I started in grade 6 and continued through my senior year, even though I only needed two years in high school. And even though I only needed one term to pass out of the language requirement at my university, I took three. (I briefly considered minoring in Spanish, but there just wasn’t enough time. Which sucks because one of the higher classes read Don Quixote in full and that would have been such an awesome thing to brag about.)

But now my Spanish is deteriorating. It wouldn’t be easy to find a class here that’s advanced enough and I would need a friend to do it with. And unfortunately that’s really the best way for me to keep it fresh. I know there are books and programs that can be used. Hell, there are two Spanish novels sitting on my shelf, but I can’t bring myself to focus on them for more than five minutes. I have Rosetta Stone to review grammar and I have vocabulary programs with ridiculously long word lists. But I just do not have the discipline to study Spanish unless I am told, “Be in this class at this time on these days with your buddy.” I think the social aspect has something to do with it, and I know you’ll say, “You can just find a Spanish-speaking person to converse with online!” But I’ve done that. It sucks. They say “your Spanish is nice!” and then their English is awful and I get annoyed trying to teach them English and I just end the correspondence. And they use slang and I hear it once, but then never really learn it. You need to hear a word 10+ times before it becomes part of your vocabulary, and that’s not likely to happen naturally through a few conversations with Spanish speakers. In all honesty, the best thing for me would be to move to a Spanish-speaking country for awhile…

But alas, I live in an Arabic-speaking country. So how’s it going with that Arabic language acquisition you ask?

When I first came to the country, my friend and I were super motivated and going to totally learn Arabic! So we signed up for a beginner class with two other friends. The teacher would come to our apartment twice (or thrice? I can’t remember) each week and give us a lesson. Unfortunately, nice as she was, she wasn’t an expert language teacher. (And we were all teachers, so behind her back, we complained about her teaching constantly. Which is rude, but alas, here I go again…) Our homework would be to “study,” which of course none of us could do because we were totally new to the language and had no guidance. Plus, who would bother to carve out time for a vague, un-assessed directive like that? Thus, nothing stuck with us for very long. And she wasn’t very thorough in her own knowledge of Arabic, so if I asked her annoying “but why is it that way?” questions (which I did often because I’m obnoxious) it was easy to stump her. And she wouldn’t bother to look it up, so neither would I. I still have no idea why numbers are written from left-to-right, contrary to everything else, and I have totally forgotten how to write my name. (I just tried to air-write it and I got stuck after the “r.”)

Of course, I still know some words. For example, I was just playing Candy Crush and I kept thinking, “Mooshkala kabir.” It means “Big problem.” (I was not doing well in the Candy Crush, haha.) And I just texted my boyfriend “Taib, yalla.” (Which means “ok, hurry up.”) But that doesn’t mean I am acquiring the language as well as I should be. And again, I have a workbook in my drawer and Rosetta Stone on my computer, but alas, I cannot bring myself to study them! I literally only learn words because of my boyfriend. And mostly by accident.

I need to be better at it. The workbook I have is great and was chosen because I need to practice writing the alphabet a lot before I can really start learning vocabulary. (Alas, Arabic words are written in Arabic…) I need to finish that silly thing. And maybe I can convince someone to take a class with me. Unfortunately, most of my Western acquaintances have very little interest in putting in that kind of time. Especially for a language that they never plan to use in the future and don’t need in their life here. English is just too darn prevalent!

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6 Responses to Languages are hard

  1. Alice says:

    Were I living nearer, I would definitely attend a class with you. Having friends there is motivation. I really want to learn another language, but my brain sort of fails once it stops being fun. I may challenge myself to learn some German this Christmas, but without someone German to test it on I don’t know how successful I’ll be.

    Good luck with your Arabic, I’m sure you’ll feel a breakthrough with it soon. The fact you are using some words when it comes to Candy Crush (I think) is a good sign – that game is so addictive!

  2. Aussa Lorens says:

    I am so bad with languages– and I get shy about trying to speak when I’m traveling. Most everywhere I’ve been I’ve (shamefully) relied on the fact that everyone speaks or understands a little bit of English. That failed once I got to China though, because it was VERY rare to come across someone who knew English. The only words I ever really learned were those that my friend used all the time for bartering, arguing, or expressing frustration. Very charming.

    I envy your speaking of spanish– I grew up going to Mexico, have traveled in Guatemala, and had a Venezuelan nanny for the first several years of my life, but…… I know nada.

  3. callistonian says:

    Feel free to write a novel in my comments any time. 🙂 This entry is interesting, though, and I’m glad you posted it. I know that my suggestions for language learning are strange, but I’ve found that from an efficiency point of view, I can learn a lot more by myself in 5 hours than I can in 5 hours in a classroom. Also, in my experience, the teaching level of “weird” languages that Westerners don’t really speak and that the US govt. says are very hard like Korean and Arabic is crap, generally speaking. Plus, I don’t know of a single person who got to the level of a native speaker by simply studying in a classroom setting. I do admit that a lot can be accomplished in low level foreign language classes and that some languages are better suited for them than others. But, really, it’s a matter of motivation. If someone can’t study at all outside of a class, then a class is obviously better. 🙂

  4. Vera says:

    That’s a brilliant way to improve your Spanish. I actually wanted to attend my university lectures/seminars in English because I wanted to challenge myself. Unfortunately I let myself be convinced by my mom not to, since things would be hard enough even without the language barrier (not for me, but for the professors)… and apparently that ended up not being true.

    I think talking to/emailing native speakers is great as an addition. When it comes to being able to “feel” the language/grammar/proper phrasings I’d still need some sort of guidance. Like I wrote in Chantelle’s comments, I couldn’t practice German on my own. I read novels in German, and used to practice grammar on Duolingo (got bored with it 😛 ), but I still have trouble speaking freely. I’m a bit better when it comes to writing, since I have the time to rewrite things.
    Writing short compositions, which are then corrected by a teacher, definitely helps me more, than if I had to go through it on my own.

    Speaking of teachers: um … self-study? For complete beginners? Yeah, like that’ll happen.

  5. Stephanie says:

    How about watching TV shows? I’ve started watching Taiwanese TV so that I get to hear Chinese more often than once a week. If you’re into romantic comedy, there’s a site called “viki” that has shows and movies in Spanish and Arabic in addition to tons in Chinese, Japanese, and Korean. My guess is that if you speak tolerable Spanish, you’ll be able to handle the TV shows.

    • cantaloupe says:

      Oooo!!!! That’s awesome. I just watched the intro song for some soap and the theme song was like “Rich girl, rich girl, ungrateful girl, rich girl, rich girl.” Haha, I love it so hard. Thank you!

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