I always tell my students the same two things about language learning: firstly, that the work they do outside the classroom is just as if not more important than the work we do together in the classroom; and next, that they might learn more about themselves over the course of a semester than they will their target language. And that that’s okay. In my over a decade of foreign language instruction, I’ve seen that learning a language unlocks certain predictable reactions in every truly committed student. Reactions they, however, might not expect, and ones that force them to come to grips with difficult truths about themselves or the way they learn. “But I’m such a fast learner most of the time. I don’t understand why this is different!” “I am so eloquent in my native language, why is it difficult for me to find the right words in Italian?” “I’ve studied other romance languages. Why am I not finding this easy?” In a previous post, we addressed the fact that foreign language acquisition becomes increasingly difficult with age, which is a real factor in my students’ difficulties. But there are other lessons that trying to learn or master a foreign language later in life can teach us that go beyond the confines of our narrowly constructed concepts of education and that prove far more valuable to it. They are all interconnected, so it will be a challenge to present them in list(icle) form, but here goes.
- Patience. Every single one of my older students starts out with the conviction that they’ll be some form of fluent (conversationally fluent or able to read or write effortlessly) within their thirty-two hour subscription, regardless of their exposure to their target language outside of their time with me. I have had to remind every single one that in the case of Italian, it has taken me over fifteen years of dedicated, specialized study of Italian, summer research trips to Italy, five years spent living there full time, various personal relationships with Italians, and early childhood engagement with their language to get me where I am today. Those results didn’t happen overnight. Trust me. And they didn’t happen as a result of one or two hours of chatting with someone in Italian per week plus the occasional homework exercise. They happened over many years, hours, and tears. Tears of frustration. Tears of failure. Tears of never feeling good enough. Learning a language is a marathon, not a sprint. In De l’amour, Stendhal writes that “il faut quatre heures par jour pendant six ans pour bien jouer de la harpe” (Galimard: 1980, 217). It takes four hours of practice every day for six years to play the harp well. Learning a language is no different. It takes daily, dedicated training. There will be off-days and periods of unwanted latency. But to reach the finish line, constancy and persistence are key. 32 hours is not the finish line. It’s barely even a warmup. Learning a foreign language teaches you not the virtue of patience, but just how very essential it is in the accomplishment of a major goal.
- Kindness. Learning to be patient with yourself also means learning to be kind with yourself, to allow yourself to make mistakes, feel embarrassed, feel small while knowing that you are not. The kindness that you turn inward can then easily be applied externally, to those around you. It’s hard to make fun of someone struggling to keep up in a second language at work or a client who might not share your mother tongue when you are perfectly aware of just how difficult his or her journey must be. Once you know how much effort goes into becoming even merely functional in a language, poking fun at those to whom verbal communication comes less naturally is no longer amusing. Compassion is the new sexy. Learning a language helps bring about this realization.
- Control. Not in the micro-managing kind of way. Not control over your environment or the things that happen to you, but control over the things for which you are or can be responsible. Control over your verbal utterances When first learning a foreign language, all my students are eager to communicate their thoughts exactly as they become formulated in their mind in their native language. They quickly become frustrated to discover that they simply don’t have the tools available to them in order to do so. Here, “tools” come in the form of parts of speech, vocabulary, verb tenses, expressions, pronouns, articles, and prepositions. The basics are not inherited. They are learned. When you don’t have the tools required to get your message across as you would like to, you have to reduce your message to its most essential quality, to the thing you are able to say with the words you have. Doing so requires extreme control, and is an exercise in clarity more generally.
- Self-awareness. Doing so also requires that you know exactly what it is you would like to say. Your idea can’t be half a centimetre off; your utterance will suffer. In order to speak clearly, it is best to be wholly present in one’s thought and, by extension, in oneself. Learning a foreign language helps bring about an awareness not only of what you want to say or of your limitations in being able to say it, but also of what you truly think, how you truly feel, and how your words can impact the person sitting across from you. Avoiding misunderstandings is a goal for all of my students, and rightly so. No one wants to be in the position where their innocent question is interpreted as offensive, or their request for one type of information responded to with information of another kind. Learning a foreign language can, and often does, make you self-conscious — it stirs up feelings of embarrassment or shame. But once those feelings are harnessed, they blossom into the self-awareness that leads to effective communication.
- Openness. When it’s difficult to express what you’d like to as you’d like to, often, simply listening is the winningest solution. Listening kindly, without judgment, generates an openness that can be difficult to achieve without this practice. Openness to the person across from you, their point of view, their experiences, even when different from or contrasting with your own. Learning a language can also bring about an openness to art forms you may not have considered useful prior to your language class. You might find yourself listening to pop music to help illustrate a verb tense — and liking it unexpectedly. Or watching a television series by a director you absolutely can’t stand and appreciating it for its cultural input. Learning a language encourages students to set aside their biases in pursuit of their concrete goal, to do whatever it takes to get them there. It helps them to cast off the “principles” that shackle them to the self-made box of their identities and explore things beyond themselves. Learning language encourages you to welcome new experiences as opportunities for growth and improvement rather than interpreting them as threats to your core values.
If learning a language is a marathon, then every student of a language will need a training program and coach. If learning Italian has been on your bucket-list for a long time, for whatever reason, we can help you reach your goal and map out a steady course (ha! No pun intended!). Write to firstname.lastname@example.org for your free language consultation.