We are currently in the middle of learning our third language (not counting the snippets of Spanish and American Sign Language we both picked up growing up). As I’m going through this process again, it struck me once again how humbling it is to start learning to communicate from scratch.
A friend recently asked me what language learning is like. As I described it, I realized it is a lot like the first days of parenting a newborn. So, for those of you who have never learned another language, maybe this will help you understand your language-learning friends a bit better (or those you encounter in public who are learning your language!). For those of my friends who have learned/are learning one, I commiserate with you.
1. Its frustrating. Like, way more frustrating than you would have expected. All of the travel brochures make it seem like a dream come true. Yet nothing makes sense, everything takes at least three times as long to do as it used to, and you’re never quite sure you’re doing it right. And someone else always has an opinion about how you should be doing it differently.
2. You’re tired. Exhausted. Brain dead. You now have trouble making a coherent sentence in either the new language or your mother tongue. You resort to a lot of grunting and pointing because you’re just too tired to make the effort to use real words. You have bags under your eyes and your clothes may or may not match because you just don’t care anymore. Your whole body hurts and you wonder how such a small thing can suck so much life and energy out of you.
3. You pantomime. A lot. You talk in weird voices, make creepy faces and say things you never would normally say. Once proud of your literary prowess, you are now reduced to speaking one syllable words in a Me-Tarzan-You-Jane tambour while using the words most 3 year olds in your new culture mastered long ago. “Where milk? Need Bread.”
4. You get overly excited at the tiniest most mundane of achievements – and completely over share them with your friends, family, postman, or anyone else that will listen. You may or may not also have photos to go along with your story. “You guys! You guys! I totally used the Genitive case today while I was in the store! It was so cool! I was all….”
5. You make relationships with people you otherwise never would have met. The depths of these friendships shock and move you. You’re in a club now. The Language Learners of the World club. You’ve been through the war of tenses, conjugations, and irregular verbs together. You’ve toughed it out in the trenches of homework no one understands. You’ve all spent sleepless nights stressing over that autobiography or class presentation you’re supposed to do. It’s the blind leading the blind, and you’re friends for life now.
6. A few months into the process you look back and see how far you’ve come. You’re feeling more comfortable with the language, using it in daily life. You start to think, “I’ve got this! I can totally do this!” You might even start to imagine what it might be like to learn another new language. You picture yourself with your adorable little set of foreign languages and how fun it would be to travel together. And then you have the verbal equivalent of a complete diaper blow out all over yourself in public. And you decide maybe you don’t need another new language after all.
7. It’s one of the hardest things you have ever done, and yet one of the most valuable. It brings you closer to others, teaches you things about yourself you never knew, and pushes you to grow beyond what you ever thought possible.
Have you ever learned another language? What do you think – is it like having a newborn all over again? If you have never learned another language, what language would you learn if you did?