Monolingualism Can Be Cured

So I’ve started learning French again.

And thus begins a hundred stories. From the first (out of many) misspellings, to accidentally speaking Spanish in my first French class, I sometimes feel that learning this language is more difficult than I planned. There are moments of triumph, but they are scattered among the rudimentary mistakes and the feeling that I will never learn. Linguists call this “the affective filter,” meaning that our attitudes and beliefs about language learning influence how effectively we learn. For me, I compare my Spanish abilities with my attempts at French, and I am quick to say that I don’t really speak French at all. Yet as I pick up momentum, I realize this is not true. I may not speak French perfectly, but I am learning what I can while recognizing that my negative attitude is my biggest adversary.

Even as I approach this experience with an open mind, I’m finding it to be nothing like my Spanish language instruction at all.

When I first (seriously) started learning Spanish, I was in seventh grade. I learned in a classroom with books while doing verbal and written exercises. Each grammar point was reviewed to excess before moving onto the next. While I understand many of the critiques of classroom language learning, I have to admit that this method actually worked for me. It was linear, sequential, logical, and by the end of high school I could actually speak Spanish. So much so that I decided to continue with it in college.

In college I wrote essays, I read novels and plays. But the thing that most solidified this language in my mind was living in Spain for a year. It was the culmination of everything I had worked for; immersion allowed me to live out my classroom experience every day in a practical way. Going to the grocery store, the bank, paying bills—every quotidian task in which I could use this new language of mine was an achievement.

And now I’m learning French.

The main disparity between my language learning experiences has been the major time gaps while learning French. Although I started in college, my year in Spain took place between classes. I might have skipped a level too. My classroom time was scattered over the years, always playing second fiddle to what I needed to do to perfect Spanish. Consequently, there are tenses and moods that I never learned. Spanish grammar helps me to at least understand a little, but there is much that I need to review and even learn for the first time. After college, I stopped learning French, thinking that I would have no other reason to continue learning. Years later, I find that French is entering my life again, this time for a job, with the eventual promise of immersion in Switzerland to help me learn quickly and well.

To prepare, I’ve started an intermediate class at my local community college. In this class, I am expected to know certain tenses I have not yet learned. I don’t feel entirely comfortable speaking, yet I must give an oral presentation every day. I’m being stretched, trying to swim instead of sink, but somehow it’s working. I’m learning a lot, both from my professor and fellow students. And what’s worth even more, I’m enjoying the experience. Understanding grammar, being able to communicate, hearing poetry or songs–all of these remind me why I fell in love with language in the first place.

The time gaps, the non-sequential grammar, and the extensive input each class from the professor and more advanced students makes learning French a far cry from the Spanish of my high school days. But I am finding that language learning doesn’t have to happen the same way, even for the same person. As someone who wants to learn and work with unwritten languages, I need to get used to the idea that I can change my beliefs about language learning and still have it work.

French isn’t my first language, and it won’t be my last. Maybe each language will come with a unique learning style, just as each language already contains a unique way to view the world.

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5 thoughts on “Monolingualism Can Be Cured

  1. Indeed, bon courage. I think I only started to truly appreciate my native language, French, when I moved from Paris to Montreal. Quebec people fight to keep their language intact, even if it is a different version from France’s French. And it made me realize that it is indeed, a beautiful and precious language. I love English, I read, write and sometimes dream in English, but French is my mother tongue, the language of my heart.
    I would recommend poetry, and listening to French radios. You will get the rythm and flow of the language, the words will follow.

    • Thank you for the encouragement. I love languages in general and I am excited to start understanding the rhythm and flow of French. It sounds like you have a good appreciation for different languages too (and different dialects of the same language). I feel like understanding and appreciating another language opens up a new world.

      • You are right, it does open up an entire world. I studied applied syntax at the university as part of my English literature studies, and it was by far the most fascinating course I ever took. We studied one French author and one English author, both in the original writing and the translation, and saw how translating the unwritten subtleties of different words and expressions from one language to another was next to another.

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