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.