Saturday, May 23, 2015

On Being A Second Language Learner


I say that because currently I am in Quebec! I am here because I'm doing a 5 week French immersion program that the government provides bursaries to Canadian students for. (If you're interested, you can find more information at In the program, you go and stay at a university (or with a host family if you want), take classes, and participate in French activities and outings around the city. We also are required to try to speak French all the time. And the program I'm in in Quebec City, you get warnings if you get caught speaking English, which can lead to you being kicked out of the program. It makes sense, since the government is paying for you to be here to learn French.

Anyway, as I've been learning, I've learned a lot of things about being a second language learner, so I thought I'd share them with you.

1. It is EXHAUSTING. It is really hard to speak a language that is not my mother tongue all the time. It takes extra effort to concentrate on understanding people, and it takes a lot of effort to be able to find the right way to say something. It's so much easier just to slip back into English. I now understand why one of my friends who was learning language would always be falling asleep in the car. He was just exhausted from trying so hard to keep up with everyone!

2. I probably sound stupid, even though I'm not. I know I'm using the wrong tenses or words or orders of words all the time, but I'm just trying to do my best to communicate in the best way I can. I do know how to express complex ideas and carry on interesting discussion, just not in French.

3. I feel like it is impossible to truly get to know me if you only speak French with me. At times when I would talk or add to the discussion in English, I don't in French because I don't know how to say certain things, it would just take way too long for me to say it, or I didn't fully understand what was said in the first place. I almost feel like there is this wall of fog separating me and francophones. I can kind of see through the fog, but only enough to understand general ideas and not every word. My understanding of others isn't complete enough to have the wall break down. 

4. You can never become a native speaker. I know this should be obvious, but I didn't quite realize it before. I never realized how even if you become fluent and capable in another language, you will probably still have an accent, and you'll just be missing essential knowledge about the other language that native speakers just take for granted. When I reflect on how I speak and use English, there are so many things I do that I don't realize or that would be impossible or at least really difficult to learn.

5. It is necessary to get outside the classroom. There are so many things you learn "sur la terrain" (on the ground) that you can't or won't learn in a classroom. Also, writing and being able to read only get you so far. There's slang, expressions and ways of speaking that you'll only learn by talking with someone who speaks that language.

6. While you can never get on the level of native speakers, if you have people around you that are willing to help teach you and support you in your learning and speaking and who don't make fun of you (too much) when you make mistakes, then you can learn another language!

So, those are just some things I've realized, and also help me to empathize with my friends whose mother tongue is not English. I definitely understand their experience a bit better now. I think I'm very spoiled as an anglophone, because most people in the world speak English, I could get away with only speaking English my entire life. However, I think it's almost a conceited way to go through life, expecting and wanting everyone to speak English just so it's easier for you. Not that I think that way, but I know there are some people who do, even people whose mother tongue isn't English. I wish that English hadn't taken over the world, because I think other languages are important and should be conserved and protected. Anyway, that's a big part of the reason why I want to improve my French, because I think it's important to learn other languages and the culture that goes with it.

What languages do you know? How have you found it learning another language?

1 comment:

  1. I admire your effort. I can't even with French. I have tried, believe me. The most I know is from helping these kids I used to babysit do their Rosetta Stone homework. I pick up accents really well, so I can pronounce some words in a great accent and repeat things back to you, but it is confusing. :P

    I'm better at Spanish; I minored in it in college. I agree -- immersion programs are great! And so necessary! I was able to study abroad in college. Now I've been able to pick up some work on the side doing freelance translation and Spanish tutoring. But you're right; if you don't use it, it goes away, and you'll never attain the level of comfort of a native speaker. I think I was fairly close...I still dream in Spanish, sometimes, I can understand most or all spoken Spanish (though my speaking confidence needs improvement) and...funny story...when I woke up after surgery to take out my wisdom teeth, I was only speaking in Spanish and did not realize I was doing it. :/ Honestly, my subconscious probably "gets" the language better than my thinking brain...Confidence is a big issue. I know you feel dumb, but just remember that you're expected to be on a steep learning curve and are doing a great job outside your comfort zone!


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