Sometimes the approach you take to learning a language is more important that the coursework itself. If you consider it a burdensome chore, you will undoubtedly drudge through your studies with disdain and dread. If you take it on as a challenge, you may be disappointed when your intentions of conquering a language slip back with your frustrations. But if you look at learning a language as if you were wooing a lover, you might just find yourself in a comfortable dance that will lead you down the road to success and happiness.
If courtship were ever a practical exercise, this would be it. Contributing writer Siôn Owen breaks down the idea of changing your perspective when considering, selecting, and committing to a new language.
by Siôn Owen
Languages are for Lovers
My last post about how to have a language intervention got me thinking more and more about the close ties between language learning and daily life. So often a language is taught as purely an academic subject, with boring grammar drills and vocabulary lists that go on for miles. It’s no surprise I stopped taking French in high school. I loved the language and had chosen it carefully, but I wasn’t encouraged to embrace it as part of my daily routine. Instead, I was encouraged to study a chapter for a test, which made me grow to dislike what I once had loved. It’s important to take control of how you learn a language, from start to finish. Learning a language should be a fun, social experience that brings happiness and fulfillment to your life. In that sense, learning a language is like a relationship.
The dating phase
Once you’ve made the decision to learn a language, take some time to explore and figure out which one is best for you. Watch a few movies in the languages you’re considering, or listen online to a radio show from each country. When you’re dating, someone may look good on the outside, but until you spend more time with the person you don’t really know if they’re a good fit for you and your personality. Flirt with a few different languages before jumping into a relationship with just one. And don’t worry, it’s not considered cheating.
So you’ve played the field and have a good feel for several languages that interest you. Great, now the next step is simple: Pick the language that gives you butterflies in your stomach. Or, to put it another way, choose the language that speaks to you the most (no pun intended). Relationships that are based on practicality or convenience rarely materialize into something special (for example, pairing up with someone just because they have a lot of money). Love has a mind of its own, and it usually isn’t based on common sense. You’re going to be with your language for a while, and things won’t always be easy, so follow your heart when settling down. Your learning process will be infinitely more enjoyable if you do.
This stage marks success. You’ve chosen your language wisely, committed yourself to it, and are now pretty much fluent. Congratulations! When you get married you know almost everything about the person (or at least we’d like to think so), and are very comfortable in his or her presence. However, with comfort comes laziness. Stay on top of your game and don’t be the person who spends the rest of their life in sweatpants once the honeymoon’s over. From a language perspective, be careful not to get too complacent because languages, like birthdays and anniversaries, have that annoying tendency to hide from your memory when too much time elapses between uses. If you put 100% in, you’ll get 100% out.
Well, that was fun, but as they say – stuff happens. Over time you might lose your affection for a language, or you may just get exposed to other (sexier) languages that attract more and more of your attention. I’m going to repeat what I said in the opening paragraph: Learning a language should be a fun, social experience that brings happiness and fulfillment to your life. If it’s not, it’s time to move on. Happiness is paramount, in love and linguistics.
In summary, treat your language as you would a lover, and your learning process as you would a relationship. Take control of your decisions, follow your heart, give it 100%, and don’t be afraid to move on if it doesn’t work out. There are plenty more language books out there to curl up with on a cold winter’s night.
Siôn Owen is a Livemocha contributing author and Earth’s biggest fan of curry and Caribbean food. He’s learning Portuguese, and also loves helping people learn English on his Facebook page, Smash English. Siôn lives in Chicago, USA.