A Language Learner's Journey

I would like to apologize in advance for how unorganized this post is.  I just went right into writing without any type of planning.  I am pretty sure my train of thought changed courses while writing this.  I hope you still enjoy it none the less.

Everyone has thought about learning a foreign language at some point or another in their life, but few have actually fallen through with it.  Even fewer whom have gone on to speak multiple languages.  Recently, I came across someone by the name of Tim Doner.  He is a famous polyglot speaking over 20 languages by the time he was 16.  If you want to check him out, please visit his YouTube channel www.youtube.com/polyglotpal where he practices speaking all the languages that he knows.  It is really quite impressive and admirable.  While watching several interviews that he, and other polyglots have done, I realized that indeed, all language learners are the same.  They all encounter the same struggles, and they all face difficulties.  The difference between a polyglot and someone learning just one language is the hobby of learning multiple languages.  I mean, I love learning foreign languages, but some of these polyglots who speak 30 or even 40 languages are on a new level of obsessed and have a ton of time on their hands.  Let’s not focus on the extremists right now, you can research about them on your own time.  Let’s talk about how all language learners are the same.


1. Unrealistic expectations

Ok, so it is your first day of language study, whether it be a class or self-study, you have made this decision, to diligently learn a new language.  You are one step closer to being multicultural.  Immediately, you have all these high expectations: “I’m gonna study every night” “In 2 years time, I should be having a decent conversation with somebody, maybe even watch a movie in my new language!” or “I am sure that by 4 years, I will be fluent.”  The expectations go on and on.  There are so many goals in mind.  Let’s face it though, 80% of them, are completely unrealistic.  Studying every night is a good goal, but you are never going to achieve it unless you map out your studying.  How long are you going to study every day?  What content?  And how?  If you don’t have a clear plan, you are going to fail.  But, let’s take a step back, and try to be fair.  If this is your first attempt at learning a foreign language, you don’t know these things yet.  You also don’t know how you as an individual get motivated to learn a foreign language, nor do you know your learning style. 


When I started learning my first language, (Spanish) I had all kinds of unrealistic expectations.  I thought I would be fluent in 2 or 3 years time and that I would be able to watch TV or movies in Spanish.  I was wrong.  I don’t know where these expectations came from, but for some reason, I thought that fluency meant native level.  It doesn’t.  Everyone has their own interpretation of the term but in my mind, it means native level, so I use the term proficient.  I never even got to the place where I could call myself proficient because after 2 years of study, the extent of my abilities was taking orders in Spanish at Chick-Fil-A.  We all have fluency goals, and they are just not going to happen.


We all expect to learn a language the same as we learn math or history, but truth is, we don’t.  In fact, none of us learn a language the same way we learn another subject.  It uses your entire brain whereas learning math or science only uses one part of the brain, and they are in the same location.  For me, I am a kinesthetic learner.  I have to hear, see, and apply what I have learned into action. That is how it has always been for me.  So when I went into a Japanese language classroom for the first time (I don’t remember how I learned Spanish or Korean.  I only remember absorption and regurgitation because I was still young) I applied my normal language learning method into the class, yet I wasn’t learning anything.  I would study everyday, any chance I got, and nothing was sticking.  I couldn’t figure it out.  I somehow magically passed 2 semesters with just a high enough grade to continue, until I figured it out.  Once I figured it out, I went back and studied everything from the beginning.  I am a visual learner.  One day I saw someone writing kanji over and over and over.  I asked what they were doing and they told me that they were a visual learner, so they had to write out what they were learning in order to remember it.  I went home, and tried it, and I have been absorbing Japanese ever since.  Once I started to see how each grammar worked, and how each kanji has its meaning, it all just made sense to me.  I started to take more notes, and copy vocab and sentences out and things just started to make sense. 


Once you tailor your expectations to be more realistic, then your language learning can proceed.  That is not to say that you will never have unrealistic expectations again, because you will.  There are always thing you encounter unexpectedly that you were not prepared for.  It happens.  Just knowing that it happens, keeps you level headed.


2. Motivation

Language learners struggle with motivation all the time.  It never goes away.  You start off your first lesson with high hopes, excited, and ready to dive in.  If you encounter issues, no biggie, you are only a beginner, that is to be expected.  Once you progress in the class and you start to see the students that are doing better than you, you start to think that maybe you can’t actually learn this language, or any language for that matter.  You just don’t have the natural ability to learn it like others and you just give up.  You get discouraged, and can’t focus no matter how hard you try.  Then it happens, you know an answer to something that the smart person you had been admiring doesn’t know, you jump at the chance and display your knowledge and feel so proud!  Suddenly you are again eager to learn the language and dive into the learning.  Then, you didn’t do so well on your last test despite the fact that you spent hours and hours studying.  What went wrong?  Why couldn’t you remember everything you worked so hard to remember?  You feel like giving up.  Your efforts are all in vain.  You just can’t stand not seeing any progression.  Then, you watch a drama with English subtitles, and you read a phrase, that you conflicts with what was said.  You realize that you just understood the language you had been working so hard to study, and immediately start watching more dramas without the subtitles to try and catch anything you have learned.  Your language learning sores.  Then you get asked a question in class.  You know you know the answer, but you just cannot recall it.  It was something you studied at the beginning of the semester yet now it is old news and your mind acts as if you never heard it before.  You have failed yet again.  Other people get it, but you don’t.  Why don’t you get it?  Why is it so hard?  Then you encounter foreigners who are struggling with something at the store.  You recognize that the language they are speaking together is the one that you are currently studying.  So you approach them, hoping that your broken understanding will at least do something to help.  You ask them what is wrong, and immediately you understand that they are lost and need directions.  You just so happened to have just left a class, where you were practicing how to give directions.  How perfect!  You give them the directions they need and they thank you, fully understanding everything you said.  You were successful.  You communicated perfectly with native speakers.  What a great day!  You go home, and dive into your studies even more.


All of these things and more happen to language learners.  It is all about motivation.  It helps to write out your achievable goals and reasons for taking your language learning journey.  One of my goals is to read a novel in Japanese.  A more near future goal, is to pass JLPT N3 (I failed it last time I took it BTW).  I get discouraged all the time.  I sometimes have days where I just can’t be bothered to study Japanese, and almost without fail, something happens where I do something in Japanese that I never have done before and it was successful later on in the day.  It is easy to find those moments with living in Japan, but they did happen back in the states.  Not as frequently as now, but they still did happen. 


3. New cultural identities

When you learn a language, you don’t just study how to communicate in that language, you learn about the culture.  Language and culture go hand in hand.  For example, in English there are several native speaking countries out there, but what separates them apart from the accents?  Culture.  In America you would never say “cheers” when hanging up the phone, yet you would if you were in England.  You also wouldn’t say “begging your pardon” I America but in Australia you would.  There are many things in culture that translates into language without you even knowing it.  In America, we say “excuse me” all the time.  We use it to mean, “I’m sorry”, “pardon me”, “I didn’t mean that” it means a lot of things.  The Japanese equivalent of that word is sumimasen.  As Americans learn Japanese and visit Japan, they treat “sumimasen” the same as “excuse me” when in fact, it is not, and the Americans end up confusing and annoying the poor Japanese people.  Sumimasen means “I’m sorry” or “could you help me” or “I am sorry to bother you but…”  Hardly ever, does it actually mean, “Excuse me.”  Also, the Japanese equivalent to “I’m sorry” is “gomen.”  Yet, no one in Japan uses “gomen” to mean the “I’m sorry” in English/America.  You only use it when you have offended or hurt someone.  Saying “gomen” after you accidentally bump into someone, you are going to get strange stairs because the person was neither offended nor hurt by an accidental bump.  You are better off just saying nothing or “sumimasen.”


Another thing that happens quite often to foreigners yet is pretty funny to those in Japan is “irasshaimase.”  It is said when you enter a store by everyone, at least 20 times an hour.  It literally means “you have humbly come.”  They use it as a greeting for having entered the store.  So many foreigners you are just starting to study Japanese, have not reached the stage of keigo learning (the most difficult conjugation of honorifics) and haven’t a clue what “irasshaimase” actually means.  So they hear someone say it to them, thinking it means “hello” when in fact, it is just a “welcome to our store” they say it back to them.  Anyone reading this that knows Japanese will be laughing thinking about it, because it is just ridiculously funny.  Think about it in English.  You say “welcome” to someone who just entered your store, then they smile and wave at you repeating “welcome” right back to you.  Wouldn’t you have a hard time containing your laughter?  That is kind of what happens in Japan, except they try to be really polite about it and stifle their laughter.  They will talk about you later though and have a proper laugh.


I say all of this, because once you understand the culture behind the language, you start to understand how to need to present yourself when speaking the language (I am going to say TL for target language from now on).  When I speak English, I am more blunt and outgoing, because that is what comes with the American culture.  When I speak Japanese, I am more bubbly and polite.  You become a new person when you speak the TL.  If you are uninterested in traveling, or learning a new culture, then you cannot learn a new TL.  It is just not going to happen.  Which brings me to my final point,


4. Traveling

Those who are dedicated to language learning in general probably already know this, but you cannot call your language learning complete, until you have traveled to the country whey they natively speak the TL.  This is something that is just ingrained in language learners.  No one learns a foreign language without also the desire to travel to a country where the TL is spoken.  I have yet to meet someone, who just is learning a foreign language for the heck of it.  Even polyglots will tell you, that they have traveled the globe using their multiple TLs.  It is the only way to curb your learning in the upward direction, as well as give you all the extra motivation you need to keep studying.  There is no grater reason for language learning, than traveling.  When I took classes at community colleges for Spanish and Japanese, there were a few older people who were learning it because they planned on traveling.  So already, they have a realistic goal, proper motivation, and an understanding that there is a new culture involved.  When I first learned Spanish, I wanted to go to Mexico, and I actually did.  When I first learned Korean, I wanted to go to Korea (and still do).  When I first learned Japanese, actually, I never had an interest in going to Japan.  The only thing I knew about Japan was sushi, anime, and manga.  It wasn’t until I started to learn about the culture in that first class that I grew an appreciation for Japan and made it my life to be here doing what I am doing right now.  Learning a foreign language gives you the bug and the bug is pretty hard to get rid of.


5. Continuing the journey

Now you have achieved your immediate goals of learning the TL, and you are ready to move on.  So you choose a new language and discover that it is slightly easier to learn a new language than the first time.  Especially if that language relates to English or another language you have learned. For me, Korean is super easy.  This is because of two reasons.  1, I used to speak it quite well when I was in junior high, so learning it again is like popcorn going off in my brain and grammar just keeps flooding into my brain. 2, it relates so closely to Japanese, just as much as Spanish relates to English.  There are so many similar words, it makes it so easy to remember.  For example, in Korean, the word for time, or library are sikan and tosagwan.  In Japanese, those words are jikan, and toshokan.  So similar!  Because of this, the more languages you learn, the easier it becomes to gain your level of fluency.  It is amazing how many languages relate to each other.  That is why there are linguists out there studying similarities for a living.  Though, I do happen to disagree with most of them, however, that is a topic for another day because I have a LOT of opinions about most linguists.


Anyway, I hope you too learn a foreign language.  It doesn’t matter the language, as long as you choose one that you actually want to learn.  Don’t just pick a language out of the air because it sounds interesting, it will have no meaning to you nor motivation.  After I learn Korean and go to Korea, I want to tackle Polish next.  Simply because I have a Polish heritage.  Knowing that cultural identity comes with language learning, it would be interesting to find out the roots of my ancestry and visit “the motherland” as it were. Plus, I am sure that my grandparents would appreciate it. :D