Language acquisition is not something that comes easy. If you decide that you want to say, speak Russian, you’ll study its nouns, adjectives, learn how to conjugate verbs, try to figure out the rules of its syntax. You’ll learn the alphabet, its own letters, and eventually construct a sentence. Yay! If you keep at it, you might be able to have an elementary conversation. A couple of years down the road, after you’ve decided that you’re getting pretty good, you’ll realize no one knows what you’re saying. Or maybe you’ll visit Russia and not understand a word of the local dialect. But you stay for awhile- maybe a couple of weeks or even a month, and start to get comfortable and confident about your future linguistic potential. Then you go home, and for some reason, you stop practicing. Six months go by, and you try to have a conversation with a Russian person you met at the local coffee shop. And you choke- what? What happened? You can’t even successfully explain to them where you were born.
Why is learning a foreign language so, well, difficult?
Language is a beautiful thing. It opens up doors of communication, bringing people and their cultures into your life that otherwise you’d never get the chance to talk to. It helps you get from point A to point B (ever tried asking someone for directions in a language you know nothing of, using only made-up sign language and a pocket-book dictionary? It’s tragically hilarious). It just sounds cool. But if you’re like me, and you grew up in a monolingual household (regularly saying “chicle” for gum and “pedo” for fart does NOT make you bilingual), it’s a long, tough road. And, I’ve come to realize, a lifelong commitment if you really want to get good at it.
I’ve studied French, Spanish, Japanese and Portuguese, and pick up fun sayings in random languages like “You have a booger right there” and “Hey bitch, wanna smoke?” that I’ll never be able to use in real life. I studied my ass off trying to learn French in high school for a year and consequently gave up the dream of living in Paris, eating baguettes and wearing black and white striped shirts (my imagination was limited at age 14, duh). I took six weeks of elementary Japanese when I was living in San Francisco and actually did pretty well for as difficult of a language as it is. I was able to order food, ask for directions, shop, and tell people simple things that I liked and disliked (“Coffee is good.” or “Hamburger is bad.”) when I went to Japan the summer of 2006. I especially caught onto the words that sounded like English: credito cado (credit card), icu cureamu, (ice cream) boi furendu (boyfriend), and so on. But ask me now? I can’t even introduce myself anymore. This goes back to my consensus that language has to be a lifelong commitment.
I am fluent in Spanish only because I studied it in school, on my own, and lived/traveled in Spanish-speaking countries. All in all, about seven or eight years passed before I was even close to fluency. Holy hell! It’s a long time. And it only eventually happened when I moved to Argentina, because I was forced to speak every single day. To try to explain myself when I was exhausted, sad, angry, fed up. I’d be lying if I said I never shed a tear because of language complications. I wanted to speak Spanish fluently so badly it nearly drove me mad. For the longest time, I would only say the things that I knew I could say without messing up. Damn perfectionism. But it was only when I allowed myself to make mistakes that I got better. I think that goes for a lot of things in life. Let yourself fuck up just a little bit, and all of a sudden you’ve gotten really good.
Portuguese was another beast. I studied it for my master’s degree and admittedly caught on pretty quickly because it’s so similar to Spanish. When I went to Brazil for two months, I had only taken two semesters and was pretty confident in my abilities. The first couple of weeks there, I was so excited that people could understand me and vice versa (though not always). I felt myself steadily improve as I went to class 4 hours a day and went to sleep with Portuguese words and expressions flying around in my head like bats. But over-confidence will get you: Just when you think that you are able to speak a new language, a big fat frying pan comes down from the sky and hits you on the head. And then you realize how much more you have yet to learn.
I realized that being able to communicate well doesn’t necessarily mean that you can speak well.
That being said, the important thing is still communication. If you can get your point across, you’re doing well. Keep on trying, keep on studying verb conjugations, keep on reading the local newspaper, taking note on how people use certain words, and you’ll improve.
Overall, learning a foreign language is something that is an indefinite struggle; it is awkward, extremely humbling, and super frustrating. However, it is also one of the most rewarding things in life, and something that will change you for the better if you work hard enough at it. I have several good friends that I otherwise would never have gotten to know if I didn’t speak their native language, and have gotten to see and understand several cultures in a way that most tourists would never would get to. And those are just a couple of benefits.