What makes for successfully learning a language? I often hear stories from people who studied such-and-such at some distant (or not too distant) juncture in their life. They remember some basics, the s’il vous plaît, the gracias, the привет, the arrivederci. The story usually contains details about how the learning wasn’t fun, or the language just didn’t speak to them or that they never used it then POOF! it was gone, much like the raccoons from your trash can as you open the door to see what all the ruckus is about. The epilogue of their little tale often contains some lament about having lost the language, or never having learned another, or never really using it to begin with.
What I notice in these accounts is their lack. The narrators are a bit removed from their stories, as if they’ve no vested personal interest in it, but are merely reporting this little episode that they could have very easily seen on any edition of “The Bachelor,” where that overly handsome airline pilot tries to connect with date #13 as he bides his time to woo #14 and think about #12. I worry that this disconnect is exactly why they let that language get away–they never felt it theirs, or theirs for the taking and having.
So how do you make that connection? Well, you look that language right in the eye, that window to the soul, and you see whether she (or he, for that matter, your language perhaps being a burly and rugged German or English, rather than a spicy Spanish or a titillating Italian) connects with you.
It’s a first date. And as on every first date, you ask yourself some very basic questions.
1. What is your interest in him? Or better, is she interesting? Your friend who’s dating a lawyer may find all lawyers captivating, but if you don’t, taking one to dinner isn’t conducive to you getting swept off your feet. You must have an attraction to your language. You must find her appealing. That interest can, of course, be utilitarian–say, learning German because your firm has offices in Berlin and Munich. For some, utility is a great and sufficient motivator. But it isn’t, and shouldn’t be, the only one. What sparks your interest? What keeps you magnetized? On this very blog, a commenter recently expressed a desire to learn some Mongolian because of a pending voyage there. Travel is another good motivation–how better to experience a new place than being able to chat with the locals and read their menus rather than some awkward translation? Perhaps you have a close friend fluent in Chinese. No better reason to learn Chinese than to speak it with your friend. My own choices in learning have been driven by literature, that great seducer. Voltaire’s Candide wooed me so much that I wanted to read it in the original, and thus was I compelled to learn French. The come-hither vibes of Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics had me coo-coo for Italian. Are you a fan of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo? Perhaps the carrot of Män som hatar kvinnor is just the right treat to get you galloping to learn Swedish.
2. How do I make a personal connection with my date? This is always the tough question and the daunting task of starting a new relationship. Like a new boyfriend with whom you want to spend every free minute, a new language needs to be an integral part of your life. Yes, there are sometimes textbooks involved, but once you close them you can’t leave the language there. Take it with you, make it a part of your day-to-day life. It’s not a dog, it’s your dog, tu perro. You’re not at the supermarket to buy groceries, you’re there to get du lait, des framboises, du riz, du boeuf. And it’s not simply incorporating language into part of your life, it’s sharing interests and passions. It’s your love of movies adding Lola rennt and Der Krieger und die Kaiserin to your Netflix queue or your music obsession keeping L’Ecole du micro d’argent in your CD player for days on end (or on repeat on your EyePod or EarCapsule or whatever digital music device you use). Make the personal connection, because that’s what keeps LTRs (long-term relationships for those not into acronyms) headed on the right track. Making the personal connection makes the language yours, and you’ll always want to speak your language(s).
3. Am I having fun with my date? Am I having fun learning about my date? This is the age-old query of any relationship–are we having fun yet? Or still? Or at all? Though it sometimes takes place in a classroom, learning a language doesn’t have to be soulless or boring. When you’re waiting in line with your lady-love at Starbucks, ready to share yet another romantic iced Venti White Chocolate Mocha with an extra shot–wait who am I kidding? You’re both coffee purists, that’s why you connected, so no ice in that fancy drink for either of you!–you talk, you joke, you make the wait entertaining. And that’s the attitude you must adopt when learning a language. Sometimes you have to wait in line, or consult a grammar book or do some exercises in a text, but those moments can be made all the better by having a little fun in the process. Don’t limit yourself to learning from those texts–the world is your playground, and it’s filled with literary slides and swings, cinematic merry-go-rounds and musical monkey bars. Sing a vibrant version of “La vie en rose” in the shower or give yourself a dramatic, loud-as-you-can reading of Elogio de la sombra as you sip iced tea on your back porch. The more fun you make it, the less it seems like work, and the less it seems like work, the more fun it is to do, so you do it more, thus learn more and then the whole wicked and delicious cycle starts all over again!
Learning a language is a lot like starting a new relationship. You have to be interested in the person to begin with, you have to make a personal connection and incorporate that person into your life, and you have to have fun–otherwise the break-up is inevitable, and you’ll wonder why you went out in the first place. Take the time to pick a good date, make a choice that means something to you and go for it.
And don’t forget, every relationship starts with a simple, “Hello.”
Just take a listen: