Tips on Learning New Languages

From someone who never wanted to learn another language

I am not an expert on learning languages. In fact, I might have a learning disability, but I was able to learn French and then later Italian. I learned a lot on my own, which can be difficult for languages, and it was difficult for me. I’d like to share my experience, and maybe there is something you could use in learning a language.

Growing Up

I didn’t learn how to pronounce English until I was a junior in high school. It isn’t that I couldn’t pronounce words, but I had memorized how to say them. When I started taking French, I realized I had a big issue. So I made a bigger effort to learn how to pronounce words in English to help be able to pronounce French.

I lived in Paris for two years, but learning French there was like trying to learn English in New York City. Nobody had time for you if you weren’t perfect. I would say “Bonjour”, and the frenchman would correct me. I would try again, and this sequence would repeat four or five times before I just asked if they spoke English.

My high school was an international school, so the main language was English. I was in the lowest levels of French with people who already spoke two or more languages. French was their third or fourth language, so they were not invested at all. I tried, but I could have tried harder. I was more focused on math and science.

College

When I went to college, I thought I would test into Intermediate French (3rd semester). I tested into French 101, so I ignored the test and enrolled in Intermediate French. I did good for reading and writing, but I lacked in speaking and listening. Luckily, everyone else in the class was worse at speaking than me. I took two semesters, and I really enjoyed it, but then I transferred schools. At my new school, there wasn’t anything further I could take.

I decided to keep up with French on my own, mostly out of pride. I didn’t like saying I lived in Paris for two years and didn’t speak French because I felt like I was just a tourist. I wasn’t a tourist when I lived there, and I truly felt a part of the city. I fell in love with the city, and I dream of moving back there everyday.

So I started writing my daily journal in French. This was difficult at first, but I studied any grammar or words I lacked. This gave me an opportunity to write about something everyday and also to improve on regularly occurring events. It then helped me be able to tell a story in another language as I was telling the story of my day.

I also started reading in French. I got books by Roald Dahl because I loved his books growing up. I read them in French because then I wouldn’t have to worry about getting lost in the plot. Eventually, I upgraded to Arthur C. Clarke books, which is double-fun because I have read 30 books of his. Additionally, when I first moved to Paris, I was lonely and loved his stories, so I set out to read most of his bookshelves the first couple of months of French living. The majority of his books were read in a rocking chair in the 16th Arrondissement.

Two Extra Languages

When I went to grad school, they had Gaelic, so I took it!

I figured I was Irish descent, and I should try it. It was a different beast, but I enjoyed it. Then I met a woman who later became my wife. The only trouble was that her extended family spoke Italian. I decided to drop Gaelic and try Italian. I wanted to be able to speak it because I don’t like hanging around a bunch of people and not being able to be part of the conversation. I’m just too talkative.

I ended up completing almost 4 semesters of Italian. I was the run of the mill student for the first two semesters with a slight edge due to my previous language experience. I used French to help me figure out some of the Italian pronounciations and the grammar. I also learned French is spoken with the back of your tongue, and Italian is spoken with the front. I would default to French words, and I worked to keep them separate.

The summer between my second and third semesters of Italian separated me from most of the class. I wasn’t taking the classes for credit, but I was doing all the homework. During the summer, I went to Italy for two weeks, and I started writing a portion of my journal in Italian.

I was soon able to read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in Italian, and I quickly accelerated during our annual trips to Italy. The only thing I hadn’t anticipated is that I learned Italian, not dialect. Most of her family speaks Italian, but they lapse into dialect.

We went almost every summer for a few weeks, and then something clicked. I got some Italian book which was a collection of strange stories in recent history. The book started flowing differently. At first, a few sentences, then whole pages. It felt like I was reading Italian instead of reading Italian words and translating into English. Suddenly, conversations sounded different, and my brain blew up.

I continued to read a few more books by this author, and my Italian improved immensely. I felt comfortable conversing, and I could now be myself in Italy because I could talk to random strangers. My heritage is Irish, and part of Irish culture is to strike up random conversations with people you don’t know. Now, I was able to be Irish in Italy.

We watched a lot of Italian television there as well, and we watched some of the kids shows in Italian. Back in the States, we try to watch Italian TV regularly, but our kids have reduced the amount of time I can spend on a language.

For a time, I would listen to Italian and French talk radio shows to help me hear the language on a daily basis. Some times, I would record talk radio and listen to the same bit over and over to help become more familiar with the words.

Saying Au Revoir

In those first few years of Italian, I was alternating days that I read and wrote my diary in French and Italian. This worked okay, but as my Italian got better and become more practical, I came to a fork in the road. If I wanted to truly improve my Italian, I only had so much time during the day and life, so I decided to give up French.

I was so sad to stop reading and writing in French. I felt like I was leaving Paris or giving up on this idea that I lived in Paris and still spoke French. However, I was grateful for French. The French language enabled me to learn Italian in a way I never learned French. At that decision point, I could read and write better in French than Italian, but I could speak and listen better in Italian than French.

I was afraid of making mistakes.

One of the biggest mistakes of learning French was a fear of failure. Part of that fear was environmental, but a lot was within me. I was afraid of making any mistakes. With Italian, I was keen on failing a lot, and I did. I used the wrong words, the wrong phrases, had to ask people to speak slower, mispronounced words, and had to repeat myself. But in doing so, Italian became part of my thinking process.

I can still read and write French, but it is a little rusty. I end up defaulting to Italian words which means I need to concentrate more. Definitely, it was an interesting twist considering when I first started learning Italian, I would default to French.

Overall, these languages have given me a love for languages and communication that I didn’t know I was capable of. I am so grateful I have been able to learn a language as beautiful as Italian, and while I may not be fluent, I can understand Italians and be understood. I can travel to Italy and not feel like a tourist.

In Summary to learn a language:

  1. Make mistakes.
  2. Write a daily journal.
  3. Read at your level, starting with books you have read in your mother tongue, but read voraciously.
  4. Randomly talk to people.
  5. Talk to yourself.
  6. Watch tv and listen to the radio in that language.

I’m in love with my Wife, my Kids, Espresso, Data Science, tomatoes, cooking, engineering, talking, family, Paris, and Italy, not necessarily in that order.