Scott H Young

My Mistakes and Triumphs in Learning a Foreign Language


photo taken in my city

photo taken in my city

It’s been awhile since I posted about my goal to become fluent in French. For the new people here, I’ve been spending the last 8-9 months practicing the language, with the last 4.5 living in France.

First off, I’m definitely not a language learning expert. This is my first attempt at learning a foreign language, so don’t confuse me with polyglots such as Steve Kaufmann or Benny Lewis. Their feats certainly dwarf mine.

However, as I feel the story is perhaps more important than the end product, I’d like to share some of my mistakes and successes so far.

The Ups and Downs of Language Learning

Learning a language is an interesting goal because it fluctuates between grand overconfidence and crushing embarrassment. I’ll often pride myself in my French ability, until tongue-twisted in a seemingly easy situation.

My French friends will often comment that I speak, “super bien.” At which point they will make a comment and I won’t understand. Two steps forward, one step back. Language learning often feels like a drunken stumble towards progress.

Despite the struggles, I’ve found the experience incredibly enjoyable. Learning a foreign language has had benefits beyond just being able to communicate. It’s a skill, like karate or painting, that becomes more enjoyable the better you become.

My Progress: Where I am Now

I find this question impossible to answer, since it all depends on when you ask me.

I spent a week with a French-speaking Belgian family during the Christmas holidays. Completely in French, as they spoke little to no English.

In the beginning, I was quite happy with my progress. Then I made the novice mistake of referring to my roommate as “ma collocataire” instead of “mon collocataire”. (In French, the possessive adjective “my” takes on the gender of the object, so my statement was only consistent with having a female roommate)

This led to an interesting discussion about the attractiveness of my roommate until we eventually uncovered my mistake.

So the best answer I can give is that I’m fluent in French, except when I’m not.

What I Would Do Differently Next Time

First, I’d like to point out that I truly hope there will be a next time. Immersing myself in the exciting strangeness of a foreign culture and language has been a great experience. I already have thoughts about where the next challenge may take me.

However, I think I made a couple mistakes that hindered my language learning ability. Some of these were understandable at the time I made the decision, or even unavoidable. But, in the future I’ll be more aware of these potential pitfalls.

Mistake #1 – Not Being Immersed Enough

My classes are in English. My roommate is Canadian and English-speaking. And, living in a university city, many of my friends are foreign exchange students. The majority of my speaking time is in English.

I have been doing my best to correct this mistake, but I realize it is more difficult once you’ve already established yourself in a new country. I tried getting my classes switched to French but was turned down because the French courses already were well over capacity. I also have no plans to ditch my roommate or English-speaking friends.

So my solution has been to take smaller steps to immerse myself. My week-long complete immersion in Belgium was one. Biasing myself towards parties with people speaking mostly French is another. I’ve even recently dedicated a 30-Day Trial to start switching over my reading/listening to French.

Mistake #2 – Being Too Afraid of Inarticulateness

Yes, I’m a real person with fears and worries too.

When I started learning French, I was very self-conscious about my lack of articulateness. It feels embarrassing when you’re mid-sentence and can’t complete a thought. Especially early on when you don’t even have the words to explain your predicament and instead end with an awkward silence.

I feel it was worse because, having written for several years and polished my public speaking skills, I’d consider myself above average in articulateness in English. I’m not a wordsmith, but my abilities with my native language made me feel even more naked when speaking outside it.

Mistake #3 – Not Congratulating Myself Enough for Progress

Earlier this week I met a group of new exchange students. Many of them didn’t speak French at all. Although there were many people with limited to no French skills when I arrived in France (myself included), it didn’t stand out.

Conversing with them, I forgot how much I (and most of the other exchange students) progressed in French. Surrounded in a bubble with people who speak the language much better than I do, it was easy to forget that I actually was making progress.

I believe confidence comes from legitimate success. But if you don’t acknowledge that success when it comes, or can’t perceive it, then you can’t improve.

Language Learning, Cultural Immersion and the Adventurous Life

For many of the readers my foray into learning a foreign language is just an interesting anecdote. Most of you have no plans to leave home, live in a foreign culture and take on the challenges that come with it. That’s okay.

But I think learning languages speaks to a broader mission. The goal to live an adventurous life. I would say that people tend to emphasize the exciting experiences as key ingredients in an adventurous life–wild parties, tourism or sky diving.

However, that emphasis ignores what I feel is a more important ingredient: the patient process of learning new skills. Without some degree of sweat and difficulty, adventures are just postcards, not memories.

I could have easily lived in France, especially this city, without bothering to learn more than basic French. But if I had chosen that path I would have missed the true challenge and beautiful strangeness that learning a foreign language has given me.


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20 Responses to “My Mistakes and Triumphs in Learning a Foreign Language”

  1. Fearnley says:

    Hey Scott,

    I wouldn’t worry too much about getting the wrong gender. I’ve been living in France for 4 years and it still happens to me. Most of the time people don’t even notice (although when they do they remind me of my mistake at every chance they get )
    Even native French people sometimes get the wrong gender, which I find very funny until I get put back in my place :)

    Well done for learning a new language !! Félicitations

  2. Isabel says:

    First of all, let me congratulate you on your idea of learning a new language. From what I see around me, looks like english-born and german-born people can be the ones with more trouble learning a new language – probably because of all the new sounds and distinctions between genders and all.

    As for myself, I am portuguese-born – and if you ask me, that actually helped me learn new languages, and at least understand many, even if I’m not fluent. For example, even though my best 2nd language is english, I can understand most of spanish, french and italian. Why? Because once you learn portuguese/spanish/french/italian – even if just one of them – it gets a lot easier to understand better the other ones.

    But anyway!

    I was going to make you a couple of suggestions for you to deal better with learning french, especially the way it sounds. I found that what works best for me is music and movies/tv series. Of course that the options are way better when it comes to english, but I’m sure you can find some french bands that you’ll come to like. Listen to the songs, check their lyrics, and you’ll see that things become easier.
    Another thing that you might consider doing is to use french subtitles on tv shows and movies. That way, you get to hear it in english, and see how it’s written in french. Might sound a bit confusing at first, but it’s another way to get better at french, and force your brain to think in french.

    Which reminds me of another thing: if you want to say or write something in another language, think about it on that language. I often find that my worst english-portuguese translations and english write-ups happen when I’m thinking in portuguese. I become some sort of babelfish translator – and trust me, it doesn’t sound good at all. So if you want to speak and write in french – think in french.

    Maybe some of these tips can only be effectice in a (near?) future, but this was exactly what came to my mind while reading your article. Sorry for the long comment!

    Merci beaucoup pour ton blog,
    – Isabel

  3. Alexander says:

    For point #1, do you think in French? Do you write your grocery list in French?

  4. Ian K says:

    Bravo!

    C’est plaisant de te lire. Définitivement la chose la plus géniale dans le monde c’est d’expérimenter des choses loufoques, d’expérimenter l’impossible. C’est pour ma part, mon objectif: tout vivre, tout expérimenter. Alors je comprends vraiment ce que tu veux dire. Le monde est une place grandiose où abondent des merveilles, il faut savoir regarder et les approcher.

    La plus belle fille que j’ai vu et ai approché est une droguée. Je dois dire que je me suis bien amusé, bien que vu de loin ça à l’air d’une erreur. Je regrette rien. (J’ai eu ma dose)

    Je suis souvent mal tombé néanmoins je continue et rien ne vas m’arrêter.

    Écoute, je te souhaite du succès. Je veux que les gens qui cherchent la vie sur d’autres planètes réussissent.

    Bien à toi,

    Ian

  5. Scott Young says:

    Ian,

    Oui, je suis d’accord. La vie experimentif est une vie plus interressant.

    Fearnley,

    This case was more humorous than embarrassing. I’ve kicked myself into too many awkward situations to feel embarrassed about that. But certainly, genders isn’t the main worry.

    Alexander,

    Don’t write grocery lists since I do groceries about once per day here in France. ;)

    However, I completely agree with your point. I have been trying to transition the small parts of my life into French. Switching my cellphone’s T9 setting to French was a big step since it made texting in English *harder* than texting in French.

    I’m going to start converting all my personal documents into French and I may eventually start doing my journal writing at least partially in French.

    -Scott

  6. Brodie says:

    I know where you’re coming from. I’m 17, I’ve been studying French for over 4 years and I’m coming to the end of a 2 months student exchange in Marseille, in the south of France.

    At the start of my trip, even though I’d been studying for a long time, and had done very well in class, conversation in French was very difficult. During my stay I’ve been going to a French lycée, and I found it hard to understand what the other students and the teachers were saying, but the immersion is what’s helped me so much. I’ve made so much progress in two months. I still make mistakes, with gender, or with messing up a conjugation, but I’m learning more and more to just plow ahead no matter what.

    I was talking to the English teacher at the lycée, and she said that when she first went to England during university, even though she had been studying English for years, the native conversation was hard at first. She said it was the immersion that helped her get past that stage.

    And I sometimes forget, like you, how much progress I’m making. That’s why, it really motivates me when people compliment me on how well I speak. The French people I’ve met are amazed that I speak how I do after studying for only 4 years, so if you’ve only been practicing for 9 months, you must really be progressing fast. Bravo !

  7. I bet you’re doing great at it Scott, and indeed, you need to reward yourself (or even acknowledge) every once in a while.

    I’ve picked up a course in sign language, just 6 lessons. But I like it already very much, I’m thinking to pick up a follow-up course to learn even more.

    Still, I’m also interested in learning another (spoken) language fluent. French seems like a good option. I can understand most of what Ian K says here in the comments, but I’m not sure about how to speak it.

    Definitly interesting, definitly something worth to think about..

  8. Great post Scott, thanks for sharing!
    I can see you’ve reached the same conclusions I have in my language learning progress. Confidence really is a big thing and I always try to have a positive attitude as much as possible since it makes a world of difference. Even with a seemingly impossible task like my current first Asian language in just a few weeks, it’s confidence and attitude that is keeping my momentum up and stopping me from throwing in the towel from frustration.
    Unfortunately, smaller steps to immersion may come too slowly, so I still recommend that you try something more drastic. Even after I had established myself in Spain for 6 months with friends and a routine I still made that tough choice and changed everything to Spanish. A super hard decision, but the one that turned me into a polyglot in the end. You’d be at an advantage if you tried it because your level of French is definitely better than my Spanish was then.
    But you’ve definitely reached some major milestones. You’ll see how when you take on your next language that it will be much easier in comparison, not so much because your brain has morphed into learning languages, but because you’ll have perfected your approach. The first is always the hardest!
    Bon courage et bonne continuation !!

  9. Benjamin says:

    Hey Scott,
    I know exactly how you feel. I’m currently a Sophomore from the University of Missouri-Columbia, studying abroad in Japan for about a year. I’ve been here since July (so for about 6 months as of today.)
    I got here after having taken only a year of the language, but once I got here I felt like I knew nothing. From there it’s been the same up and downs you’ve experienced, but I’ve come to realize I’m going to make mistakes.
    The only thing I would recommended to those who want to become truly fluent and immersed in a language is to live in a homestay if possible and try to stay away from your native language as much as possible.
    It’s good to know people are having the same problems as I’m having, and great blog post!

  10. Craig Thomas says:

    Excellent point on mistake 3. Only recently have I been ‘rewarding’ myself and I was fairly shocked by the benefit. Having a list of items I wanted really spurred me on to my goals.

    Good luck with the language!

  11. Scott Young says:

    Benny,

    I agree with you and Benjamin, definitely I’m going to make some strategic decisions differently when working on picking up the language next time.

    Yes, incomplete immersion may not cut it, I don’t know. We’ll see how my current approach of dealing with the incomplete immersion along with increased small steps fares. It definitely won’t be fluency in three months, but I’m patient.

    Once my classes finish, I have about another 3 months in France, so I may go with your 30-day complete immersion trial approach in May or June.

    -Scott

  12. Well done on the development Scott. I’m glad you’re doing so well. Love language and will always have a place in my heart for the French language. Have you looked at Tim Ferriss blog for information on rapid language acquisition, it’s great stuff. Cheers!

  13. Eilidh says:

    I don’t know if you’ve seen it, but freerice.com lets you practise learning various things including French through answering multiple choice questions, and with each one you correctly answer, 10 grains of rice are donated to the world food program. (Advertisements on the site pay for the donations)

    I’ve found it fairly useful in brushing up my skills in various things, and even if I’m having an off-day, it’s nice to know I’m doing a very small amount to help at the same time.

  14. Karen says:

    Great post! I just wanted to let you know that I know exactly how you feel. I studied Spanish in high school and early college, and when I studied abroad in Spain I found myself with exactly the same problems (English speaking roommate, too many other exchange students around, and the embarrassment of being comparatively inarticulate in Spanish when I was used to being quite articulate in English).

    I particularly relate to your description of your own fluency – “I’m fluent in French, except when I’m not”. I use almost the same words to describe my own Spanish.

    I also have a suggestion that helped me a lot – when you have free time, try reading books out loud in French. It’s best if you can actually speak up, but even mouthing the words helps (though you’ll look like a crazy person if you’re in public). I found that practicing out loud like this helped to keep my mouth and mind limber and accustomed to the rhythms of Spanish, so when I wanted to say something in my own words it would come out more easily and closer to how a native might speak it.

    Good luck, and I hope that you’re able to keep up with the French after you come back!

  15. Great post Scott. One big key to language learning is the willingness to accept uncertainty, and regular set backs, and even the willingness to appear foolish. You have to believe that you will only get better as you expose yourself more to the language, as long as you want to get better. And you have to enjoy the process.

  16. Eliane Chan says:

    Scott,
    It is really not easy to learn a new language but when the motivation is like yours, to travel and get immersed in another culture, it is totally worthy. I’ve been living in the US for two years now and the best thing of this adventure is that I got to learn to be more humble and more confident. You learn so much about yourself, appreciate even more your own culture, and also appreciate people from other countries and their cultures. It is so amazing to learn how people from different countries think and their values. I just hope it won’t take much longer for me to sound like an American…sometimes you just have to forget you have some self-esteem and practice your communication skills ! What’s next ? Chinese ? My husband is Chinese descendant and the phonemes seem impossible…hehehe

  17. Tyler Tervooren says:

    Good point about the disconnect between a life of true adventure and simply marking stunts off of a list.

    I spent 4 years in school trying to learn basic Spanish, doing better than most of my peers but never really “getting it.”

    Then, I went to Spain for a month and spent most of my time around people that spoke very little English. And yeah, it was really awkward and embarrassing at first, communicating mostly with hand signs, but on the day I left, I was conversing quite comfortably with my new friends.

    It was awesome and the only reason it worked was because it was authentic. There was no escape, no translator in most situations.

    1 month of immersion beat the pants off of 4 years of formal education. I’ll never spend more than a couple months anymore trying to learn a language formally. You’ll spend more on tuition and fees and more time than you can imagine compared to buying a plane ticket and finding cheap accommodations overseas.

  18. With every language I started to learn, I felt the best when I started to dream in the new language. It takes some time and total immersion, but it feels so good when you finally encountered the progress you made.

    Don’t worry about your mistakes too much. As you see, the episode in Belgium is nice to tell and you probably learned a lot during that visit – not only to use the correct gender.

  19. Anon says:

    Belgium is becoming more English, as it’s the “solution” to its Dutch/French language problem.

  20. Tyler Ngo says:

    I share the frustration of not being able to complete my thoughts or sentences in French. I consider myself competent in English. But in French, many times I feel like an idiot when trying to express a thought or opinion, which gets frustrating.

    I do not live in France, but have tried to learn French on my own for the last 2 years. One way I work on improving this problem is to write my blog in French. It forces me to organize my own thoughts and sentences in French (instead of just reading and trying to absorb what I read). Also I get to ask friends who speak the language to correct my grammars/spelling mistakes. This is useful for me, considering that I do not learn French the formal way.

Debate is fine, flaming is not. Pretend that this comment form is a discussion taking place in my house. That means I enjoy constructive criticism and polite suggestions. Personal attacks, insults and all-purpose nastiness will be removed especially if it is directed at other readers.

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