Scott H Young

My Thoughts on Learning to Speak Another Language


Drapeau Français

It has been just over seven months that I’ve been living in the south of France. My major goal here has been to learn to speak French.

I’m far from an expert on learning foreign languages. In North America, speaking a second language earns you a badge of praise. In Europe, being able to speak four or five rarely warrants a second glance.

However, since I’ve started learning, I’ve reached many of my milestones. I’ve finished reading a novel. I can carry an extended conversation and listen to the radio. I’ve even had a few dates completely en français.

I still have a few milestones I’d like to conquer. Feeling comfortable watching movies in French without subtitles. Easily entering into group conversations. Understanding French comedy (admittedly, some goals are harder than others). ;)

My Strategy for Language Learning

Whenever I approach a goal in an unfamiliar territory, one of my first objectives is to get a strategy to start with. Find other people who are successful, figure out what they do and then adopt their method. You’ll still make mistakes and need adjustments, but it saves a ton of time on trial and error.

The two major influences on my strategy for language learning have been Steve Kaufmann, a fellow Canadian and speaker of 11 languages, and Benny Lewis, an adventurous polyglot who I had the opportunity to meet in Paris.

(My hybrid is a bit interesting because Kaufmann and Lewis disagree fiercely on some important points, and have even had some back-and-forth arguments about what is the “best” way)

The strategy I’ve used to learn has rested on two major points:

  1. Take any opportunity you can to speak in the foreign language.
  2. Back up your conversations with lots of passive input in the language.

So that means I try my best to take up any opportunity to speak French. At parties, I try to find French people to speak with. If someone speaks both French and English, I do my best to keep the conversation in French.

That said, I’ve found it difficult to maintain French exclusively. I don’t lean quite as far as Benny in switching entirely to the foreign language, and many aspects of my life are not immersed.

Because I’m not in 100% immersion, I’ve tried to expose myself to a lot of input. I’ve run a few trials incorporating reading and listening to radio podcasts. Understanding is definitely not the same as being able to speak, so I think I lean more with Benny when it comes to the necessity of having frequent conversations in the foreign language.

Input has still been an important learning method for me, since it allows for a more relaxed environment. When trying to negotiate the appointment date for my visa application or chatting with a girl at a party, my goal isn’t usually to have a French lesson.

I haven’t perfected my method, but I’m confident if I were to live in another country with similar circumstances, I could learn to speak comfortably after about 6 months.

Continuing with the Language After I Leave

I still have four months of intensive French to practice (and hopefully check off one or two of my remaining milestones). However, now I’m shifting away from thinking about how to learn the language to how can I keep the language once I leave.

Being Canadian certainly helps, as French is undoubtedly the second most useful language to have in Canada. However, considering I got away with twenty years of not speaking French back home, I’ll need to take extra steps to ensure the language doesn’t stay behind in France.

Reading French literature is one way I’d like to continue the habit. Novels like The Count of Monte Cristo, The Three Musketeers, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and The Stranger are better read in their original language, so I have an incentive for continuing my French.

Following more French Canadian television and radio will be another goal. Those aspects of Canadian life were largely background noise, considering I didn’t understand the language. Now, I’m listening to a business radio podcast from Quebec which I enjoy very much.

Life Lessons from Learning French

One unexpected benefit of learning French is how much it has taught me about the way I speak English. Nothing shines a light on how we speak like going back to the beginning and starting over again.

I’ve also come to enjoy speaking French–a lot. Initially I found it difficult and embarrassing, but now I actually enjoy being able to speak in French. Even if I’m still nowhere near as articulate in French as I am in English, I enjoy finding new words, adding the glottal r’s and trying to translate a piece of text.

To all the multi-linguists (and soon-to-be language learners) what has language learning taught you about life? Please add your thoughts in the comments!

Image by Cyril Plapied


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30 Responses to “My Thoughts on Learning to Speak Another Language”

  1. Speaking another language has taught me a lot about different cultures in the world. I am a native Dutch speaker, but I speak English pretty well (as I run a blog in English only), and I found that speaking English helped me to understand things like comedy way more. Friends is a fairly popular show here in the Netherlands, but only until I switched the subtitles off, I really started to enjoy it. When you don’t have to look at the translation anymore to understand a joke, the joke starts to become really funny.

    One of the best things is how it can develop you as a person. I was in Prague last week and we entered a pub crawl. We were meeting a couple of American girls and without a problem I could switch to English and have an awesome conversation with these people. The ability to talk with people from all over the world is probably the best thing with learning another language!

  2. Mateusz says:

    @Stefan

    I couldn’t agree more. Being able to communicate with people from all over the world is the most important benefit one can draw from learning foreign languages. For example, my willingness to learn English enabled me to get in touch with an outstanding Japanese woman. We’ve been exchanging e-mails every single day for over 7 months, which is very thrilling and horizons-broadening.Without a good grasp of English, it wouldn’t be possible for a person like me, who has been abroad only once in his life.

    Another amazing benefit is that I can read and listen to an astonishing variety of awesome resources on the Internet. 80 % of the websites I visit on a regular basis are in English. It’s unbelievable how limited my access to the Internet was when I had problems understanding the language.

    Also, due to the fact that many foreigners live in my town, there are a couple of language exchange groups which help their members to improve language skills and socialize. Next week, I’m going to attend my first meeting and hope to have a whale of time!

  3. Jason says:

    Now that I’m living in Europe, I completely see what you mean Scott about the badge of praise being awarded to Westerners who can speak only one additional language.

    I’m Australian and I find it almost embarrassing that we can only speak one language. The way so many Europeans are able to seamlessly switch between sometimes three or four languages is truly impressive.

    I’m just beginning to learn French now and I’m absolutely loving it too! Sexiest language ever…

  4. Josh says:

    You are so right about many nations being multi-lingual as a starting point. I’m a US citizen, studying for a semester in the Middle East, learning Arabic. (Benny Lewis has been an incredible help!) Most “educated” people, i.e. anyone under the age of 35 that has gone to private school, speak French, English, and Arabic fluently. Talk about being able to absorb a wide body of literature!

    I speak “just” English and I’m pretty good with Spanish. I feel so dumb over here.

    To answer the question you posed:
    Learning another language has been a lesson in patience! Speaking with the articulation of a three year old is hard. I have learned that the fear of speaking often over rules the actual difficulty of speaking! It’s harder to open my mouth and make mistakes than it is to fix those mistakes once I make them.

    I think that’s a good life lesson for many things.

    Good post, as always!

  5. Jessica says:

    I’m studying Japanese at university level even though I’m a native English speaker. I took the plunge because I was interested in the culture, but since starting to learn the language I’ve become absolutely fascinated about pop culture, history and literature.

    Learning a language is literally a full time job, there’s no syllabus, and no end to the amount you can learn, not including the language itself, I’ve learnt a lot about English grammar as well as linguistics.

    I’ll be going abroad this year, I can’t wait to throw myself in there :)

  6. A.Y. says:

    Congratulations on learning a new language Scott! To answer your question: I think learning a second language has taught me, aside from patience, about the French culture. I’m from Canada too, and I was in French immersion all the way through school. I can remember one of my teachers telling our class that we were so lucky to be immersion students, because we would come to learn about French culture in a much richer way, being able to speak their language, than if we were trying to study the French only speaking English. And she’s right. As much as English is the universal language of the world, or whatever (isn’t Mandarin the most spoken though?) knowing another language opens you up to an entirely different media channel. As someone who loves to read, there’s just so much more comedy and mystery and horror and drama and mythology that’s now open to me because I speak two languages. And then of course, as you’ve already found, it’s easier and faster to connect with people from different cultures on an emotional/friendship level when you can connect with the language they speak.

    Good luck with reaching your final milestones!

  7. Wendy Irene says:

    This was really interesting. Speaking a second language does not come easily for me. In school it was my French classes that required the most effort on my part to do well, because I don’t consider it a natural strength. Good for you for wanting to keep it strong when you leave! There are a lot of things I lost without staying committed. For example I can no longer read music, when I used to glance at it and not give it much thought.

  8. Dan says:

    The three times I tried learning a foreign language were a challenge. Obviously, not one I was up to. But each attempt showed me that it could be interesting to attempt something new. I never learned any of the languages beyond a basic level but I did learn something about studying and managing time and learning for the heck of it.

  9. Thanks for the mention Scott ;)

    Just to clarify; I also mix plenty of input into my day so your hybrid is actually closer to what I do and I’m not *just* about conversation all the time ;) . I’ve got a vocabulary book in my pocket that I study whenever on public transport, and I study at home whenever I have time and watch TV and listen to the radio a lot. What is crucial is mixing this input with conversation in my approach. Input will be something I’ll be discussing a lot over the next months, since a lot of people seem to be confused that I avoid it entirely, which is quite untrue.

    Any disagreements I have with Steve are mostly in his complete misunderstanding of what I’m about, and unwillingness to be open to effectiveness of methods other than his own. Reading his criticism about my missions is really annoying because he has never actually read any of my posts beyond the titles and intros, always relying on hearsay from his commenters. I’m sad to see that his posts seem to have others thinking that I’m “anti input”.

    Anyway, great to see Josh above in the comments – and I was very pleasantly surprised with your French when I met you Scott! Great job on all your progress; I was way slower with my first L2 (Spanish) so you are well ahead of me in language progress ;)

  10. Hackztar says:

    Learning english being a native spanish speaker was hard at the begining, because, well you know when you’re just starting you dont have any idea of what the accent would be, no matter how hard my teachers tried to teach me… and well, maybe school was not my main way to learn english… I try to watch shows in english and if I can watch them without subtitles… it helps me a lot …. but here in Mexico is hard to find something good, because people is lazy to learn something new… so i try to find my own ways to learn… funny… right now I found a House episode in Universal Channel in spanish…. you see?? I hate when this happens… It’s like they take the soul of the show and it becomes boring…. T_T well I hope you understand me lol… I need a lot more lessons…… more reading…. way to much more listening…. Thank you for creating such a cool web like this… it’s full of interesting stuff!! =D

  11. Scott, very interesting information! As a United States citizen who also grew up in Brasil, South America, I agree that learning another language richly enhances your ability to view the world through different cultural lenses. We can learn a lot from the Europeans, who speak several languages at once. My goal is to polish up on my speaking ability with Portuguese (understanding is not problem, but putting the words together with the right syntax…oh boy). I also am setting a goal to learn Spanish starting this year.

  12. Scott Young says:

    Benny,

    My “hybridization” is less on your actual philosophy in practice and more the philosophy you advocate specifically. I’ve read Steve’s book, and he does make an emphasis on the inevitable importance of having conversations in the language, and even (as you suggest) makes an important point about finding non-English friends and breaking away from the expat circles.

    So, my approach has put roughly 50/50 importance (or maybe 70/30 importance) on conversation and input. Although I agree with Steve, I find the input way easier to force myself to do, so it forms a good backup if for some reason I’m speaking a little less French than I’d like.

    Also, came to France only to realize that what I really need to know how to speak is Spanish. I guess in Canada we have less influence (fewer Spanish immigrants, heavy French influence) of Spanish, but here, near Spain it’s clear that Spanish is probably one of the most useful languages to have. (Plus it should be a bit easier after the French)

  13. Alex says:

    I’m trilingual, and on my way to being quadrilingual in Polish, English, Spanish, and French (respectively). I’ve set a goal to master French in 3 years.

    Like the old Slovak proverb says, “With each newly learned language you acquire a new soul.” When you yourself process statements from native speakers of various countries (and not via a second-party, a translator), you are more inclined to relate to them and attempt to understand their style of life. Dare I say, your knowledge of how life can be lived and what it means to be human begins to transcend your own cultural limitations and comfort zones. And, the native speakers are more willing and happy to share their perspectives with you because they like and respect you for speaking their mother tongue.

    Immersion is certainly the way to learn, unless you’re a math major and love to treat conjugative grammars like plug-and-chug equations (ugh). Surround yourself with your language of choice in ANY way you can. Seriously. I always set the ATM and self-checkout machines to Spanish, my Mozilla web browser is on Spanish default so all websites that can be converted to Spanish automatically are, my e-mail is in Polish, I pick up Spanish and French newspapers by the metro, etc.

    Listening to music in your language of choice is very helpful for gaining a better sense (say, a French or Spanish or Arabic “ear”) for the rhythm and sounds of the language (since the words in song are usually clearly enunciated). Look up bands for a music genre you prefer from your country of choice. You’ll not only probably be pleasantly surprised by the music, if you like the songs enough you’ll soon be learning your language by singing-along to refrains. ;) On that note, you learn anything better if you’re relaxed and enjoying yourself — so watch/listen to what you like! Whether it’s comedy shows or the French version of the Discovery channel, this method will speed up the learning process.

  14. Elizabeth says:

    “One unexpected benefit of learning French is how much it has taught me about the way I speak English. Nothing shines a light on how we speak like going back to the beginning and starting over again.”

    Can you elaborate on what you’ve learned about the way you speak English? This is interesting.

  15. Scott Young says:

    Elizabeth,

    Hyper-sensitivity to grammatical constructions in English. Yes, we all understand things like past-perfect tense, but it’s only when you are forced to learn a different way of doing all of those things that you become really aware of how to say what it is you want to say.

    -Scott

  16. joe guitar says:

    ciao Scott,
    complimenti per il tuo blog è molto interessante. ho inserito il tuo feed nel mio reader, continuerò a seguirti

    saluti dall’Italia
    joe

  17. Tony says:

    For people who are having a difficult time acquiring a new language hang on! It gets easier after having acquired a second language to learn a third (and subsequent).
    Research indicates that individuals who have formally studied two or more languages as adults more easily acquire a new language than monolinguals. So if you have a hard time dont worry. Being able to have a conversation in the native language when you are travelling is a whole other experience, you seem to get a closer contact. I speak good french for years now but i still have difficulty with french comedians, if you can get around that then i would label it mastery. Altough i think this is often because they are referring to situations or persons that you have to have a cultural understanding and has less to do with knowing the language.

    Alex has a very interesting point about having an “ear” for a language, current research seems to indicate that children learn faster because they hear the sounds better, we as adult have learned to ignore certain sounds because they are not used in our own language.

  18. Angela says:

    I speak English, German, Spanish and Italian, which is my mother tongue. To keep my language skills updated, I usually watch tv or listen to radio podcast in that language. I usually read books in other languages. It’s strange to be seen as the multi language speaker, because here in Italy people have troubles with Italian, not to mention English, and to see the look in people faces when they learn that I can read in different languages it’s amusing. For me, it’s natural. I remember that I had to learn both Spanish and German from the very beginning, because when I was 13 my family moved to Peru and had to manage both German and Spanish for school, even though at home we kept using Italian.
    I’ve began to learn French in my free time, because as Scott has noticed sometimes books in their original form are just better.

  19. Anelly says:

    Scott, le français est agréable et je suis heureux que tu ai réussi l’apprendre.

    leraning is very important
    http://blog.cyclope-series.com/2009/06/how-unified-communications-is-increasing-productivity/

  20. Interesting post Scott. Of course we need to mix input activities with output activities. The amount of each will depend on our interests, time available, preferences and opportunities to meet with native speakers.

    I am a strong advocate of focusing on input for quite a few reasons, mostly having to do with the importance of vocabulary. Until we have enough words we cannot understand much and cannot say much. We can, however, acquire words, and a familiarity with the language, with no stress or pressure, through a well organized program of input activities, mostly listening, reading and vocab review. If we have access to native speakers we can try all of this out as we go. I did this in Japan when I lived there. No school, just lots of listening and reading and speaking when I had the the chance.

    But the vast majority of language learners do not have unlimited access to native speakers. I also do not think a classroom is a stimulating or language intensive environment. It is not as effective as plain listening and reading, which we can do anywhere. Now that you leave France, unless you have lots of contact with French speakers, it will again be your reading and listening that will enable you to continue to improve and acquire more words.

    My disagreement with Benny is not based an incomplete understanding of his approach, it is based on a disagreement in principle. I do not think that going to a country for three months, starting from scratch in a language, with only a phrase book in hand, with the goal of becoming fluent, is a good strategy for most people, nor one that he has ever demonstrated to work. I think it is poor advice for most people. It is far more effective, in my view, to save that treat for when you have enough of a base in the language to really take advantage of the native environment.

    I do appreciate Benny’s enthusiasm for language learning, his encouraging style, and the fact that he has achieved a high level in quite a few languages, albeit not using his “fluent in three months” approach.

    Benny seems to recognize the importance of input now, but during our “debates” he was much more dismissive of input, which I think is unfortunate, since for most people it is the most practical, efficient and inexpensive way to improve in a language.

    Perhaps the following quote from Benny in our “debates” best describes our differences.

    “Your advice is for people interested in LEARNING a language, mine is for people interested in SPEAKING a language.”

    To me, you cannot speak a language without learning it, and the goal of learning a language, for most people, is to speak it.

    it’s this very idea of getting all your information about a language from books (or Wikipedia) rather than from the people themselves that we disagree on so much

  21. Sorry, the last paragraph was actually a quote from Benny that I was going to include and then decided to leave out.

  22. Craig Thomas says:

    Nice post. :) I’m really glad I’m multilingual – my original language being Welsh. The main thing I’ve learned would be the attitude of the people in different countries, such as Germany. Speaking their language to them (I speak German) really earns respect and they treat you much differently compared to someone who didn’t. Probably the same way we look down on people who can’t speak English.

  23. Scott Young says:

    Steve,

    Thanks for the comment, as always. It’s been interesting learning from both you and Benny.

    -Scott

  24. Scott,
    good to see you had lots of success with your french.

    What has language learning taught me about life?
    A lot. At the age of 15 I started to improve my english, which at that time was taught at school and the teachers were not the best. I went abroad to live with an american family for the summer and spent most of my free time exploring the most fascinating city I ever went to: New York City.
    I learned so much about how other peoples live live and why they behave in this and that way. Humour/Comedy, as stated above, was a big issue and when I came back home I was in a position to understand people from the US better than before (not only language wise, but also as humans).

  25. C’est merveilleux, Scott!

    After returning home to Canada after a year spent in México, I shared your concern for not losing all that hard-won language I had garnered.

    Personally, I find that continuing the input-output approach is key. I still speak in Spanish to any Spanish speakers I encounter and I always have a book on the go in each of my languages. To reinforce the output, I find reading aloud is quite helpful. Much of being able to verbalize is actually muscle-memory, so this helps maintain the synapses between the vocab in your head and the actual word on your tongue. This exercise also helps keep the foreign accent down to a minimum.

    Bonne chance!

  26. Antoine says:

    I have been reading your blog for several months and only discover you are currently in our country !

    Bienvenue à vous et n’hésitez pas à poster quelques billets dans la langue de Molière :-)

  27. learned French I actually found myself thinking in French sometimes even though I only spoke English. It was really strange and is a side-effect of an obsession! Great tips though. We all have our own little approaches.

  28. Flo says:

    Thank you for this informative sum-up. I personally speak 6 languages (german, french, italian, spanish, english, swedish and japanese soon!) and can really approve your statements above. Keep up the good work with your blog!

  29. Muriel says:

    Learning languages has taught me so much!
    I am French, and I have started learning English and Spanish at school (it’s compulsory in France). Then I studied these two languages further in my first degree.

    It is so interesting to see how a language reflects a culture and a particular way of thinking. How some words exist in one language and don’t in another. For example you say ‘gourmand’ in French for someone who likes eating, in English, you’d have to you the periphrase of say ‘glutton’, which has a negative connotation.
    However, in France, to like eating is considered with indulgence.

    Although I left France for England as a young adult, I didn’t go to Spain before the age of 27. I looked for a job in Barcelona from London, and had a conference call interview with a web agency, all in spanish. To my astonishment, I could express myself very well, a lot better that I would have imagined.
    This is because I had kept reading in Spanish, novels, magasine. And I improved my level of Spanish without even realising it!

    Ultimately what I love most in languages is how much of other cultures I have got to know.
    Speaking spanish has open a whole world to me, I have met people and got to know them thoroughly in a way I would never have, had I not spoken the language.
    I now have great friends in Spain and across South America!
    And the same goes for English.
    It has been such a great opportunity for me, to live and work in London, the most vibrant capital city of Europe (and even maybe the world!)

  30. Brady Arano says:

    I thought this quote was extremely fitting “Nothing can stop the man with the right mental attitude from achieving his goal; nothing on earth can help the man with the wrong mental attitude.” – Thomas Jefferson

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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