Last week, I shared my goal to learn my wife’s native language , Macedonian.
Today, I thought I’d give a quick update for anyone following along, as well as some tips in case you’d like to attempt something similar with your spouse or roommate.
How is Learning at Home Different from Travel?
The overall process for learning Macedonian is, in many ways, no different from the one Vat and I used several years ago when we were traveling .
In some ways, the project is much easier. Being at home, in a familiar environment, has fewer unanticipated problems than kick-starting immersion while you’re already on the road.
In Brazil, for instance, Vat and I spent the first two weeks trying to find a place to live. After we got out of a bad AirBnB reservation, we spent our days wandering around the town repeating, “Estamos procurando um apartmento por dois meses.” Needless to say, such travel hiccups cut into studying time.
The major way my current project is harder is simply that I haven’t cut back on work, so my studying is entirely in my free time. It’s not a major setback, but it might stretch out the learning process longer compared to when learning was my full-time obsession.
Thoughts on the Macedonian Language
Macedonian is harder than Spanish, but easier than Chinese. Within that range, it’s closer to Spanish than Chinese for difficulty.
A major challenge I had when beginning with Chinese was simply the fact that each and every word needed to be learned anew. Going from English to most Western European languages gives you a lot of vocabulary for free. Creativity in Spanish is creatividad. Creativity in Chinese is 创造性 (chuàngzàoxìng).
Macedonian certainly has more cognates with English than Chinese does (e.g. креативност [kreativnost] = creativity). But it also has a ton of words that differ which are cognates in the other Romance languages I know.
Grammatically, I’m getting off easy with Macedonian, as it’s largely dropped the complicated Slavic case system . The major grammatical complications I’m dealing with so far are clitics  and the fact that most major verbs have two different words depending on aspect .
So far the progress feels more like Spanish than Chinese, so I’m still optimistic about having some reasonable conversations on restricted topics by the end of the month. By then, my wife and I will make a decision of whether we want to continue the immersion another month or take a breather.
Advice to Couples (or Roommates) Attempting the Immersion-at-Home Challenge
It’s been great to hear from several couples who told me they plan to try this. I know that some have started already, and I hope others will try it soon. Having some experience with this No English policy, I thought I’d share some advice:
1. You don’t need to be that good to start.
One reader wrote to me how surprised he was at how much he could communicate, even though his objective ability was quite bad.
I think most people grossly overestimate the linguistic ability needed to start applying the No English Rule. The truth is, you can get by with zero talking in many situations. Google Translate plus a patient partner is more than enough for most situations.
If your feeling is “I don’t think I’m ready for it” I suggest shortening the commitment period to a week. If you can get through the first week without a breakdown, you will be able to get through all the other weeks.
2. It’s as hard on your partner as it is on you.
A mistake is thinking of the project as solely being pressure placed on the learner. After all, you’re the one who needs to absorb all the new information!
But in truth, whomever you are speaking with is also going to have his or her communication interrupted. That person is used to speaking with you and having you understand everything fluently. To suddenly drop that ability is challenging, even if it may not involve learning new words.
I’m fortunate that my wife has been very supportive and helpful. But I also try to take care to not make it needlessly harder for her. The strictness of the No English Rule should be placed on the learner, not the other party. This is, in part, to allow the other person to translate important things, but also to act as a pressure release in case there’s something important to be said and you’re just not understanding it.
3. It helps to study too.
I make a big deal out of immersion being a good learning method. It is. And for most people learning a language, it is often what is missing.
But, once you have direct practice as a foundation, studying the language can be quite helpful in accelerating the process. Grammar study, for instance, is often quite helpful because it’s often quite difficult to deduce the formal rules for speaking in the middle of conversations. Vocabulary acquisition, similarly, can be aided with flashcards to augment the words you pick up as you learn.
Harder languages benefit more from studying. This is because the more difficulty you have juggling everything in a live conversation, the more help you’ll get from doing drills to work on components in isolation. Chinese benefited from studying much more than Spanish, because with the latter I didn’t find it too hard to pick up new words in real situations, whereas speaking Mandarin in the beginning, it was often painful to say even a single sentence and be understood.
Chronic Amnesia for the First Week Experience
I always forget how tricky it is to start speaking a new language, the first week I start speaking it. Having done this six times now, you’d think it would be impossible to forget.
Instead, what happens is that you get consistently better with the language. Eventually it’s pretty easy. Now you can’t remember not being able to speak it reasonably well.
The upside of all this is that, if you can push through the first few weeks, it really does get a lot easier. Even one week into this new, part-time project many aspects of our daily communication have become much more fluent. There’s still a long way to go, but no doubt I’ll soon forget, once again, what it was like not to be able to speak it.