On (not) Learning Languages – my French experience in Montreal

A cool yet sunny August in east Montreal, and the street was crowded, blocked off, and alive with music. I met her, Paris-born, long black hair, eyes like discs of blue china, at the bus station. Then we went to get wine from a convenience store.
Bottle and plastic cups in hand, we found a park, sat in the shade of a giant tree, and drank. She told me that she wanted to become an actress, but she didn’t know how to get started. I told her that that’s the hardest part.

“I feel like an alien,” she said.

“Why?”

“Like I don’t belong. I’m thinking of a movie idea where there’s a girl, but she’s not normal. She’s an alien like me. And she has to fit in with normal earth people.” She drank. “Boring people.” Her Parisian accent became stretched, elongated. I listened with calm satisfaction.

After we finished we went, slowly, to the street with the vendors and people and music. I had traveled to Montreal to attend a language learning convention, called LangFest. I had bought the tickets months prior. I didn’t make it. And I didn’t show for the next day, or the last.
Of course, I still wanted to improve my French. I was doing that – in a way. “Trottoir,” I told her while pointing. She nodded. “Les nuages sont plein des larmes,” I said. (They weren’t; it was a clear day). She laughed.

After a few blocks I grew bored of pointing to objects and saying their French name. We ended up talking only English.

There were many problems.

First, she didn’t understand my pronunciation, though she did commend me on my accent (because it wasn’t Québécois).
Second, I didn’t understand her’s. It sounded like a completely foreign language to me, which for sure it was, but for having studied it over 1 year, it shouldn’t have.
Third, I couldn’t string together coherent sentences past the most basic ones. I was mentally blocked. Whatever genuine expression I made took minutes to do.

I started learning French in University. Some of the exercises I did are locked well in my memory, and I'm glad I learned the grammar early and in a formal setting. I do think it helps. It allows one to find meaningful patterns in initially meaningless information (though that can still happen naturally by inference). The real problem of grammar is that it can be boring. And in language learning boredom is a prime enemy, along with its temptress, distraction. 

After finishing both semesters of French, I started learning on my own for an entire summer, doing so mostly through literature (reading and listening), which did little for my speaking ability. But if I'm going to learn a language I want to do so while absorbing the culture. So, I enjoyed it regardless. 

My favourite website to read (in many languages) is LingQ. A community of users gives definition to every word in user uploaded books, articles, podcasts, courses, etc,. 
Basically, LingQ is a website where people serve the function of Google Translate. 
 
Every word is highlighted one specific colour. By clicking a word, a list of definitions pops up. The ones voted most accurate show up on the top, and then you can choose which definition you think is best, then the word is added to your word-bank, and as you familiarize yourself with it, you can change its colour until you fully know it. This is a great system I learned to read quickly from. 

I've tried Duolingo; it's okay but you're limited to learn only what's available on the app and its contexts. I've also tried Memrise, which is a decent way to build up vocabulary. 

                                 

              None of these applications on their own are enough. 

Barbecue smoke was hanging along the street like wooly sheets. The air of fried rice, baked breads, sweet sauce, grilled beef was mixed with the heavy scent of beer. After my date bought a set of lingerie we went searching the eatery stalls.
A stomach half-filled by cheap wine wants one thing (besides more wine): greasy, fatty food.

I was staring at a young man tonging fried noodles out of a barrel-like pot. We approached and I said, “Pour moi,” with my index waving.

“Emprunter ou ici?”

I looked into the pot. The noodles were dark yellow. Slimy.

“Emprunter ou ici?” He was fully focused on me. I shifted my gaze from the pot and to my date. She knew.

“To go,” she said.

When we left I asked her: “What did he say?”

“To go or for here.”

“What was the first word he used?”

“Emprunter.”

“I would’ve said aller.” Then, “Whatever, I still wouldn’t understand it.”

“It’s okay,” she said. “You’re doing okay.”

This was the point I gave up trying to speak French (in Montreal). I was frustrated; I came with expectations and none of them were met. I felt like I wasted my time.

In language learning circles the name Stephen Krashen evokes the same prestige as Sigmund Freud does in psychology.

 Stephen Krashen's work

Krashen is a linguist and pedagogist. In the 70's he developed a theory of language learning called Input Hypothesis, which is an umbrella term for five main hypotheses on adult language acquisition. 
To be precise, there's a difference between language learning and acquisition. Children are known to acquire language. Krashen's theory focuses on adults learning language, or in other words, second-language acquisition. To Krashen, the difference between the two is that acquisition is subconscious, while learning is conscious. And for him, adults also can acquire language, not just learn it.  
 
Input Hypothesis first states that language input and competency are in a linear relationship. The more one is exposed, the more one will understand. But it's not that simple: the input has to be at first comprehensible (easy) enough for progress to be made.
Think of it as levels. A learner progresses through the levels, going from easy to hard, and their competency adjusts accordingly. 

Another hypothesis states negative emotions interfere with acquisition. So, for example, my frustrations in Montreal acted as blinders: from what I couldn't see, I couldn't act on, couldn't acquire. A comfortable, stress-free state is a prerequisite for all this process to happen. 

Now, I wonder how my parents, both immigrants, learned English. They didn't take classes; didn't expose themselves to increasing levels of difficulty; in many cases they were stressed and overwhelmed. Yes, they may not have the best grasp of it, but they can speak, read and write. And yes, their current competency might've taken them a few years (and stopped after a point), but in less than a year they were communicating with a proficiency I have not yet attained with over two years of focused effort. How?

For sure, they learned (or acquired) through necessity; their focus was on without their effort having to be. The subconscious engine of their mind was labouring day and night, and gradually, through employment interviews, lineups, TV, street conversations, advertisements, rental agreements, etc., they got it.

A day later we went to an art museum.
I was by myself and one of the guides noticed me. He walked up smiling and eager. He began talking about the virtual reality exhibition. He must’ve been going on for two minutes. I was nodding, picking up some, but mostly lost in parsing an amalgam of flowing sound.
Then I failed to notice that he was asking me a question. His eyes grew saucer-like. Did he feel betrayed?


Soon she found me alone and contemplative, staring at a talking animation on a TV. I kept replaying the conversation in my head; replaying the moment I stabbed him in the back with my incompetence.

Recently, I've been learning Spanish, listening to the Michel Thomas Method. They're casual recordings of Michel teaching two students, a male and female. He says words and phrases and then asks for the Spanish equivalent. The conversations progress in complexity and become more in Spanish. As he instructs, enough time is given for the listener to formulate their responses; so, you become the third student. 

                           

Of course, Michel emphasizes reference-free translations. Spanish should evoke a meaning on its own without you having to refer to English. This is a tricky ideal to reach. At first a learner will be bound to their native language to provide meaning. Through consistent time and effort the binding breaks. No one who's proficient in a second-language relies on their first to make sense of it (bilinguals will know this intuitively). 
I really enjoy these recordings. It feels like learning from a Spanish speaker without all the demands that the teacher-student relation entails. Michel even places the onus of learning solely on the teacher, making the experience as care-free as possible. 

                        

I've also used the Pimsleur method, but for Vietnamese. It works off the same premise as Michel, though it's much more formal, and therefore "colder". The two students are replaced with two native speakers. Though, the students make mistakes you'd make, and so you learn from them, and they're fun to listen to, especially when you're all progressing as a group. Pimsleur is still good but Michel sticks in your head more, which may be counterintuitive because a structured, "professional" method may seem to do that better; but that's just a prejudice. 

For thousands of years language learning did not happen through a curriculum. It was a chaotic, organic, imperfect process. It still is.

Then we walked in Old Montréal, a classically designed section near the St. Lawrence River, reminiscent of Europe. Cobbled streets, colonial architecture with the emerald spires, an earth of pillars and stone.

“My uncle lives in Mexico,” I said. “And he speaks Spanish like a local.”

“That’s natural,” she said; her gaze out to the glassy river.

“His wife is Mexican, so, he picked it up with a passion.”

We stopped to sit on a bench. The waters ebbed slowly and its colour seamed with the sky in a whitish blue. Above us a few long strips of cloud like cascading beams.

“That is how you learn a language,” she said. “Live in the country and fall in love.”

Learning in the traditional sense has some large obstacles. 
First, one has to depend on their motivation. 
Second, it's too restricted to a specific environment (mental and physical). 

The most vital requirement of language learning is that you need to work and be exposed in the language for a long and stable time. And that consistency requires motivation, or the right environment. 

My motivation came from culture. Besides speaking the language, I wanted to know the language; the ideas in it, the wisdom, idioms, moods, worldview. I focused on the dimension easiest for that, for me: reading. Speaking was left in the dark, and given some light, it became clear there wasn't much there. I needed to move my motivation elsewhere. But it was hard to pick up without having people around me. 
My uncle didn't care for motivation. He was living the language. I, however, was stuck on my laptop or in books.

At night we went to her apartment. It was overlooking an expansive park where the curving trails were lined by lamplights that shone yellow orbs on ponds now looking like dark pools of metal among the dense green.
Her kitchen was small and tidy and on a table was a box of chocolate filled croissants. I looked at them for a while.

“Have some,” she said. I sat down. She played French music on her laptop.

“Serge, please,” I said. Then she played “Couleur Café” by Serge Gainsbourg, 1964.

She sung in her Parisian way, dancing across the living room. My mouth was stuffed by buttery croissant; my eyes fixed on her; my head to the rhythm. Serge’s lyrics were so idiosyncratic that even she couldn’t understand them. But neither of us cared about understanding then.

Two years after my trip now and I wouldn’t consider myself as of yet to have learned French, but I’m not worried. I’m familiar with it.
Language learning is a lifetime process; not something you do for a few months, then drop, expecting it to last you a lifetime. The language is built around you and your unique experiences. Have fun and enjoy.
The main cause of why people abandon this endeavour is due to the expectations they put on themselves. Goals are important, but each one has an opinion. They’ll tell you about your failures; what you could’ve been; what more you still need to do. They can, if you allow them, inspire disappointment, and then disillusionment. Don’t take them too seriously. This is a process that doesn’t conform to their rules.

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on writing

I am wondering how to write. 

I'm reminded of Nietzsche. In The Gay Science his prose was, in comparison to his later works, boring. I think he had a distaste for writing so practically. His thoughts changed; to read what he had had wrote made him cringe. And so, he later wrote as to make the text ambiguous. The perspectives were welcomed. And he was made more than what he was.  


Reading someone's blog posts, the same person I've silently ridiculed because of how detailed and verbose and well-done they write, I'm inspired. There exists what I want in this person; to write, and do it with conviction. Their writing looks like worship. 


I'm hateful of stereotypical writing techniques when trying to write a blog. I'm agitated at having a model of a 
blog post when I am writing. It kills creativity and motivation. 

I want to write more. My life feels over-saturated with meaning and I want to express it. I have grown a nightmare out of silence. 


It is hard to translate floating thoughts into syntax and grammar. Intimidating, when you've always done it with your most buoyant ones. Words are like cages.


When I was younger I admired long and tangled sentences. Sentences like garden hoses. I considered them signs of high ability, and I emulated them. Now, I'm over it. I like simplicity, minimalism. Emily Dickinson is right for me. 


I want my thoughts to be fatty. My writing like a razor. The process: to trim and make lean.


I think of how I appear to others through my writing. A thing I've naturally learned by writing short stories is that there is an amateurish engagement where one is trying to convey to the reader who and what one is through the story. 
This is noticeable to nearly anyone, and lame. 
The writer is an epigram-generator. They are trying to translate the drama of movie scenes, abusing tropes, ending every paragraph with a closure, placing pointless references. Trying too hard, hoping and begging for the reader to see them through the words. I've written like this. I don't, or I'd like to think so, write like this anymore. 

Writing is vulnerable; I have to be okay with how others view me. Not uncaring, but okay. I dislike this audience in my head, especially because I like to think they're not there. Notice I did not say hate.