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  • Writer's pictureBridgette ni Brian

Let's Not Start at the Beginning

FYI - I love the Sound of Music, but while Maria's suggestion works when one has no knowledge of something, it doesn't help when we have some already.

For those who don't know the movie (gasp!) Maria is the governess for the Von Trapp family's seven children. Maria loves to sing and decides to teach the children how to sing, though they don't know how. She teaches them with a song called, "Do Re Mi" to help the children learn the basics of song.

Of course, when we know nothing about a subject the beginning is the best place to start, but what about if we already know something?

This has been my language struggle for the better part of fifteen years or so. A brief background to my language studies: I studied Spanish in high school and French in college. I passed the beginner level before leaving college, so once I finished my schooling, I had to proceed on my own.

It didn't work out so hot.


I am a firstborn, an Honor Roll student and an INTJ personality. Failure is not something I do, and while I don't see myself as a perfectionist, I do find it difficult to not do something well. If I learn something, for the most part, I want to excel at it.

Language was, therefore, something I wanted to do well at. I dreamt of being one of those travelers who could converse in many languages no matter the location. I wanted to sun myself on Mexican beaches or explore mysterious old ruins in France.

I expected language to come easily so I would learn a myriad of languages. Obviously, it didn't happen, and one of the first big shocks came when I tried to talk to a Mexican in Spanish. I couldn't get past, "Hola, como esta?"

My brain froze - I didn't have anymore words to say; I couldn't ask about anything around me beyond very stupid questions. I wanted to know where the person was from and why they were in my town, but I couldn't string any more words together.

It was frustrating enough that I put on hold my Spanish and French for a couple years. I realized later that part of the problem was what most adult students struggle with (I dealt with this in Korean over the past three years) - language learning is not conducive to every day life. In other words, what we are taught in school is not what we (normally) need in our daily lives.


Coming to that realization, I was able to re-evaluate why I wanted to learn and how it would be best for me to learn. Most language teachers and students will tell you that learning a language, especially for adults, comes down to a purpose. Why do you want to learn _____?

Do you love Spanish telenovellas? Korean Kdramas? French art movies? Do you have ancestry in Poland, Romania or Myanmar? Is your lifelong dream to travel across North Africa alone or with a close friend? Have you always wanted to live in Rome, Tokyo or Nairobi? Is it helpful for your career advancement?

There are a myriad of reasons to learn a language, and a myriad of ways to go about doing it. Some work, some don't. Some work for me, some work better for others. I have tried a lot of different ways to learn languages, but many I still struggle with.

For me, the why is personal now (in other words, it's not a requirement to learn anymore). After living in Korea for 3 years and being the immigrant/expat, I realized how hard it is to not speak a language. For me, TESOL is something that I want to do more with as well as interpreting and translating. Learning the languages helps me help others.

So Now What?

Now that I have a goal (and really, the best thing to do with language is to give yourself the why), I can focus on how to achieve it. For me, there are tests to take. If I want to work as an interpreter in the US, I need to pass a test; if I want to pursue grad work overseas, I need to pass a test.

For others, it may be an upcoming trip overseas or visiting family. It might be meeting future in-laws or finding that special someone. It could be for research or to go to school. Whatever your why, once you have it, your plan will adjust accordingly.

There are two primary ways to focus your attention, (a) spoken and (b) written) languages; the third option is a combination of both. Most of us who learn second languages in school tend to focus on the second aspect - the written language. We are required to focus on spelling and reading in a language, but we don't always have the option of speaking or listening. It was one of the things that surprised me in Korea - many Koreans understood my written English better than my spoken English (even after I slowed down and enunciated each word). When I wrote something, communication was clearer.

I do the same with French and Spanish. My written comprehension in both languages is much higher than my spoken comprehension. I speak very fast for native English speakers and my vocabulary defaults at a high school level. In other words, when I speak or write in English, I have to consciously make my language of a lower grade level.

One of my chief goals in my second languages is to reach a similar level of my English level.

So what are the options?

Option A - Spoken

The focus on spoken languages is to be able to communicate with an individual in their native tongue. This is the primary option for those who are traveling overseas. While being able to read and write in the chosen language is important, having conversations with locals is more important.

Also, if one is trying to find their true love in another country, or meeting said true love's family, having spoken language skills is paramount. To that end, the focus on the language lessons need to be on listening and speaking. Options include: music, podcasts, news programs, TV shows and movies. The object is to learn the rhythm of the language as best as one can. This can be easy enough for certain languages, or much harder for others. Websites like YouTube offer a wide variety, you just have to search.

Finding people to talk with in the language can help you practice your speaking, but it can be intimidating (this is my spot) so language exchanges or groups can be of great use. Meetup and other such apps help find local groups. Once again, depending on the area, it might be easy or hard.

Lastly, podcasts are a great way to listen. I find that travel and cooking shows are the most common. Fashion is also common, but sometimes, it's just a matter of finding what you like.

For example, I want to be interpreter for French and Spanish in New York (and the US generally). It's one of the ways that I can help people. In my part of New York (which is the Greater Niagara Region), Spanish is the second most common language used. I live right smack dab in the middle of cornfields and cow farms, so many of the workers are migrants from Mexico and Central America. We also have a larger group of French-speaking immigrants and refugees in Rochester. To be able to help those individuals, I need to have a good grasp on medical and legal terminology both in English as well as Spanish and French. I need to understand the situation in my native tongue to be able to interpret for others.

How would my learning progress? I focus my language learning on spoken Spanish with an emphasis on medical and legal Spanish (I will also do the same for French, but practically, Spanish is the easiest to progress on just due to resources).

What do I need to do then? I watch crime and medical Spanish dramas on Netflix; listen to Spanish podcasts (both for learners and for advanced); I listen to Spanish songs on Spotify and SoundCloud; and I re-watch movies in Spanish. Once I get a little more confident in my listening, I'll progress to speaking Spanish with friends.

For French, I'll do the same, just at a slightly slower pace.

But that might not be your focus.

Option B - Written

For others, it's the written language that is more important. Maybe you fell in love with French literature and you want to study it more in depth. You could be an historian, and the element that you need for your research is found in some obscure Arabic text. Or, you might have an old journal from an ancestor who wrote about their life under Japanese control in Korea. Whatever the reason, speaking the language isn't as important as reading the language. In this case, the focus is on reading and writing.

In the US, many towns have a decent Spanish population. They have books and magazines in their own language. Other larger cities (like NYC and Philadelphia) will have different populations. If you're fortunate to live around a place that has a population in your particular language, you can go check it out for physical copies of things. Otherwise, the internet has plenty of options.

On the internet, blogs, newspapers, and reviews are all wonderful places to start. Find the most popular search engine in a country, and utilize that. It will help you work on your language. For example, the biggest search engine in Korea is Naver. To work on Korean, you can go there and look around.

You can also use VPN (Virtual Private Network) to pretend you're in another country. I used one in Korea when I wanted to watch American TV over there. You can switch the VPN to other countries as well to access their internet. Also, for websites like Amazon, you can switch the country you are in to find books that may not be readily available on your home country.

If you want more real world conversations, there are a myriad of apps out there for penpals. Apps like HelloTalk, WhatsApp, Kakao and others have ways to meet people from around the world. Word of warning: just be careful who you talk too.

For me, the other goal I have in mind, for all three languages, is to be able to write short stories in those languages. I want to write a YA novel in all three languages, but that is a long-term goal. For now, I want to be able to write a short story in each language. My why: for me. While I enjoy reading children's books, I want to be able to read things for adults, but at an easier level of language.

How do I progress? I choose to read lots of books; obviously children's books and 1st chapter books are the best, but I also read newspapers, magazines, and non-fiction intended for adults. I have a book I bought myself in Paris four years ago that sits on my shelf waiting for me to chip away at it. I want to be able to read that book like I read English books.

Since I love travel and history, much of my reading focuses on those two subjects, and I write articles for myself about the local area, but in Spanish and French. (Not for publication just yet).

Go Forth

Now that you have an idea how to begin, it's time to start working towards your goal. If you haven't already, first define your why. It'll help you navigate what you want to do. Next, decide what you want to learn about - what already interests you and find the means to further learn about that knowledge. For me, I love weaving, so one of the things I default to is learning about weaving terms in other countries. Last, but not least - do your plan. You have to make time each day to study. Find the time, schedule it in, and make it happen.

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