In my recent post about the books I’m currently reading, I mentioned the book Fluent Forever by Gabriel Wyner. I started reading that one because it was recommended by a friend in a Facebook post I made the other day. I was looking for tips on how to structure self-learning of a foreign language. I’m not very far into the book, but Wyner has some excellent advice based on his own experience of learning languages. I’ll keep reading! (In addition to the book, there’s a website with useful resources: Fluent Forever.)
I love studying languages, but I’m terrible at remembering and I’m a bit too timid to speak in a foreign language unless I’m forced (like in an oral exam) or a little drunk. So I’m not fluent in any language other than English, but I’ve studied a lot of them, and I’d love to build up my ability in at least a couple.
My first exposure to a language other than English (I hate referring to them as “foreign languages” because they’re only foreign to monolingual English-speakers) was French in the fifth grade. I had been admitted to a “special class” in Indianapolis that involved going to a school that attracted students from a larger region of the city than the normal school district. Because my family moved to a different city when I entered sixth grade, I didn’t get to continue with my French, so that was that. When I arrived at my new school in a rural area, my teacher mentioned to the class, having seen my report card, I guess, that’s I’d been in a French class. For a while, some of the kids taunted me by calling me “Frenchie.” (I didn’t think I’d retained much, but some of the language came back when I took another French class decades later.)
In high school in Peoria, Illinois I took four years of German. I’m not sure why I chose German over the other choices, which were French, Spanish, and Latin, except to be different, I suppose. Most kids took French or Spanish. I enjoyed those classes and did well, although I have never had a reason to call upon my German. That’s not completely true. I visited Zurich, Switzerland a couple of times in the 1980s, and in the 1990s I passed through the Frankfurt airport several times. I probably uttered a few words, but I couldn’t tell you what they were. I placed out of the foreign language requirement in college, so no more German classes for me. When I got my MA in English, it turned out that there was a European language requirement, so I crammed for a test in German, passed it, and was grateful for my good teachers in high school.
Even though I didn’t need to, I decided I would take a language in college anyway. I chose Russian, again just to be different, I guess. I wish I had stuck with it. I only took two quarters and can’t say that I’ve retained much, although at least I can usually decipher things written in the Cyrillic alphabet. My little Russian actually came in handy in 1994-95 when I worked as a consultant in Almaty, Kazakhstan, one of the recently independent former Soviet states. (In Almaty, both my Korean and Chinese, which I learned long after college, were also somewhat useful. Being a neighbor of China, Kazakhstan had a number of Chinese visitors and several Chinese restaurants. And it turned out that there was an ethnic Korean population as well, as Stalin had deported a number of Koreans from Northeastern areas to the steppes.)
After college, I joined the Peace Corps and was sent to South Korea. People often ask me why I chose Korea, and the truth is that I didn’t. I barely knew where Korea was. If I had studied French or Spanish in school, probably they would have sent me to Africa or South America, but my two languages at the time were German and Russian, neither of which would be helpful in the Peace Corps of the mid-1970s. (Later, Russian would have been handy for work they were doing in the countries of the former Soviet Union, including Russia.) So it was clear they would send me to a country where they’d have to teach me the language, and Thailand and Korea were likely spots. We had two months of very intensive Korean language training upon arrival in the country, and I loved it. We had five students in each class and met every morning. We lived in a small city so there were ample opportunities to practice, and we made great progress in those two months. The Korean “alphabet,” Hangul, is simple and wonderfully phonetic, so it was easy to learn. Grammar, pronunciation, and vocabulary were very hard, but at the end of training, I felt good about my ability. Then I went off to my work site where I would be teaching English and although I did continue to study Korean, I never got a whole lot better than I was at the end of training. My excuse—that’s what it was—was that I spoke too much English: in my classes, with students outside of class, with professors who wanted to practice, and with complete strangers who also wanted to practice. So I never really needed to get better. It was a missed opportunity, though, and I regret it. Still, I speak enough to get around and to have simple conversations with people. In the late 1990s when I worked for the World Bank I made many trips to Korea (during the Asian Financial Crisis) and my Korean came in handy then. And a lot of it came back on my most recent visit in 2011. I’d love to go back again soon.
After the Peace Corps, I went back to grad school. I had done one semester before my service, so I basically needed one summer and a full academic year to finish the MA. I had hoped to continue studying Korean, but at that time Indiana University had dropped its Korean language program. Disappointed, I chose to take Japanese instead. My English Department advisors counseled against it because it wouldn’t count toward my language requirement, but as noted I had already satisfied the requirement through a German exam. I loved studying Japanese and I did well in the class. My work in Korean was great preparation, too, as the two languages have very similar grammatical structures and both have many loan words from Chinese. Because I had studied Chinese calligraphy in Korea, I was also ahead of the game on learning Kanji—the Chinese characters incorporated into Japanese in addition to the two phonetic alphabets.
I did no language study while I was in law school or in my first two years of law practice in Chicago. But as of January 1, 1984, I was transferred to my law firm’s Singapore office. After I got settled, one of the first things I did was enroll in a Chinese language class. Singapore is an odd place. English is definitely the language of international business, but the country has four official languages: English, Mandarin Chinese, Malay, and Tamil. Although Mandarin is the official Chinese language in the group, many Chinese in Singapore speak other dialects—Hokkien and Cantonese, especially. Still, there is some value in a foreigner’s knowing Mandarin, and in any case, it was fun to learn. I studied the language off and on for all the time I lived there, 1984-89 and 1990-93. When I started work at the World Bank in January 1996, I was assigned to work on China projects, so I began traveling to Beijing and elsewhere in China, so that my Chinese actually was useful. Plus, a few of us who worked on China projects took conversation lessons from a Chinese teacher, paid for by the Bank. I loved it. A couple of years ago, I took an online Chinese class through the Virginia community college system, just as a refresher.
I moved to rural Virginia in 2001 but continued to travel to Asia for several years after that as a consultant for the World Bank, so I tried to keep up with Chinese. But I also had some new travel adventures. I graduated from my Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program in 2003 and was looking for opportunities to attend writing workshops. One that caught my eye was a workshop in Mexico. I’d never been to Mexico and knew no Spanish, but once I had decided to go I opted to take a Spanish class at the local community college. I did one semester before I went to Mexico, did a homestay and language immersion program for a week in the country, and then took another semester when I returned home. That gave me a good grounding in the language should I need to refresh for another trip.
Then a few years later, I applied for a writing residency in a village in France. I didn’t think my fifth-grade class would be enough to prepare me for that, so I took a full year French class at the community college. That was great. It was a small class with a native French speaker, and I learned a lot. Or, at least, I learned enough that I managed to get around the French village and also the city of Toulouse, where I was a tourist for one week before my residency. Again, that gave me a good base if I need to brush up for a return visit.
So I’ve studied lots of languages. Of all of them, though, it is Chinese that continues to enchant me. That’s probably because of the Chinese characters. And so I have resolved to brush up this year. I’ve started using the Rosetta Stone program for Chinese and have also begun using Duolingo, a free online tool for language learning. It’s hard to imagine a true beginner being able to use either of these tools, which seem to expect you to recognize the Chinese characters instantly, but because of my previous study, it isn’t a problem for me.