6/300: The Language Goal

Los gatos beben leche.

I took my first language class, like a lot of people, in the seventh grade. I chose French because my older sister had chosen French. I took it all the way through high school and into my first year of college. My third year at Miami University, I took a semester of German. It wasn’t a requirement, but with a last name like Heimbuch, it’s something I thought I should do.

I was never all that fascinated by language. I was never one of those people who needed to be poly-tongued. Not until I started traveling anyway.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve visited 15 or 16 countries, all but two of which have languages other than English as the primary language. It’s pedantic to say I felt like an ignorant American and that our resistance to being bi-lingual is a sign of our isolationism and ego as a nation. Pedantic and not necessarily reflective of my beliefs. I didn’t want to learn another language because I felt I owed to the rest of the world. I wanted to learn other languages because I was kind of jealous of the bi-lingual, tri-lingual and even quadra-lingual friends I’ve made through traveling.

But language has never come easy for me. It’s a struggle. I’ll understand words and can usually read something and figure it out, but hearing and speaking have always been a source of great discomfort.

That’s a little bit of what this year is all about – confronting discomfort and doing so in a systematic fashion.

I looked into Rosetta Stone and language classes from universities in the area. I thought about buying text books. But I needed guidance without a huge financial or overwhelming time commitment. That’s when I came across Duolingo. It’s a free language learning tool based upon regular and iterative instruction that builds upon itself. I gave it a test run for a month last year and, after the initial brain pain of learning vocabulary for the first time in 15 years, I quickly found it to be fun, something I enjoyed, something I could do in ten minutes while sitting waiting for a plane or for my kids games to start.

You set up a profile, pick a language and set a daily – not weekly, annual or fluency – goal. Ten minutes a day is realistic for me. It’s about how long I can do it regardless of where I am and about as long as I can pay attention enough to retain language.

I chose Spanish first for a couple of reasons: 1. I work closely with a woman from Spain who speaks four languages and blows my mind. 2. I took French when I was younger. Spanish was the other option I ignored.

I’m learning. Five weeks in, the app says I’m roughly 24% conversationally fluent. I have a long way to go. But I’ve found is that I’m not only learning Spanish, my thinking in English has changed. I do quite a lot of speaking for work. It comes easily to me. Give me a topic and I can talk for an hour. Learning a new language is slowing my English down a little, making me more focused and choiceful in the words I use. Being a language student makes me think more about the people I’m talking to and their comprehension, not just my speaking.

It’s tricky to know how long it will take me to learn Spanish, but it should be another couple of months until I’ve finished the Duolingo course. After that? Well, I’ve German, Italian and Japanese on my list to learn.

Languages are more than just words and grammar and sentence structure. Language and the ability to speak them, think in them, communicate and translate might be the key to more careful consideration of other people. At first, you are unsure about your speaking. Then you get more confident. But all along, when you challenge yourself to speak another language, you are thinking about making sense to others. You become naturally empathetic, even if a bit self-conscious.

It’s why I’m taking languages on as part of my Iteration Year. I hope you’ll consider doing the same thing.

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