My first bout with a foreign language came through learning Hebrew.
My father is fluent in Hebrew and both of my parents incorporate Yiddish into their vernacular, but it wasn’t until I went to Hebrew school that I became friendly with the language. Even that was far from instantaneous; on my first day there, I felt like Tula in “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” when she was first learning Greek.
I liked learning Hebrew but dreaded going to Hebrew tutoring.
All of my peers were flying through it. Then one day my tutor, Mr. Morton, allowed my partner and I to dance the Horrah while memorizing prayers. I’m not sure why but that exact moment planted deep within me the root of love for languages and appreciating my heritage.
I speak seven languages and am taking Armenian lessons right now.
So it’s disheartening to see how if I ever ask anyone about learning another language, most people will look at me, cringe, and say they took classes but can’t remember a single word.
Far too many people can claim this story.
But haven’t you ever wanted to hold witty conversations in another language over coffee? Haven’t you envied the cool kid who can translate documents at the local museum? It’s still possible.
Becoming a polyglot took a lot of time, energy, and sacrifice. It also took a lot of socializing – so, yes, even you introverts will have to explore.
In high school, right after finishing my Bat Mitzvah, I took on the challenge of learning Mandarin Chinese. In my academic program, I had to take four years of one language and two years of another.
I chose Chinese as my first, with Spanish coming as my second. People never seem to believe me when I tell them, but Chinese was actually much easier for me to learn.
Conjugation? Little to none!
Sentence structure? Very simple and straight forward!
Writing? A piece of cake. As an artist, it came very easily.
If it wasn’t due to my exposure to a Semitic language like Hebrew, my ability to comprehend a language like Chinese would have been ten times harder.
As I went to college, I learned French and then Arabic.
My one semester of French allowed me to communicate in Meknes, Morocco, for my first semester while building the platform I needed to properly learn Arabic. Trying to pronounce heavy guttural “qaw” for ق is very entertaining for Arabic-speakers. Again, if it wasn’t for learning Hebrew, Arabic would have been a very difficult challenge. Being from the same language family, they complement each other in the sharing of words, pronouns, and conjugations that mirror one another.
Once I came back after my year abroad, I continued to learn Arabic. That was then when I realized it would be more of a challenge then I thought.
For many language learners, conversing is harder than learning grammar. For me, it’s the complete opposite. I can strike up a conversation much easier than I can conjugate it in a complicated tense. I guess that’s what we call winging it.
Grammar would keep me up all night; I’d rather memorize vocab. There are so many exceptions to each rule, and you often end up guessing about when to use a certain tense.
(As I am preparing to teach English abroad, I’m realizing just how hard learning English can be in this respect.)
If my Arabic professor, Dr. Sheibany, hadn’t loved grammar so much, I wouldn’t have been able to get through my last two years in Arabic. In learning each of these languages, what helped me was having engaging instructors who cared that their students were competent in all aspects.
They were passionate about teaching, passionate about having literate students. Through YouTube, skits, creating art projects, learning about the culture, and making fun games out of learning grammar, all these languages were able to stick.
I consider myself lucky because many professors don’t focus on all aspects of language learning.
Learning the different modes of teaching in my own training to teach English as a foreign language (TEFL) has opened my eyes to how important variety in language teaching is.
There is no wrong way to learn a language.
You may learn better by memorizing and using formulas to create a grammatically correct sentence. Maybe you’re one who likes to do hands-on learning and be put into a real-life scenario.
Maybe you’re the photographic memory type. Who knows, maybe creating stories with pictures or video is your shtick.
Or perhaps you’re the type that likes to drink coffee and chit-chat with native speakers.
By the way, I highly suggest coffee and chit-chat for all of you – maybe even people watching and chit-chat.
For me, all of those techniques have worked.
I also use movies and music (of all genres) from their cultures, attending cultural and religious events hosted by native speakers, create games out of grammar, read and write words over and over again, memorize using flashcards, and write humorous stories that would make use of the material I’ve learned.
And I would be lying if I said romance didn’t help in quickly understanding different dialects.
The choice is yours, and the options are infinite. Learning a language is like having a lover. When you try and find different methods to see what makes the relationship work, continue with those practices. If it becomes boring, add some spice and try out new things together.
When you are gentle and passionate about your language while giving it time to grow, you and your language will both be happy.