Canada is one of the most multicultural nations in the world, so hearing a multitude of mother tongues in everyday life is nothing new. Although, as a first-generation Canadian whose parents both come from predominately English-speaking nations I never knew what it was like speak another language. While most Canadian students outside of Quebec do learn French, the curriculum is fairly elementary and results in nothing near fluency for most students.
After being accepted into an intensive summer French program this year and attempting to prepare my linguistic skills, I’ve realized language learning is about a lot more than grammar and vocabulary. Here are the five things that no one tells you:
1. English is a patchwork language.
English is a bastard language made up of other linguistic leftovers. As such, it has done away with two important considerations present in many other languages—accents and masculine/feminine pronouns and agreements. The whole reason the “toe-may-toe” “toe-mah-toe” debate even exists is due in part to the fact that English has no accents. Which can be difficult to get used to when they are such an integral part of most other Romantic languages including French, Italian and Spanish. I’ll spare you the finer details, but needless to say trying to remember if its la carotte or le carotte can be a bit daunting for the uninitiated.
2. You speak in your mother tongue faster than you think.
Everyone knows a “fast talker.” Now imagine if everyone you know spoke that way.
When you’re learning, everyone speaking in your target language sounds like that. At most you can pick out a stray word, but you’ll often be so focused on listening for words you know that you’ll miss the overall conversational thread. Whenever I’ve watched media or overheard conversations between French-speakers, it seems they are talking at the speed of light. While obviously not the case, it’s a great feeling when the rapid-fire gibberish slowly morphs into identifiable conversation as your skill develops.
3. Translated media can be a much-needed source of joy.
One of the best ways to get acquainted with a language is to consume its media. It helps you move away from the stiff, often antiquated pronunciations found in study materials and helps you get a handle on colloquial speech. If you watch shows you’ve already watched in your own language, it can be fun to see which cultural and linguistic adjustments have to be made. In the show Arthur (which I still watch, no shame), the kids’ favourite superhero is Bionic Bunny.
In the French version, it becomes Lapin Bionique. But despite this linguistic change, the emblem on the character’s chest remains BB in both the French and English versions. Learning a new language can often be daunting, so finding some entertainment is always a great way to give yourself a break.
4. Speaking is scary, but necessary.
Maybe it’s the perfectionist in me, but despite attempting to progress I still avoid speaking in French when I can help it. I can do written exercises and sit on Duolingo all day, but something about speaking aloud is inherently scary. You don’t want to say the wrong word, risk forgetting something, or draw a complete conversational blank. Unfortunately like most things in life, the most difficult things are often the most rewarding. While speaking may be uncomfortable at first, forcing yourself to think on your feet is one of the best ways to grow when learning a language.
5. People who bother to learn languages deserve our respect.
As an English-speaker living in a predominately English area, it’s easy to be complacent about how integral language knowledge is to everything. While it’s great to be able to say the basic spiel–your name, age, where you live—people forget about the intricacies of language hidden in everyday life. Something as seemingly simple as ordering a coffee can feel like a course in advanced abstract mathematics to someone who doesn’t speak the language fluently. As I continue on my language learning journey, I realize these are the kind of things I will never take for granted again. And I greatly admire anyone who has stepped outside their comfort zone to tackle the wild world of linguistics.