Like many beginning monolingual Spanish students in the United States, I was overwhelmed at first by the sheer amount of conjugations and vocabulary we had to memorize in order to pass an ever-increasing number of quizzes during the semester. I didn’t think I could hold a conversation, let alone ever get rated B2 by my tutor later, after a few years of concentrated study.
It’s possible for a class of newly-initiated language students to feed off each others’ mistakes, and that’s what mostly happened in my first two years of high school Spanish study. Of course, you had the hardcore studiers, but even they fell into the same trap as the people who completely ignored grammar rules and slacked off.
So what’s the deal? Why were we all starting from ground zero with no thruster power?
There are some reasons I can think of, which I’ll discuss here:
- Confusion of expectations
- Lack of motivation
- Poor resources*
Let’s deal with them in the order they appear. For #1, “confusion of expectations”, you might be thinking I’m immediately going to blame the teacher for their misgivings, since I was, well, confused at the start of my first real trip into studying another set of cultures and their tongue deeply.
That’s not the case. I’m, for the most part, intrinsically motivated. That plays a big part in not succumbing to the desire to quit. However, I don’t think the teacher was at fault. How do you get a bunch of 14 year-olds to conceptualize a whole language when they probably (the US in some areas being largely unilingual) don’t have any idea of how a language works, despite using one every day themselves as some of the most game-changing people in the world when it comes to one’s development?
What I think is a bigger factor in getting people, not just teenagers, to learn a language, is to know what they’re learning for, but not go overboard like some blogs I’ve seen on the Internet say. I’m lucky to have an internal locus of control, believing I can do anything if I try, but some people aren’t blessed with that. However, it’s my belief (and it happens to be backed by science) that this can change. I know it can, not just because of some research paper (though those are great, and have their place), but because I changed my attitude about life through conscious, concerted effort.
I initially wasn’t keen on learning a language, because I hadn’t been successful prior with my Japanese attempts and hadn’t learned the language of my heritage from birth. But I soon saw the merits of what communicating in a different tongue could do for me, and it wasn’t just for business reasons, or that I wanted to go on a trip to Acapulco to embarrass myself with beginning Spanish. (Ha, imagine freshman me trying to convince my parents we should all board a plane for that reason.)
No, I found a raison d’être. (This is #2, for those of you keeping track.) I had something I wanted to contribute to the world—helping people through translation, or maybe interpretation. My heart fell a little each time I couldn’t work with Spanish, or be around languages. In the least of expected places, I found my calling.
Though, I did figure out later that I didn’t need to have such a tight hold over my reason for existing in life. It could fluctuate. But languages would always be part of me, as necessary to life as my heartbeat.
You don’t have to be as romantic, or dramatic, as me to realize that learning languages requires dedication. Your reasons can be simple, short, and sweet. Want to keep your brain sharp into your retirement? Learning another language is great for that, especially if your soul belongs to the French countryside (though you may never be able to visit) and you have time to play for ten minutes on a language app.
Maybe you’re like me, and just have a thirst for knowledge you can’t seem to quench. There are libraries of untranslated books, undubbed movies, and podcasts you may never have known existed or could even reap the full benefits of without some fluency in a different tongue!
If you’ve got a tiny inkling of what you want to do, there should be no problem, right?
But there’s also #3. It deserves an asterisk because it’s a difficult topic to talk about among languages learners.
What exactly is a “poor resource”? You’d think it’d be easy to define. The answer I’m going to give you might be hard for you to stomach, since you might be the type of person who’s spent months or even years searching for the perfect way to learn a language, only to find that there is no consensus. That’s because, by definition, learning is an individual process, and individual journey, and everyone gets to their goals at their own pace.
To be true, there is no perfect resource. Some have typos. Some were written by people you may consider to be morally corrupt. Some are organized funny. Some are not beginner-friendly. Some may be too beginner-friendly. There really is no magic formula.
Personally, even with typos I enjoy the books I buy, though with one caveat. I have to have a decent (perhaps B1) level in the language. Otherwise I’m just going to confuse myself with what’s standard and what’s not, and I won’t acquire the full breadth of the language as is usually my goal.
So, to sum up:
- Pick the language resource that’s right… for you and your level
- Choose a motivating factor that’s right… for you and your personality
But you already knew this, didn’t you? And if you didn’t, perhaps that little nugget of happiness, in its undiscovered state, as of until now holding you back from pursuing your dreams is ready to be uncovered and you can be set free to roam whatever part of the world you want.
Happy exploring through language!
(Preview photo credit: @mccutcheonphoto on Instagram)