Language Learning: Don’t be too hard on yourself

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Did you tried to pick up language at some point in your life and give up?

I’d figure so. So do I, and many other people out there. Don’t worry, you are certainly not alone. I will share with you my long journey of taking a start in language learning.

First time I tried to pick up a language, I was barely 4. My father, a sailor cum interpreter, believed that I would need to speak English in my future. He was right, as I am not globetrotting and hanging on to my English on daily basis now. My English level is currently C1 and I frequently score higher in English than in my mother tongue, Indonesian. Being able to pick up English just like that, I thought it would be easy for me to pick up different language. I was wrong.

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First language I tried to pick up was Mandarin. Being an overseas Chinese in Indonesia, I was robbed of my cultural identity even before I was born. My grandmother tried to secretly educate us in Mandarin with not much success. She sent us to Mandarin classes here and there, but it didn’t work. At that time, Mandarin was not standarized yet and I had different teachers who were all over 80 years old and had approaches I couldn’t comprehend. From the spelling system with original Zhuyin characters instead of today’s pinyin, to pronunciation, everyone seems to have different approach that made me totally confused. Not only that, the pronounciation I was taught was different from the spoken Mandarin my other side of family would use, and was also different from standarized Mandarin. It felt painful, that a language that was suppose to be my mother tongue inflicted so much pain for me to learn. Thus I gave up my journey in Mandarin early on

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Second language I tried to pick up was French. I didn’t have opportunity to take a formal class, so I was totally on my own. I bought a self-taught book and tried to comprehend the idea. It was the time when internet was not yet a cheap commodity, so access to internet was not affordable for me. Learning French without help proved difficult. There were so many foreign new concepts that I couldn’t comprehend, let alone the pronunciation. I listened to some French music at that time and tried to mimic the sound. It worked to a certain degree because I managed to somewhat get a grip on the pronunciation, but I failed to compose a sentence. Later on I had a chance to sit on a class (but later had to drop out), and the teacher took this approach to force everyone to speak. It was easier to say than to actually do it. I didn’t have concept of infinitive and conjunction, I didn’t have deep grasp of what pronouns were, I didn’t even understand simple things such as preposition. Having bad education in Indonesian gave me a very poor linguistic base, and the difference between the language structure didn’t help at all. I still tried to find my way around, but I found it to be extremely difficult to continue without knowing what I had to do or how things work. As time goes, I had mountains of other responsibilities. I then silently shelved French.

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The third one was German. I made a grave mistake of taking my German lesson at the same time as French. It was an unfortunate circumstances because not only sometimes I mixed things up, but also that I had to drop out halfway to the semester. If French was already confusing with conjunction and infinitive, German added another headache with confusing word orders and verbs such as Trennbare and Untrennbare verbs. The compound words were also very foreign to me. I thought the teacher would help, but he basically just read the book and thought that complicated German grammar had to be obvious to us. I learned my lesson that a person who speak a language isn’t necessarily able to teach it.

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My fourth experiment was Russian. Learning cyrilic was very fun for me and I didn’t face much difficulties even though it is sometimes difficult due to long words, shift between o and a, and also because of stress. In my language, there was no such thing as stress, you can say anything as you like. Apparently in many language putting the stress in different places can turn a word into another word. I liked Russian because the word orders are more flexible and it is quite intuitive. I learned if for a while, but I had to cut it because suddenly I had to move to India and was too busy to do anything other than adapting to my new life and work. Even though my project was a failure, I came to understand something important. Language has became more intuitive for me. Even though it is still difficult for me to have a conversation, but my mind has learned the pattern. I didn’t take formal class in Russian, which I believe would greatly help me. At this time, I understand the importance of a good teacher. A structured lesson will give you enough footing that will give you a confidence to start learning even further.

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My fifth attempt was Italian. My move to Italy was a sudden one. I received my scholarship one and half month before the semester start and since I had to leave India to return to my country to settle the bureaucracy (that in the end took me one month to finish), I didn’t have any time to learn Italian beforehand. My first step was to enroll in Italian class in my university. The class was so bad: the teacher was an Austrian lady who would slip a lot of German word during the class and she refused to speak a word in English when we require explanation. Some people think that full immersion is important in learning language. I agree, but I don’t think A1 level is a perfect time to do 100% immersion. It is difficult to do what the teacher tells you to do when you don’t understand a single word she said. I left the class halfway because my core courses was conveniently scheduled on my Italian class later by the faculty. At least I left the class with a certain level of understanding. Beside that, I also learned that things I learned during my previous experiments were quite useful. I was then familiar by concept of infinitive, conjunction, pronouns, preposition and such. Composing sentence became more intuitive for me but not so strong in spoken language. I could read signs on the street and I could understand my classmates. Living in Italy didn’t give me a full immersion experience in the end because I studied English and all of my classmates speak English. When you are talking about school materials, it is much more convenient to talk in English and directly understand what you wanted to know instead of going around in Italian. Also, the curse of modern world! In Italy basically by the time we finish our classes, the local shops would be closed and we had no choice but to go to supermarket. Later, we found a class designed for immigrants offered by Caritas. They are a Christian Organization that offers assistance to people, but they also offer Italian class to help the immigrants to assimilate better. These class was taught by volunteers and I learned much more with them. Since I had a basic grasp on Italian already, the class was very useful for me. I was encouraged to speak and there was no fear of making mistakes since everyone in the class were adult learner as well! These classes were my turning point. Slowly I started speaking Italian when going to shop or mensa, and somehow with my basic Italian I managed to get what I want from public offices who speak only Italian. More importantly, it gave me confidence to continue learning.

Now I am living in Germany, learning German (A2) and Italian (A2). After my experience in Italy, it was easier for me to relearn German. If before Italian making a sentence in foreign language was impossible for me, now I can easily compose a simple text in both language. Language learning is not easy because it also require a state of mind. If in my language I can basically make a verb out of almost every noun by adding prefix and suffix, I need to learn infinitive+conjunction to do it in most European language, and I have to learn a completely new word (and writing system) for language like Chinese. It took me over 20 years to develop the right state of mind, along with trial and errors in 4 different languages before I found a method that works for me. I am still in learning process too! I hope I will achieve at least B1 in Italian by the time I finished my study in Italy. It is possible, and you can do it too.