Interested in a new language? Why not learn two? Or three?

Last fall, before our recent trip to Cuba, I decided to brush up on my Spanish. There was quite a lot of brushing up to do and, even after a couple of months of “refresher” lessons on Duolingo, there still is. One man we ran into on our trip — he ran a souvenir shop at a resort in Cuba — said that I spoke Spanish so badly he thought I was speaking Portuguese. He based this apparent insult mostly on my attempt to ask how much an item of clothing cost: I think I must have said “¿Cuanto costa?” instead of “¿Cuanto cuesta?” He turned out to be a boring retired linguistics professor who then proceeded to lecture us at length (in English) about the history of Indo-European and Romance languages (which I had also studied at university. Not surprisingly, he was not interested in hearing what I knew).

Languages in General

When I was in high school, I wanted to become a translator at the UN. I have no idea where I got the notion that I would like to do this, but I did. It seemed to me that the best preparation would be to learn all the languages I could. I already had a fair amount of French, so at university I registered in introductory courses in both Spanish and Russian. I started university at the age of 16, long before I was old enough to realize that even when attending classes was not mandatory, it was still a good idea — especially if you were trying to learn a new language. I didn’t do too well in Russian, and the fact that I passed Spanish is a miracle.

I didn’t get to the UN, and I’m not sure that “translator” would have been a career I’d have wanted anyway. But my interest in different languages and cultures has never waned. Over the years I have read a lot of good fiction in translation from a lot of different languages and — although I have no real interest in reading these works in the original languages — the concept of attempting to get into the head of someone who knows a language and culture that I do not is part of what attracts me to them.

Spanish in Particular

Spanish has continued to entrance me. Many of the countries I have always longed to visit have been Spanish-speaking, in both Europe (that’d be Spain) and Latin America. Since university, I’ve taken several courses in conversational Spanish. Consequently, I can now read the language fairly well and understand it if it’s spoken slowly. The reason I still can’t speak it is because I have never had to speak it: I’ve never been anywhere where Spanish is the primary spoken language for long enough that there’s been any real pressure to force my brain to relinquish what it knows. I was in Mexico for a week about fifteen years ago, and now I’ve been to Cuba for ten days. I am very good at hand signals and facial contortions, so both times I got by with a minimum of Spanish and a maximum of charades. I did try to use the language, but even when I asked perfectly good questions in Spanish (as opposed to quasi-Portuguese), I usually had no idea what the answer was, so that wasn’t much help.

When you take the possibility of perfection off the agenda, the possibilities are endless.

Even when you’ve studied a second language for quite a while, it takes a lot longer than a week to get used to hearing it being spoken at the normal conversational rate, then figuring out what has been said, and then responding before everyone else has moved on to a whole new topic. But I have not lost heart. On Friday, I heard a languages expert on the radio say that one can become fluent in a second language at any age. Therefore, onwards. Adelante.

Since I am not likely to be moving to a Spanish-speaking country any time soon, I’m going to start adding to my daily Spanish exercises on Duolingo — which is mainly teaching me vocab — by listening occasionally to some podcasts in Spanish and reading some Spanish children’s books. Maybe by the time I get to Spain, I will be able to stumble along a bit better than I can now.

So. German, too? Why not?

When I was doing the Duolingo exercises before my trip to Cuba, I found that I was really enjoying them. It was like a game to complete the 30-point goals I had set myself for each day, to keep the streak going, and to earn “Lingots.” Each day’s practice only took me about 15 minutes and, despite how frustrating it sometimes was to discover I’d forgotten a word I knew the day before, there was something about the little “dings” that they play when you have made some progress that kept me coming back. It was a great break from the kind of work I usually do.

When I was doing the Duolingo exercises before my trip to Cuba, I found that I was really enjoying them. It was like a game to complete the 30-point goals I had set myself for each day, to keep the streak going, and to earn “Lingots.” Each day’s practice only took me about 15 minutes and, despite how frustrating it sometimes was to discover I’d forgotten a word I knew the day before, there was something about the little “dings” that they play when you have made some progress that kept me coming back. It was a great break from the kind of work I usually do.

Doing the Spanish course reminded me of my long-ago desire to learn as many languages as I could. I promised myself that when I came back from Cuba, I would start on another one. Consequently, since January 15 or so, I have been doing Duolingo’s German course. I have also continued with the Spanish, since I clearly need more practice with that language, too. So now every weekday, and sometimes on weekends, I do 15 minutes of Spanish and 20 or 30 minutes of German. (Spanish is like a skate in the park for me next to German. German is proving very hard to learn. But I am stubborn. Ich bin stur.) I allow myself several hours between the two languages. Even with that, I find myself occasionally trying to pop a Spanish word into a sentence I’m translating into German. But I don’t want to give up either one. I might lose my lingots.

Next?

I have heard that learning languages is good for seniors’ brains. But that’s not why I am doing it. I am doing it because I want to. Something about learning a language is for me a way of pulling aside a curtain to see into a place you’ve never been before. What is it like to have grown up thinking of every object as being either masculine or feminine (as is the case in Spanish and French, and many other languages)? And in the case of German, the object might also be neuter. How complex is that? And how does it affect your world view? And what is it like to learn about the world in a language where all the nouns are capitalized, as German-speakers do? How can anyone put strawberries in poetry when the word you use for them is “Erdbeeren” — which to me has an entirely different “feel”? (Spanish speakers, who call them “fresas,” probably think of “strawberries” as an unnecessary mouthful.) It is questions like these that intrigue me. Plus the fact that learning even a few words that I might recognize if I travelled to another country and saw them on a sign or a menu is like breaking down a barrier.

Unfortunately, it turns out that my appetite for foreign languages is not satisfied by Spanish and German. My next goal — one day, when I feel like I can stumble along at a very basic level in German as well as Spanish — is to tackle Mandarin. Why? Because I need to find out what all those women in the locker room at the Y are talking about! And maybe when I’m 90, I’ll go back and pick up a bit more Russian. Or start in on Hindu. When you take the possibility of perfection off the agenda, as I do with languages, the possibilities are endless.

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Are you on Duolingo? Contact me there. I’m MaryWW1 when I’m studying German, and MaryWW2 when I’m studying Spanish. (If I could figure out how to amalgamate the two, I would.)