As you all (probably) already know, my mother tongue is French. It means that I obviously had to learn English at some point in my life since I can write an entire blog in that language today.
The funny thing is, I don’t really remember having any real struggles learning English.
I mean yes, sometimes it would be hard (and still is) to watch a movie with a foreign accent and no subtitles, and I would get headaches when spending too much time reading books in English. I do remember that. But I never made a conscious choice of learning English. I just… learned it.
I had that moment in my life when I would read tons and tons of books and “fanfictions”. Alright, don’t judge me. I still like it sometimes; there’s some pretty good writers out there and their fanfictions are sometimes better than the actual book.
After reading loads of fanfictions in French, I started to read those in English as well. That’s when I made the most progress. I didn’t learn my English vocabulary and grammar in school; I did it by reading. Reading, reading, reading. I still make mistakes, and my pronounciation is bad, but overall I am more than happy with my level in English, especially since I don’t feel like I put any efforts in it.
But in September 2012, I made the conscious choice to learn Japanese. Which is, for me, a lot harder than when I was learning English “by accident”.
If you’re currently making a conscious choice of learning a foreign language, here are the struggles you might encounter on your path and benefits you might gain from the experience.
I don’t want you to finish reading this post and think “Well thank you, I don’t want to learn a foreign language anymore” or something like that. Learning a language is fun, but it does have some bad sides to it. So let’s start with the “negativity” and get it all out before moving on to the benefits.
1. You will have unrealistic expectations
With English, I didn’t have any goals. I was just reading for fun, and I happened to learn the language in the process. But with Japanese, I have many expectations and far away goals (or at least that’s what it feels like).
I want to be fluent. I want to be as good, or even better, in Japanese than I am in English. I want to be able to just talk without always searching for my words. I want to read without needing a translator every two minutes.
Those expectations are bad goals. They’re bad because you can’t reach them quickly, and you don’t see the progress you make because you’re focused on the upcoming results. It’s definitely not motivating.
You should have easier goals, like “Today, I will read a book in that language for one hour”, or “Tomorrow, I will skype/talk with a native speaker” or whatever makes you happy. Those goals are less focused on the success, but more on the exercise itself. The key is to keep you surrounded by that language and make progress step by step.
Instead of expectations like “I want to be fluent someday”, I prefer quotes like “Tomorrow, I will suck less in that language”.
2. You will go through plateaux
I think it goes in pair with the unrealistic expectations. There will be times when you’ll feel as if you’re not learning anything — even if you studied hard. During those moments, your motivation goes down. There might even be questions like “Why am I even bothering to learn this language?”.
Just don’t give up! It’s normal to have those plateaux. Try to readjust your expectations in more realistic ones, and revise your study techniques. You can also take a short break and just remember why you started learning that language, and what are the differences between your level then and your level now. The feeling of uselessness will go away and your motivation will come back, I promise.
3. You will get embarrassed
You’re someone who’s good in political debates? You’re a funny person who can make good jokes? You are used to express your feelings and ideas quickly — without having to think about the words you choose? Well, be prepared for these to change. You will feel like a baby; because you are like one when you learn a new language. Native people will laugh; native people will say you’re cute. They (mostly) aren’t mean at all; it’s just a normal reaction. Accents are cute, and bad grammar is funny. That’s just the way it is.
When learning a language, you have to put your pride aside. It’s one of the hardest part of it all.
When I went in Japan for New Year 2014, I had a small problem with that. I kept thinking that if I wasn’t sure at 100% what I was about to say would be perfect, then I wouldn’t say it at all. It’s stupid; don’t do that. You should try no matter what. It’s embarrassing, but at least you are trying. And you’re getting much better in the language while doing that instead of keeping your mouth shut. I still have to constantly talk to myself about that. Everyday. It’s a real battle against oneself; don’t lose it.
4. You may get pressure on your shoulders
If you made the choice to learn a new language, you may have some specific reasons to do it. Maybe you like how the language sounds; maybe you have to learn it for your career or traveling; maybe you met someone and fell in love, and now want to learn their mother tongue.
(What? Oh no, I’m not doing any psychological projection here… what are y’all talking about?…)
Whatever those reasons are, you will want to achieve your goals as quickly as possible. As a result, you’ll probably feel some pressure because of it.
Learning a language takes time, so relax and enjoy it as much as you can. Do activities that you like instead of thinking “I should do this and that, because people say it’s the fastest way to learn a language”. Everybody is different.
Alright, now that’s the fun part! What are the good sides of learning a foreign language?
1. You will understand the culture better
If you are interested in a language, it’s only normal that you’ll be interested in the culture as well. The way certain words are used in a language can speak a lot for the culture itself. In Japanese, there’s a word for “death from overwork”, which is karoushi. Since the Japanese society values the workplace a lot, I guess it’s only normal that there’s a word for dying because of overdoing it. I love those little quirks each language can have.
But it’s not only about vocabulary; it’s also about the way the sentences are made. In Japanese, when you want to answer “No, I can’t/don’t want/won’t” to a question, it’s common to use chotto, which means “A little”, instead of using iie, which is the classical “No” in Japanese. For a foreigner, it can be perceived as a lot of uncertainty or a lack of opinions. But in Japan, it’s a polite answer in replacement for the “No” being perceived as a bit confrontational.
While learning the language, you’ll have to start thinking in the same way as a native if you want to speak it fluently someday. Over the time, you’ll discover interesting things through the language about the culture.
2. You will meet new people
Learning a language can open you up to so many opportunities and wonderful encounters. By studying the language and getting interested in the culture, you will eventually meet native people. So you’ll not only make new acquaintances and connections all over the world, but they will also come from a different background than yours, which can lead to pretty enriching conversations. It’s always fun to share our point of view and culture traits with people from other nationalities. When you can speak their language, even if only slightly, it’s even better.
Just by learning English, I was able to meet wonderful people all over the world and write to you guys. That’s what makes me happy.
3. It will help you when traveling
There’s nothing like locals to show you the fabulous hidden sights that all the other tourists are missing. By making friends while chatting with them in their native language, they will gladly show you everything there is to see in their country.
It will also help you surviving in a country where English isn’t much used. Needless to say, daily-life actions like taking the subway and ordering food will become a lot easier. So yes, you feel like a baby when learning a new language; but if you don’t know how to read the signs, how to ask directions or how to call for help, you will really feel like a defenseless baby.
Even if you are planning on traveling only for couple of days, I suggest you learn some useful sentences in order to get by in the country.
4. It’s an achievement you can be proud of
Although I don’t suggest learning a language if your number one goal is to “look cool”, I must admit it usually impress people when you can speak more than one language. It’s also very good to put on a resume for job hunting.
The look on the face of a Japanese woman I met here in Canada when I greeted her in Japanese was just priceless. She didn’t expect it at all, but she was happy to know that she could rely on speaking Japanese if she wanted.
During those moments, I’m glad I started to learn foreign languages so I could connect with people easily.
Even when it’s hard sometimes, there’s those uplifting moments that make it all worth it.
Are you learning any languages? What are the struggles you had and benefits you gained from learning a foreign language? Comment below, I’m curious!