Learning Languages 1

When I was 14 years old I went to Germany to live with my grandmother for a while. She lived at the top of a big hill in a very cute village and I was to attend Gymnasium (high school) down at the bottom of the hill and across town. I had learned a tiny bit of German watching old Guten Tag movies at the rural high school near my junior high school in Oregon. It seems odd now that way back then we had access to German in such a small town but I have since learned that Oregon received a grant in the 1970s to increase German-language learning in the state.

I loved the films, on reels, black and white and everyone wearing hats and catching trains.

Since then I have spent years studying French, endeavored to learn Sanskrit, taught French and English and am now studying Spanish. I have thought a great deal about the keys to learning a foreign language, at least an Indo-European one, and I have very, extremely, big, strong opinions on the key ingredients to learning.

  1. Increase affective connections. Love is of course the best reason but friendship, family, camaraderie, a crush on your teacher, a homey feel are all good.
  2. Decrease performance anxiety. Play games, speak in gibberish, have running jokes in the class, and throw perfectionism out the window.
  3. Repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat. Over and over and over again. Read the same book 8 times aloud, memorize a poem, watch the same film three times, do the same oral questions 3-5 times. Over and over.
  4. Target language content non-stop. Keep the faucet open and the language just coming and coming, aka, no English, no translating.

We have moved to France so my son can learn French and he is in special classes for French language. These include many verb conjugations and grammar exercises. And they also translate things all of the time. None of these are on my list.

Spanish greyhound in grammar jail. This dog just wants to run and play and sit on someone’s lap, like most high school students. The biggest change from being a university professor to teaching high school was having to tell students not to sit on each other.

As I draft this post I feel like I have whole book to write on the topic.

So let me just tell a few little stories. I loved my grandmother dearly and living with her was a special treat so #1. I was 14 years old and at the top of my class in the US in a world of monolinguals so I had no idea how terrible it was when my adjectives were wrong or I said Du to the teacher, so #2. I was going to school all day every day for hours and hours and hours, so #3 and #4. My grandmother spoke excellent English but the rule was only on the weekends. No one ever really explained German to me so I still make a lot of mistakes with grammar but I’m comfortable and I enjoy the language a great deal. I had no idea what was going on most of the time but what I learned stuck and it still functions. Unlike my son, I had almost no access to anything in English. I read the horribly dated (and kind of white supremacist) Story of an Island (a history of England) from the dusty top of my grandmother’s bookshelf and late at night if I turned the dial just right I could get the Armed Forces Radio because I am so old that the US was still occupying Germany then. My learning was fast and furious and it worked mostly.


While I was in Germany I started learning French because my class was starting the language. It was one of the few classes where I wasn’t any worse than my German peers in their tight jeans and big shoes because they hadn’t learned it before either. I then studied French all through high school and my French teacher made me do a lot of grammar and also told me that I was the reason she was going to leave the profession. French was after lunch when we bored teenagers did naughty things like drink margaritas or smoke things in the bushes. My high school was so boring, stultifying to me, and I never hesitated to let the teachers know that I thought so.

Such a creepy looking German movie, takes place in a girl’s boarding school.

But then, at age 18, I went to Greece by myself and fell in love for the first time ever with the most gorgeous Philippe from France. #1. Extremely high affective motivation so I decided to major in French and do everything to get back to France. He was a ski instructor with jet black curly hair and bright blue eyes. A few years later I moved to France, where people were extremely nice to me, I got to live on my own, eat oysters, drink champagne, ride around Paris at night on motorcycles and be a wild young one so #2 was completely taken care of because I was having so much fun. (The Philippe story will be for another post). It was easier to find books in English or movies but I was damned if I was going to speak or read a single word in English so I shunned most of my American peers and plowed through 19th century novels. I stayed in France for several years and worked odd jobs, #3 and #4. And then I went to graduate school and learned all the grammar and rules and became a teacher of French for many years.

It took a while but we got back.

So now, Spanish. My #1 is a little weak. I very much loved my teacher in Mexico and I look forward to seeing my compadres at the Instituto Cervantes. I am quite fond of them. When I first started learning Spanish it was to dance tango in Buenos Aires and my #1 was high but then when I got there I realized I only needed a few phrases and the dancing took care of the rest. #2 is currently frustrating me as one of my teachers recasts incessantly. Recasting is when the teacher interrupts the student’s sentence, repeats the verb or vocabulary word correctly back to the student and then the student has to figure out how to keep their thought intact. Studies have been done on recasting and IT DOES NOT WORK. It makes students nervous and dependent on their teacher who is basically doing the work for them. #3, Since I studied Spanish in the US with a Spanish friend, then in Mexico with my adored teacher and now in France, all in different systems, not much has been repeated. I need a lot more repetition but, as with sit-ups or pushups, I simply don’t have the discipline to provide my own repetition. Our teachers are Spanish and speak almost exclusively in Spanish but since I only have four hours of class a week, I don’t think I’m meeting ideal #4 conditions.

The wheelie chairs I bought for my classroom so the students could roll around and have more fun. As you can see, they also took them apart and changed pieces. Anything to keep the boredom of high school at bay!

Why am I learning Spanish? I think I’d like to read some great Spanish literature and spend more time in Mexico. I’m not sure this is motivating me enough to provide my own missing pieces to learn the language.

I want my son to learn French but his main affective connection here is with me so #1 is not intense. Luckily #2 is pretty good for him. He is comfortable here and enjoys school. I see only occasional evidence of #3 from his class, at least from his homework. The biggest problem is #4. He can listen to podcasts, read webpages, watch movies, all in English. As can I. We are in France but we don’t really have to speak more than a sentence or two in reality to survive. I don’t know when the Academie Francaise gave up the ghost but English is everywhere here. Things are so different than when I moved to France and there was no internet, phone calls were exorbitant and had to be made in stinky hot glass booths with cigarette butts on the ground, and I was too broke to buy books in English.

I am the proverbial cobbler and my son has no shoes.

2 thoughts on “Learning Languages 1”

  1. I am one of your Silent Readers, enjoying the vicarious thrill of your new lifestyle. As much as we miss you in the US, I do hope that circumstances allow you both to remain in a civilized country!

    As for language learning, it is on my (fuzzy) Bucket List to learn another language, but having weak motivation and time management skills may indeed thwart the actual study. I have had occasional short spanish classes and have lived in many places where spanish was “in the air”. The sounds and the words are all quite familiar to my ear, but not studying verbs and conjugations limits actual conversation. Having said that, my favorite spanish classes were achieved in a Happy Hour setting, drinking Margaritas while viscerally acting out different words and sentences in a playful manner. Full immersion is the only way to truly get the dynamic repetition.

    On one occasional traveling in Mexico, I travelled with an East German woman, who spoke fluent Spanish and continuously corrected my (native) English! She was always right, one can get get sloppy speaking one’s mother tongue.

    I have on occasion “dreamed” in other languages (French and Spanish). In waking life, I have had several occasions where I understood what was being said to me in a language that I do not speak. (I confirmed the content.) Inexplicable!


    1. Thank you for the interesting thoughts! Grammar is very important but without context and affect, it’s like learning math. Grammar absorbed through authentic communication and repetition is grammar that the brain can then access and actually use relatively quickly. I love the idea of tuning in to a completely unknown language and knowing something. Humans are amazing. I have a fold out couch if you want to come visit! Love to you….


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