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The Language You Love Vs The Language You Need

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It’s probably the same with most things you get to know a bit better. What you imagined is not what you get in the end. I’m back to language learning with this short post: how can you handle the gap between your linguistic expectations and reality?

0. Blame it all on the media (again)

I think each blogger, pundit and language software marketing agent is responsible for the romanticised, ideal image of language learning that’s in your head every time you decide to learn it. There seem to be two directions for foreign language propaganda. One camp will try to tell you that learning languages is hard, outdated (since computers can do it for us) and ultimately not worth it (economically at least). The other story is that language learning is fun, easy, empowering and sexy.

We don’t always get to cover the thing that happens in between. We don’t tell you about the fact that learning languages is, well, both – and both at the same time, sometimes. And for a long, long time. We don’t focus too much on documenting the hard work. And those of us who do – Scott, Benny – often pinned their colours to the “fun and empowering” mast of language learning beforehand.

It’s not wrong to say that you’re in love with language learning. And it’s not even wrong to write about the fun parts, to focus on the good times, to emphasise (to oneself and to others) the joy of the process.

But it’s not OK to read such stories and believe that languages, when learned, bring nothing but euphoria. Just as it’s not fair to expect a waste of time and money from each language school.

So yeah, it’s all our fault. Now, what can be done about it?

1. Scenario One: use one language to get to another.

This can work between two different languages, and the dilemma can be familiar to many future polyglots. Let me explain.

This story is personal. I am in love with Portuguese, even though I’m only a beginner. At the same time, I fell out of love with German over the years – although this is the language which I studied the longest (after English).

So after my recent trip – which just confirmed that Portuguese is music to my ears – I decided to learn it a lot more. But I had unfinished business with German – a language vastly different from Portuguese. I couldn’t imagine learning both at the same time.

My final decision was this: I will start learning German again, with the aim of taking the ZD exam before the end of the year. This will ensure that I gain a solid understanding of it, and that my grasp on this language is good enough to sustain itself through real conversations, media use and everyday listening / reading.

Then I will start learning Portuguese – with the added bonus of being able to transfer some learning tricks, tools and strategies from one language to another. (Hey, I wrote a book about it, I should know what I’m doing. Right?)

2. Scenario Two: Use the bits you need to get to the bits you love

This technique would work well within one language, which for some reason is disappointing you on one level or another. Here’s how the details play out.

Let’s imagine a language you started to learn out of enthusiasm. Maybe you enjoyed driving through France with your parents, and imagined yourself having all those long dinner conversations in such a pretty language. So you bought the course, signed on for the class, or downloaded the app.

Now you’re hating it. And you’re hating yourself for hating it.

The grammar is ancient-looking and grotesque. The app is virtually slapping your knuckles with a ruler every time you place the accents wrong. The articles are nothing like your articles, the plurals just don’t make sense, and there seems to be too much STUFF in between you and the enjoyment.

I think I wrote about it earlier: this feeling is a good sign. It means you still haven’t lost the motivation that was there in the first place. It just crashed in collision with the linguistic landscape. When dealing with reality, it’s normal to have to piece your motivation back together again.

So a good idea to do now is this: make sure you get some perspective on the things you have to learn. It may be that a more proficient friend of yours can point out how useful they are, and that they’ll make sense sooner or later. It may be that coming back to what felt so lovely will make you notice the dreaded little accents and bits of grammar in a different light – playing key parts in the big picture.

But it may be that you picked the wrong course, the wrong app and the wrong approach. In which case…

3. Scenario Three: just go for the bits you love

This post would have ended on “scenario two” some fifteen years ago. There would have been no “scenario three” for us mortals. Now there is.

You are responsible for your motivation. There’s nobody out there who can get excited for you.

So it’s 2015 and you really don’t care about business German, because you just want to have lots of “kaffee klatch” in Vienna and read Kafka in original.

Or you don’t really care about how popular and sexy Brazilian Portuguese is, because there’s someone waiting for you in Porto who would only speak to you when you learned the PROPER variety.

Well, go for it. Fire your tutors and delete your apps. Search the forums, visit the libraries again. Hack together your own materials, courses and tests.

You can do it now, and if you really can’t stand waiting for the language you love to come along – just go and get it.


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