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I may never learn a second language

Written By: linguisticallydelicious on May 3, 2008 6 Comments

My name is Katie. I’m white. English is my first language. I was born in Southern California and had lived there almost my entire life before transferring to CAL. My siblings and I had access to a quality elementary school, junior high, and high school education. Learning a second language was not something that had even crossed my mind as a child in elementary school and was never mentioned by my mother. Taking a language course in junior high was not required. I can’t even remember if language courses were offered. It wasn’t until I entered high-school that I became remotely interested in and required to attempt to learn a second language. I was told that Spanish would be the most “useful” for living and working in Southern California. I took Spanish for 3 years and really enjoyed it. I had mastered simple conversation and could hold my own during occasional mission trips to Mexico with my church. I went to a junior college after I graduated high school and thought it would be fun to continue learning Spanish. I enrolled in an intermediate course and week after a week of the professor poking fun of me for not rolling my “r”s correctly, I dropped the class and gave up Spanish all together. Up until then Spanish really hadn’t been “useful” to me, and I wasn’t going to pay money to have this woman humiliate me for no good reason. My Spanish was decent. I could communicate with native speakers regardless of whether or not my “r”s were rolled with native-like rolly-ness.

A few years later at a different community college, I tried my hand at French. I did well both semesters, but didn’t care for the language and forgot 95% of what I had learned a few months after classes ended. When I came to CAL I realized many students were bilingual, many were even poly-lingual. I felt embarrassed. I could count to 20 in more than a few foreign languages, and had great manners in French, Spanish and English, but I was by no means fluent in any other language than English. Feeling the pressure, I decided to enroll in Italian. I had always wanted to go to Italy and thought this would be a good chance to familiarize myself with the language before i planned a trip there. I fell in LOVE with the language. It came easy to me and my previous schooling in Spanish and French helped as well (their only ‘real’ use in my life so far, I thought to myself).

I planned a trip to Italy the following semester and was eager to communicate in my new tongue. When I got to Italy I was surprised at how little I actually needed to use my Italian. Besides the taxi drivers, most everyone spoke English. I can only speak from this one perspective, and I was in Rome, so I understand that English is somewhat the International travel language. But even if I tried to use my Italian I received responses in English. It was almost like “aww, you’re so cute trying to speak Italian. But how unnecessary, because we were already taught your language when we were 3.” I felt robbed. Spanish had served me well during my missions trips in high school. But it did me little good after that, unless you count the curse words and Spanglish I used while joking around with my Spanish-speaking co-workers at a cafe I used to work at. So I feel like I have come full circle. I am the embodiment of my apathetic roots. Like the people who didn’t give a second thought to learning a second language because. . .what was the point? Everybody speaks English now, right? Wrong, everybody doesn’t, and I know this. But I feel like learning a second language will only do me good right now if I am going to immerse myself in a culture that speaks a foreign language, become a translator, or teach English to ESL students. And I don’t plan on doing any of the above anywhere in the near future, or ever. I’m not saying it is pointless for me to learn a second language, I’m just waiting for a reason. I feel, deep down, that is IS necessary. That I SHOULD know a second or third or fourth language, but up until now, the only things that had been driving me were the excitement (which was shot down in Italy) and embarrassment of not being on the same level as my academic peers. And to be honest, neither one of those seem like a very good reason. I also understand the cognitive benefits of being bilingual, but the older one gets the harder it is to learn a second language, let alone become fluent in one. I think my chance has passed me by, and I can’t put my finger on why, but it makes me sad.

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6 Responses to “I may never learn a second language”

  1. Sonja Lind on: 23 November 2008 at 5:57 pm

    Thanks for posting this. I think it is actually rather brave of you! I, too, am like you and have never learned a second language until the point when I could converse in that language.

    Unlike you, however, I’ve lived in five continents, some of which I was an ESL teacher, so you can imagine that my sense of guilt is also prevalent! My excuses range from “not being here long enough” to “I teach and think English 40 hours a week” to “it’s a former British colony.”

    Still, many of my friends are bilingual, trilingual, quadralingual, and many of us have also spent our lives in many countries. We accept each other. So I spend my time split between genuinely trying to learn a second language (tried American Sign Language yet?) and accepting that I may never be “fluent” in a second language. I still support bilingual education, and would strongly consider a Montessori education for my kids, but all with an understanding that I, myself, may never be able to call myself bilingual.

  2. Julia on: 18 December 2008 at 10:29 pm


    It was very interesting to read about your experiences with languages, but I have to say it- don’t give up! The best reason for learning a language is because you love it. It doesn’t have to be useful, or perfectly-spoken (although those are pluses), as long as it’s intrinsically satisfying. You fell in love with Italian. That’s wonderful. But I feel that you were rather too easily discouraged from speaking it during your Italy trip, because no one else was. While it’s true that English is a so-called global language, there are still many places in Italy (especially outside of major centers) where people will speak to you in Italian, and especially among older people, knowledge of the language is essential. I fell into the tourist trap of not learning the language before I went, and I still regret it!

    In any case, at the moment I’m learning Japanese. Although I’m still trying to articulate why I enjoy it so much, every word and sentence and character that I’ve learned to use is an achievement and a joy. It’s allowed me to prove to myself that I can excel at a foreign language after a school career of barely passing French classes. I may not ever go to Japan, and if I do it would mainly be an opportunity to practice speaking. But that doesn’t matter when you love what you’re doing. The study of a language is an art and an end in itself.

  3. Maria Magkou on: 19 April 2009 at 1:15 pm

    Dear Sonja,

    As an adult it is much harder to learn another language and most people won’t even take on the challenge, and so good on you! I myself had no interest until I started traveling and seeing the usefulness of another language. It takes a lot of dedication and immersion, and suffering I suppose, to learn another language. Suffering because as an adult one needs to be placed in situations in which they find themselves uncomfortable at times- where you don’t understand the language in social situations, and I have been there when I learnt Spanish in a small city that did not have a lot of foreigners like me, and so I learnt. It took me almost 3 years of my life, totally immersed to learn Spanish and I still don’t speak it perfectly but I do feel that Spanish speakers appreciate my efforts. I do think you gained a lot from your language learning and that is meeting a variety of people from different backgrounds and learning about other cultures, which I think is just as important, if not more important. English, being so ‘global’ doesn’t help much because even though I am currently living in a German country, I am not fully immersed in it because the city where I live has a lot of English speakers.

  4. Yulia on: 28 October 2009 at 2:57 pm

    Thank you for telling your story. I think a lot of people have a similar problem. I advise you not to give up. Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy, the Russian writer, wrote “More language we know, more people we are”. I think you need to chose for yourself your second favourite language and learn it deeply. You can read books and watch films on this language for supporting you level. You can also find some friends via Internet (for whom this language is native) and comunicate with them. And I am sure it will be a great experience for you. Wish you luck!

  5. Yair on: 1 December 2010 at 4:01 pm

    Hey, i appreciated this blog, it resonates with a lot of similar nonsense i’m going through regarding trying to learn hebrew and yet still being israeli (annoying). Don’t give up and realize a language doesn’t have to be perfect in order to communicate…how many native speakers speak their language perfectly? And as far as people speaking english, just continue on in their language, they’ll either take the hint or not. Best of luck.

  6. Scott on: 3 January 2011 at 5:14 am

    Katie, your post brings up several excellent points that often don’t get expressed when discussing foreign languages, but are nonetheless true. First: Foreign language ability is one of those annoying skills that doesn’t become useful in any REAL sense until you know the language quite well. It’s not so much an all-or-nothing so much as it is a you-need-to-pass-a-certain-threshold proposition, and the threshold is higher than most native English speakers ever realize. Second: Learning a foreign language WELL is really, really hard. Most native English speakers really have no idea of what that means, since most people humor other people learning their language. When’s the last time you corrected a foreigner’s English? You probably realized what the person wanted, gave it to her, and she went on her merry way, little realizing that “Me want watch” was completely wrong. What you don’t see is her continuing on this path for years afterward. I’m not exaggerating all that much. For instance, your assertions that your Spanish was “decent,” yet you couldn’t roll your r’s, is a perfect example of the self-delusion of a people who are never forced to deal with a second language in a real context where the stakes are high. Not being able to roll your r’s in Spanish is equivalent to not being able to pronounce either “th” sound in English (“think” vs. “the”) PLUS dropping all of your h’s: no one would ever say that you speak English well. I’m not attacking :); I’m also a native English speaker. But I also had to live in Germany for a time, for reals, and quickly learned what real German sounded like. So, when I came back and heard my fellow Americans say, “Oh yeah, my German’s decent,” I could only laugh. They really had no idea. And these were people who were majoring in the language in college. It wasn’t their fault; they just never had to use the language in a context where someone WASN’T saying, “Aw, it’s good that you’re making an effort.” They never had to use it to conduct real business where they were discussing terms of a cell-phone contract, describing an ailment to a doctor, paying a bill–like, real stuff that requires a much better vocabulary than knowing how to count to 20, or shoot the breeze with restaurant workers–and where errors were simply not tolerable. Having vocabulary on hand like that is hard-won and requires a lot of practice: how many people learning Japanese get to the point where they know how to say “all-inclusive contract with a $20 rebate?” The hard truth is that learning another language legitimately WELL means devoting a LOT of time to all four skills with a long-term dedication that most people aren’t up for unless they have to. Many people need to know a certain amount of English because certain things are only available in English. So because they have to learn it, they do. For English speakers, there is almost never that sort of necessary pressure unless they go to live in another country in an area where few people speak English. For better or for worse, there are few areas like that left in the world. So, you either have to genuinely love the process or want to move to the country. Otherwise, most people won’t cut the mustard. But I don’t think native English speakers would feel as bad if they simply knew the effort required to do it well. If they did, they would probably (rightly, in many cases) conclude that the effort wasn’t worth the product. Again, this is the hard reality. That is why many people who “dabble” in an “exotic” foreign language never achieve any proficiency. There is no pressure. Honestly, ask any immigrant who speaks English well who started in his/her late teens/early adulthood or later, especially if she can speak well extemporaneously with a minimal accent. It is serious and requires a lot of work over a lot of years to do it right. That’s why people who speak more than one foreign language truly well (w/o the advantages of a bilingual childhood) are rarer than rare. I would like to end with an analogy that may seem extreme, but I swear it is much, much closer than you think: Imagine you are a concert flautist. Now imagine that someone comes to you and says, now you need to relearn your entire catalogue–on the violin. That is, you need to become a concert violinist. You would probably calculate all of the hours it takes to become a concert violinist (and also realize how little pleasure one gets from being able to bow “Row, Row, Row Your Boat”) and say, “No thanks, not worth it.” That is what speaking a language well is: playing a symphony each time, with every note perfectly pitched (pronunciation) in the right sequence (grammar) with the proper phrasing (intonation–SO important)–even if you are ordering a cup of coffee. I’m serious. And learning a foreign language is switching instruments, but being expected to play at (or very close to) that same level. That’s why you shouldn’t feel bad about not undertaking it: you would only do it if you were somehow obsessed with the violin, or someone were holding a gun to your head.

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