• This post has been kicking around my head for weeks. But something happened this morning that made me want to post this right. I follow a page called SaySomethingIn by Welsh language guru Aran Jones (also author of the hysterically funny and deeply moving book about recapturing your hereditary language, Some Sex and a Hill which you MUST read). I found Aran’s Say Something In Welsh course online when I was preparing for a role as a Welsh woman and one of other characters in the play “tests” my character to see if she can really speak Welsh. The play was written by a Canadian who didn’t speak a word of Welsh and the dialog was written in English and the actors are just kinda supposed to pretend it’s Welsh. But you know me, kids. Not only did I translate the passage into Welsh and learn it by heart, I taught the actor who was “testing” me how to say her lines in Welsh too. (We had a Welsh grandmother come to one of the shows and she said we sounded very good to her!)

    Anyway… where was I? Oh yes. So Aran posts on his blog every day and I read his posts every day. Even though my focus right now is learning Dutch, I am very interested in Aran’s story of how he developed a language learning program that gets people speaking Welsh quickly and his personal struggles with not only learning Welsh himself, but dealing with the people who oddly ask you, “Why do you want to do a crazy/difficult/useless thing like that?”

    Yesterday, Aran posted about how shocked he was when he visited the US how passionate Americans were about learning and speaking Welsh.

    Now, you guys know I can’t keep my mouth shut. And you are also aware of my struggles with being Irish and not being Irish enough for the Irish and all that identity stuff.

    So I commented on his post.

    Now usually, Aran replies to all comments. He’s very encouraging and he makes the blog community feel like one big group of 12,000 or so friends.

    But he didn’t reply to my comment. HE POSTED IT AS A BLOG POST!!!

    And he linked this site!

    So now I have to write something about language learning!

    But I have something. I’ve been scribbling notes for this post for weeks. And now I have motivation to post it.

    So here it goes…


    As many of you know, I could write this post in five languages, give or take. I mean, I’d have to grab my kanji dictionary for Japanese. And for American Sign Language, I’d have to video myself. But yeah. In English, French, Irish, Japanese, and ASL, I could have this conversation with you.

    In about three more, I could struggle and make myself understood. And depending upon motivation, sleep deprivation, and blood alcohol levels, I could say please, thank you, I love you, and “where are the toilets” in about twenty more.

    “You’re clearly one of those language people,” you’re saying.

    I reject that. Humans are language people. And that includes you who can’t remember a single word from your high school Spanish classes or those who flunked out of French and had to take Art History instead. Humans are built to learn language. It’s one of the things we all are good at doing.

    And don’t give me that old saw that you’re too old to learn languages and only kids can pick up a new language. Recent studies have shown that adults learn languages at least as quickly as children (and they’re from MIT!), and some other studies say we learn even faster than the little brats. So enough of that excuse, okay?

    The simple fact is that if you must learn a language to survive, you will. The problem is that we are English speakers. English is the second most spoken language on the planet and has the third largest number of native speakers. Plus our home countries are typically separated from other languages by large bodies of water. So we don’t even come into contact with other languages on a daily basis. I mean, not so much that we’d have to switch out of English. Even in deepest, darkest Borneo, someone speaks some English.

    But this doesn’t mean we should presume. When you travel to a non-English country, we shouldn’t just start speaking English and expect people to do the heavy lifting for us. And if we live in another country, we have an absolute duty to learn the local language.

    I live in the Netherlands. You will notice that my list of languages above does not include Dutch. *blush* (It’s one of the three I can struggle through.) But it is my duty to learn Dutch now that I live here. And it is also very complicated because everyone here between the age of 7 and 70 speaks pretty good English and they’re happy to do it to help you.

    But now I need to learn Dutch. How the hell am I gonna do that?

    As I said, it’s a human thing to learn languages. But there’s another human thing at play here. And this may be why we think kids have it easier than we adults. We adults don’t want to sound like idiots when we start learning a language. We are intelligent. We are educated. We want to jump from 0 to Oscar Wilde on Day One.

    You know me. I like to talk. I like to entertain people. I love to tell stories. When I first contemplated studying abroad in high school, I was seriously concerned if I was going to be able to be funny in French. I mean, so much of my self worth and personality had to do with making people laugh that I was concerned that I wasn’t going to be able to do it in a foreign language.

    Guess what. I was funny in French too. Of course it wasn’t very high-brow humour at first. But I found a way to be my extroverted self even though I didn’t speak the language well. (Note: falling down is funny in any language… so are fart jokes)

    So Thing One: don’t worry about not sounding perfect when you start. You can still communicate and make friends without a 10,000-word vocabulary and all the verb tenses.

    There’s another thing we adults do that defeats our language learning. We intellectualize things. We are educated people. You learn languages in a classroom. So when we struggle, we run for the textbooks.

    I remember when I was studying in Japan, I noticed that my classmates and I were doing this very stupid thing. Whenever we’d have a difficult day in Japanese language class, we’d say, “I have to go home and study.” Then we’d rush to our homes and lock ourselves in our rooms and pore over our notebooks and textbooks and dictionaries.

    You know why that was stupid? Because we should have hung out with our Japanese classmates and just talked!

    Do you know where I learned most of my Japanese? Sitting at the kitchen table as my お母さん (home-stay Mom) made dinner. From about 3:30 until 7pm every day — from my return from school until the rest of the family showed up for dinner — we sat at the kitchen table and struggled to communicate. In the first months, this consisted of me opening the English-Japanese dictionary and pointing to words I couldn’t read, much less pronounce. But as time went on, I learned more and more words. I didn’t spend any time memorizing or revising. I learned new words and used those words to talk to お母さん so they stayed in my head.

    Yes, I ended up knowing an astonishing number of food words. But guess what: you use a lot of food words when talking to people. We all eat! We all talk about food. To this day my knowledge of Italian consists of swear words and words about food. Matter of fact, I can talk about food so well in Italian that you would be surprised to hear that I don’t really speak the language. I just know how to talk about food.

    Back to my time in Japan: I didn’t realise what was going on during this process. I just thought I was wasting time, avoiding homework, and talking to this nice lady who let me live in her house. But what was happening was I was learning to speak. I wasn’t learning how to take tests and I wasn’t learning how to succeed in school. But I was learning real Japanese.

    One day after I’d lived there about four months, I went shopping with my friend. He was a third year and could write something like 1500 kanji. I think I could write ten or twenty. But when we got lost, he made me ask for directions. I did and I got the directions and we got unlost. When I asked him why he didn’t ask, he told me it was because my Japanese was better than his. Not only did I know what to ask, I understood the reply which included some quite complicated directions.

    This is not to say you shouldn’t study grammar and memorize vocabulary. But the real way you learn a language is by diving in the deep end and just swimming like you’re gonna drown. Maybe like you’re being chased by a shark. You know, pick your own motivator. As you do.

    As for feeling like a fool because you make mistakes at first: who cares? I mean, we’ve all met people who didn’t speak English very well. Did you honestly care about their subject-verb agreement when they were speaking to you? Did you think less of them because they didn’t form the nominative plural in the proper way? Did you make fun of their accent or pronunciation?

    Of course you didn’t. You just talked to them.

    So talk to them. It works!


    Pretty soon, we'll be able to converse in Dutch!


    Pretty soon. Now that I have both my cars and my art and I'm getting well, I'm really going to dedicate myself to it!