Meeting Charlie Brown’s Teacher: Learning a Second Language in Adulthood

Happy New Year everyone!  A new round of Montréal’s chilly winter nights has me typing out this blog post about arguably the most relevant subject in my life these days: my (continued) learning of the French language.  In the last several weeks, friends, family members and colleagues alike have shown an incredible level of interest in my recently-completed adventure as a coach at the exceptionally French CEGEP de Trois-Rivières.  More specifically, their curiosity has gravitated toward the fact that I was living and working in French (a total first for me!), a common but often discouraging goal of people who move to Québec (or to other French-language-speaking parts of the world!).  I thought I’d try and put down in words a few quick tips, shoot down a couple of demoralizing myths, and try and lend a little inspiration to those who may share the same goal that I have – to one day attain native-level speaking competency as a second language adult learner.

Allow me to clarify something: this is not going to be a heavy-duty scientific analysis of the process of second language acquisition.  There is an overwhelming amount of literature dedicated to the subject and this piece has no intention of overwhelming anyone!  Let’s keep this light and fun, just as second language learning can and should be!

Let’s start off on a discouraging note…why do people NOT learn languages?  In my very humble and probably over-simplified opinion, there are only two real reasons.  Lack of motivation and fear.  That’s it!  Fear, that psychological entity that keeps the shy guy from asking the cutie out to dinner, the starting quarterback from delivering a strong second-level throw between two zone defenders, and the reason I will probably never jump out of a plane with a parachute strapped to my back is probably responsible for…I’m going to guess…at least 70% of the battle in learning language number two.  Nobody likes to be feel embarrassed or humiliated (especially in a public social setting), but at some point the downside of blushing has to be outweighed by the downside of not being able to order a much-needed meal from Jean-Gascon Chose-Là if one is ever to get over the linguistic hump.  Some of us end up being motivated by need; others become compelled by the respect and generosity of their second-language friends (as was my case).  Laziness (often blamed by those who don’t really make any serious attempt to learn) is just the enemy of motivation, and the former loses out to the latter when a person finally stumbles across a real reason to improve.  Sometimes he/she’s cute!

Alright, enough of the deep philosophy and on to the quick-hitting pointers!

Tip #1Gardez l’esprit ouvert!  Keep an open mind!  Learning a language is a journey, one with many highs and lows.  Patience and attention to detail are the main prerequisites for those eager to learn a language later in life.  Knowing and understanding the rules and basic structures of the language are the first steps.

Myth #1 – “Some people just aren’t good with languages.” The only reason I will contest this is because I don’t consider myself very “good with languages.”  While it is true that some will have greater difficulty learning a language than others, I firmly feel that your capacity to learn is directly related to how you view the challenge.

Tip #2 – In the natives we trust!  Exposure and assistance from native speakers of the language being pursued is the key social and pedagogical ingredient that is normally required in order to reach full fluency.

Motivator #1 – Most native speakers of your second language will honestly appreciate your efforts to learn, even if your early phrases sound more comical than intelligible!

Tip #3 – Listen!  This is a well-known fact: our minds acquire languages by recording and computing the languages different sounds (babies effectively have the mental equivalent of a blank tape upon which any language(s) in the world can be recorded!).  To listen carefully (even if you don’t fully understand) is to grow your expressive and comprehensive vocabularies.

Myth #2 – “My accent will be so bad!” This is certainly true at first!  However, words in a language are produced through complex muscular recruitment patterns.  Whether the “good” pronunciation of a word is dependent upon the use of the throat or diaphragm, the involvement of the tongue or the reshaping of the interior or exterior of the mouth, this physical and physiological process is affected by practice and repetition, just as an athlete’s development is.  Bottom line: good practice will eventually lead to a “good” accent.

Motivator #2 – Accents are charming!  And make us unique!  And are par for the course!  My own accent, for instance, is defined by my inability to consistently roll the letter “r” if it is contained within a syllable where it is preceded by multiple consonants (ex. re-struc-turation.)  It’s a reflection of my Anglo background, and is influenced by all of the Francophones I have met along the way to intermediate fluency.  I love my sound!

Tip #4 – Who cares??  Who cares if you make a mistake?  That’s just evidence that you are still perfecting something or are trying something new!  Who cares if you talk to yourself in the shower, or even on the street?  Half the public world is dancing, air drumming or talking to their friends through ear buds anyway.  Who cares if you don’t reach full fluency?  Some second language skills are better than none!  There is no faster way of building trust and mutual respect with someone than by speaking (even just a little bit) in their language of choice.

Myth #3 – “I don’t have the time to learn another language.”  C’est de la marde!!  If you have the time to inhale oxygen, then you have the time to practice, even if it’s just a quiet monologue.  Language learning is a cumulative process and every moment spent working on your skills adds up!

Motivator #3 – The journey will change your life and make you a better human being.  The friends I have made, the teams of people I have helped lead and the perspective I have gained are the greatest benefits I have accrued while becoming increasingly bilingual over the past three years.  The challenges faced and overcome have made me tougher.  The humbling nature of the process has made me more open-minded.  I could write an entire post on this topic, mais à la fin de la journée, it has all been worth it!

As one of my former instructors once told me – may the French be with you!



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