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Learning A Foreign Language: Facts and Myths

Learning A Foreign Language: Facts and Myths

When I was 11, I carried around a black three-ring binder in my backpack - to school, to my parent’s work, to the grocery store… wherever I went, the binder was sure to follow. Looking back, I realize now this obsessive behavior set the tone for my current neurotic insistence that my Kindle always be in my purse... Awkward silences, moments stuck in waiting rooms, long lines, and awful parties are all solvable issues when you have a Kindle by your side.

But I digress - my little black folder.

Try to imagine what most 11 year olds would keep in a binder - coloring pages? a journal? the latest game of MASH (90’s kids HUZZAH!)… All of these are valid guesses. 

Mine was filled with Egyptian hieroglyphics.

Yeah. Those.

*awkward shrug*

Heiroglyphs, hieratic, and coptic scripts, to be exact. With a few colloquial phrases in Egyptian Arabic stuffed in the back, scribbled hastily with a very rudimentary form of phonetics out beside each phrase. 

So while my mum and grandmother were scouring nurseries for orchids and boxwoods, I was sitting on a bench using a piece of scratch paper to practice the cartouche of Akhenaten. He was one of my favorites, the pharaoh of the 18th Dynasty (New Kingdom) who notably altered Egypt’s religion to monotheism, worshipping only one god - Aten, the sun god. This religious trend obviously did not last. Hatshepsut - the second confirmed female pharaoh, also 18th Dynasty - was next in my queue. 

Now before you roll your eyes and chalk all of this up to a major case of nerdiness (which is partially true), my odd obsession with a dead script seen only in museums DID HAVE an ulterior motive. You see, I had gotten it into my head that I wanted to become an archeologist of Egyptian antiquities, and to do so (according to my 11-year old research capabilities), I would have to be proficient in the three Ancient Egyptian scripts (hieroglyphs, hieratic, and coptic), as well as the modern language of the area (Egyptian Arabic). 

It made perfect sense: if I wanted to be accepted to the University of Chicago’s program for Near Middle Eastern languages, I had to get a leg up on the competition and start learning NOW. 

Naturally, I did not become an Egyptian archeologist. BUT, this goal-oriented focus - albeit, a little manic - was what made me fall in love with the art of learning languages. 

Learning a language brings a multitude of benefits to the learner - both mental and cultural. But I’ve found in my language journey that there are also an ocean of factors that inhibit many of us from crossing that chasm and make the jump from interest to application:


FACT: Learning a language can improve cognitive function

Alison Mackey, professor of linguistics at Georgetown University and Lancaster University, wrote an article for The Guardian, discussing how learning a foreign language can increase the size of your brain:

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Testing has also shown that the majority of subjects who are bilingual score better on aptitude exams, testing concentration, listening skills, ability to multitask, and processing speed. In other words, you’re giving your brain a workout when you learn a foreign language! Build those cerebral muscles!!


MYTH: If you do not learn a second language by a certain age, it will be much more difficult for you as an adult.

I admit that I bought into this one when I was taking German in college. I believed that my lack of skill was due to the lack of language diversity in my childhood… rather then the fact that I didn’t work at it and relied solely on my ear to mimic my teacher in order to get a decent grade...

Whoops.

There are many studies that show children are supposedly mini-language sponges. I’m not here to argue their validity, but rather champion those on the other side of this spectrum.  While it’s true that children process and store language differently then we do as adults, that in no way means that our internal time clock has ticked its last. What it shows us is that they approach the function of learning differently then we do. Children who are raised in bilingual homes are LIVING the language, their exposure wrapped in an organic, tangible mix of play and food and family, with perhaps some classroom work thrown in - how many adults achieve this purely from workbook exercises? It’s a mindset, not a mind-deficiency that stands in our way. 


FACT: Full immersion does not always guarantee fluency in a language

You’re welcome, fellow workaholics/cheap-travelers! :-)

While immersion IS an excellent tool to becoming language-proficient very quickly, it doesn’t always work out for some people. Why? We are all different kinds of learners. Think back to your experience in school - what helped you study best? Writing down your study notes over and over again? Quizzing you friends in a coffee shop? Listening to your lectures on a recorder? These are all different ways (kinesthetic, auditory, visual, reading/writing) to achieve the same goal. Immersion is especially helpful to auditory learners - people who pick up information quickly by processing what they hear. 

*waves* Hi, my name is Kristin, and I’m an auditory learner! 

I found this out hands-on by traveling to Europe a few summers ago. 7 countries - 5 languages - in 3 weeks. Naturally, I did my homework and had a list of phrases I had practiced over and over before arriving. But when we got to Lativa (the 1st country on our itinerary), I didn’t expect my brain to flip this very large, very apparent switch.

It felt like I was siphoning information at mach speed in a way I had never experienced. Wherever we went, whoever we talked with, I was picking up words and accents and cadences in speech that I hadn’t bothered noticing in my own language. It was like taking a drug. By the end of the week, I was trying out these newly-found skills with our Latvian friends. By the end of our trip, I was hooked. 

On the other side of this learning curve, I noticed that others did not pick up the language so quickly. And it had nothing to do with skill or intelligence or interest, but rather how they processed information. And there was the epiphany - immersion may not be the answer for some. 


MYTH: Language software/classes are too expensive - I’m looking at you, Rosetta Stone...

Okay, that last bit IS true - Rosetta Stone is wicked expensive, even with the student discount. Trust me, I know. True story: freshly married, newly-minted graduate Kristin decided that in order to further her opera career, she should become more proficient in French. After all, French is spoken in over 29 countries and the 2nd most spoken language in the European union. At the very least, it was a practical financial investment. 

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5 Levels and $250.00 later, my mother called. She found a language app she wants me to look at. I didn’t hold my breathe - language apps were notoriously horrible, and the ones that were barely passable cost an exorbitant amount of money. But I search on the App store and download it regardless, willing to try.

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Thus marked my first day on Duolingo, AKA the best language app EVER!!

My mum’s hype was not unjustified - this was an incredible app, designed with a similar curriculum map as Rosetta Stone - wait…. Hold on a minute…. I grab my laptop and open up Rosetta Stone, holding my phone next to the screen, and begin to work through the first lesson on both programs… SWEET BABY JESUS. They’re the same!!  

Well... almost the same. Rosetta Stone adheres to a near fully immersive experience, giving little to no written explanation of verb conjugations or grammatical rules, preferring to use pictures and repetition to get the job done. Duolingo, on the other hand, gives you the option to read further into the schematics of the language, with charts and tables and native speakers ready to connect with, articles from websites and newspapers ready to translate, etc. 

But the curriculum is the same. 

And Duolingo is free. 

Over 24 languages are currently available for English speakers, with many more in beta and hatchling status - including High Valyrian and Klingon. Seriously. Go check them out:

Today, my love of languages has been integrated into my music career, both as a performer and a professor. I teach Italian, German, and French diction for singers, using the International Phonetic Alphabet so that students can properly pronounce text in art songs and arias they need to move on to the next level in their music careers. 

I’m constantly discovering how exposure to language through text and music literature has affected my long-term retention - the other day I began translating a French piece that I’d never seen before. The words (common for dramatic operas - love, death, consumption, etc.), were not ones common in Duolingo or Rosetta Stone. It was my experience in opera and deeply-rooted processes for learning that bolstered confidence, giving me the ability to tackle a language that is not my own.

My motivations are much more visceral, more purpose-driven when combined with the intent of passing on knowledge and making connections with others. Which is something my 11 year old self - for all her passion and enthusiasm - could not claim.


Find your motivation. Try something new. Make mistakes - but make them boldly! And make them for the right reasons. 

- Aimons, rions, et chantons sans cesse, mon amis -

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