I have a click-bait post all written and ready to go about how to learn a second language.
How-to posts are enticing, popular, usually great SEO… but they can also be remarkably superficial.
The post included all the usuals: get a teacher, immerse yourself with audio, magazines and books, leave your pride at the door when talking and when all else fails, plan a trip!
And though I’m disdainful now, these are legitimate ways to learn or improve a second language. The reason I abandoned the post is because it was too shallow, too removed, and in the end, not true to me. See, when I decided to study Spanish I did all of the above, and after two years of pretty regular practice, I put it “on pause” for a bit. That was nearly a year ago.
Because of work and a baby and life. Because I had forgotten how hard learning a new language was. Because I felt like my brain was older…I couldn’t retain the new vocabulary. Whatever the reason, it wasn’t the same as my Italian language learning journey.
It didn’t take long for me to realize that it couldn’t possibly be the same.
My Italian language journey came with the kind of curiosity and passion that only a 13-year-old dying for something beyond her own yellow bedroom. I was obsessed. My excitement for high school came almost entirely from the Italian class printed on my schedule. It was something I had chosen for myself. Something I did for no reason other than the action itself. My attraction for Italian was as inexplicable, as biological, as any romantic attraction.
I continued studying Italian in college. I studied for a semester abroad in Florence. I found an Italian boyfriend to practice with, got married and ultimately moved to Italy to continue my love affair both with the man and the language learning.
Read: How to Marry an Italian
Studying Italian was so natural to me because it wasn’t for a grade or a parent or a pastime. It just was.
In the meantime, I always held in the back of my mind the desire to know more, to learn other languages, to converse in multiple tongues like so many people in the world so naturally do.
Though I eschewed the most popular choice in high school, I always thought I’d someday learn Spanish. Then, one day, I decided it was time.
For awhile things were fine. The grammar came easily thanks to my knowledge of Italian and my comprehension was off the charts. I got some books, found a teacher and downloaded podcasts. I had some background and wasn’t new to the process. I figured learning Spanish would take half the time as Italian did.
What I didn’t take into consideration was the difference between the pursuit of an unnecessary task when you’re a student compared to when you’re a working adult. To my dismay I found that new words slipped out of my brain as soon as I was finished with them and finding study time felt impossible.
When I started studying Spanish it had been nearly a decade since my first days learning Italian. And though I logically remember all the sweat and work to learn the lingua, I had forgotten it emotionally. After a particularly rough lesson filled with stuttering speech and a total lack of vocabulary I had a sinking realization: it took me nearly a decade to learn Italian fluently, and that was with an Italian partner and an Italian home. Who was I to think that I’d ever learn Spanish now, at this age?
I have no plans to move to a Spanish-speaking country. And before you get all Instagram motivational on me, it’s not because I can’t, per se, but because I don’t want to. I won’t have a Spanish boyfriend patiently helping me to learn the language and I definitely don’t have hours and hours each week for study, immersion and exploration.
After nearly two years my almost weekly Spanish classes trickled to an end. I couldn’t keep up the pace, couldn’t find the time in common with my teacher. With little to no study outside of class, what good was it anyway?
At a certain point after I had started studying Italian I hit a plateau. I didn’t know what to do. I wasn’t improving. After nearly two years my almost weekly Spanish classes trickled to an end. It felt easier to just stop studying.
Then I realized, that’s it, isn’t it?
That’s what language learning is all about: to keep on keeping on
“In the land of the quick fix it may seem radical,” writes George Leonard, a pioneer of the human potential movement in the 1960s, “but to learn anything significant, to make any lasting change in yourself, you must be willing to spend most of your time on the plateau, to keep practicing even when it seems you are getting nowhere.”
So yes, to learn another language get that teacher, immerse yourself with audio, magazines and books, leave your pride at the door, plan a trip! But what the blog post should really say is this:
To learn another language, stick with it.
For now my plan is to take it step by step. To set aside native speaker fluency and set my sights a smidge above travel Spanish and a huge smudge under my original grandiose ideas and most of all, to embrace the plateau.
Read more about language learning:
Why I Study Languages
Why I Decided to Study Spanish
Most commonly asked question: What Language do Marco and I use at home?
Raising a Bilingual Baby in Italy
And making some pretty inappropriate mistakes in Adventures in Language Learning