Monday, February 27, 2012

Why and How I Started Learning (Foreign) Languages

This blog post is a response to Brad Patterson's Blog Challenge - How and Why You Learned a Foreign Language. I've enjoyed reading the posts that have come out on the topic so far, so I thought I would join!

As a child, I was fascinated by secret codes. I used to create messages in code for my sister to decipher, and any time I could get my little hands on a kids' book about spies and codes, I would read it at least 100 times, front to back.

Language as a secret code??
I grew up in various ethnically-diverse areas of San Diego, California, and many of my friends spoke languages other than English at home with their parents. Additionally, my parents, who both learned Spanish as a foreign language, would also speak to each other in Spanish if there was something they didn't want my sister and me to understand. I came to see these foreign languages as secret codes for English, and thus, my fascination began.

I began formally learning Spanish in high school, but--surprisingly--I ABSOLUTELY HATED it. In fact, I hated it so much, that I decided that I would take American Sign Language courses at the community college to get around my high school foreign language requirement. Spanish just seemed so...pointless. I couldn't understand why I needed to put so much effort into something that was so unnecessary. I mean, everyone speaks English, right?

The next summer, I went to Panama for three weeks to teach English, and an amazing thing happened: I saw (and heard) people speaking Spanish – there were actually communicating in it and it was the only language they knew! They weren't just using it for convenience. It was also then that I realized that a foreign language is not just a code for your native language. No, to speak a foreign language, you have to change the way you think about things. All of a sudden, hunger becomes something you have instead of something you are, and something you like now is something that pleases you.

So that's the story behind the to start on the how. Since I had stopped taking Spanish courses at my high school, I was a year behind the students who had decided to continue. I studied really hard all summer, and my teacher let me join the advanced course, where I had to work really had all year again to catch up. I read everything I could find in Spanish, and I spent time talking to my friends' parents to practice. When I got to the University, I continued my courses, but I also began having Spanish Game Nights with friends and listening exclusively to Spanish music. I wrote emails in Spanish, changed all the settings on my computer, on Facebook, and on my cell phone, and I watched as many movies as I could either dubbed in Spanish or with Spanish subtitles. I surrounded myself with others who had a similar interest in Spanish, and together we practiced. It was a lifestyle. 

All the work paid off, and the experience of learning inspired in me the desire to study other languages and also to study the science of language in general. Now, I'm living in Germany and learning German, but I admit—I'm not nearly as inspired as I was about Spanish. However, the process of learning a language in the foreign language context (as I did, learning Spanish in the US) is completely different than learning a language in the second language context (I even wrote a post about it), and I am constantly trying new strategies to increase my learning prospects. 

I'd love to hear more whys and hows of language learning for you, too!!