Eloise: Finding my Feet

Eloise is from England, and is studying her final year of a bachelor’s degree in French and History. She has just completed a year’s internship with a church in France.

As I sit down to write this, it’s actually a year since I got on a plane and went to live in the South of France for ten months. Probably the biggest thing I’ve ever done in my life.

I’d known it was coming and had been mentally preparing for a while – I’m a languages student and so knew from the start of my degree that I’d have to spend third year abroad – but felt completely unprepared when the plane took off and it hit me that I didn’t have a return flight booked in a fortnight (or at all, actually, as I didn’t know what dates I’d be coming home for Christmas).

Obviously, I was there to improve my French, a language I’d supposedly been learning since the age of eleven. And yet, for my first month or so, I felt like a complete fraud; here I was, claiming to be a university student studying French and yet it felt like I could barely string a sentence together. It didn’t help that the region I was in, Languedoc-Roussillon, had a regional accent, and so even the basics of communicating in French were made even harder!

Culture Shock

I was interning in a church, which threw me straight into the deep end of having to interact with French people from many different walks of life on a daily basis, as well as living with a host family from the church. For the first few months, this meant that it felt like my brain was constantly switched on, and I had to work twice as hard as everyone else all the time. Even social situations that were laid-back and relaxing for everyone else were exhausting and stressful for me. One of my overwhelming memories from my first few weeks abroad is how tired I was, all the time!

Having grown up going to France for summer holidays, I thought I’d be able to cope with the culture shock – how different could it be really? Turns out, culture shock was a massive issue for me, and I never really got over it, though I did get used to it. I learned to laugh things off as a ‘cultural thing’. I felt like I didn’t fit in – from the sense of humour, to the food, to the fact that I’m stereo-typically English and drink a lot of tea, and the French don’t.

It took me ages to feel like I’d made friends, in part because I was so shy and scared no-one would like me. Now I’m back in England I regret not being more outgoing to begin with; when I did make friends, we did some really fun things together and I wish we’d had time to do more and develop our friendship further. At the end of the year, whilst part of me couldn’t wait to go back to England and embrace home comforts and not having to speak French for a while, there was a part of me that wished I was staying longer, as I felt like I’d finally found my feet and could actually ‘do’ this whole living abroad thing.

Living the Language

I think a misconception of a year abroad is that you’ll learn the language with no effort; you’re living there, how could you not? Whilst this was true to some extent, I actually found that I really had to make myself go out and find opportunities to practice my language skills, from trying to make friends instead of staying in and watching Netflix, to going to museums and taking the French leaflets instead of the English ones.

My language acquisition seemed to come in stages; I didn’t notice any difference for ages, and then when I went back to France after spending Christmas in England, I suddenly noticed a huge improvement. I also felt like I started to rapidly improve again in the last few months of my stay, and if you’d shown me at the beginning of my year abroad how confident and comfortable I’d be using French day-to-day, I wouldn’t have believed you.

A year abroad,  in my experience, is definitely not the idealised study break everyone assumes, in which language students spend their year posing for Instagram and getting a tan, all in the name of ‘immersing ourselves in the  culture’ (although I did do both of those things). It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, and there were so many moments when I wanted to run away to the airport and get on the first flight home. But it was also one of the most worthwhile and rewarding things I’ve ever done. Living in a new culture and pushing myself out of my comfort zone meant I learned so much about myself and grew in confidence.

Don’t be afraid to be different

To anyone about to head off to live abroad, or thinking about it, can I give you a piece of advice? Embrace the new culture, but also don’t be afraid of being a little different- one of my fondest memories is hosting an English meal for a group from church and introducing them to English food, from fish and chips, to Lancashire hotpot, to a Devon cream tea, merging where I grew up with where I go to uni. Introducing them to a part of my culture strangely helped me feel more at home in theirs. Although I never managed to convert any of them to tea drinkers!

I started my year abroad crying on the airplane, convinced I would completely fail and never be able to speak French. Ten months, a lot of tears, some incredible highs (eating ice cream on a beach, surrounded by mountains, staring at the bluest sea I’ve ever seen and realising I  actually got degree credit just for being there, wine tasting in Paris living the year abroad dream for 48 glorious hours, the moments when I realised I’d been speaking fluent French without trying…) and some awful lows later, and I ended my year abroad crying on the airplane, because I’d somehow found my place in this strange little corner of France, just as I was leaving it all behind.

If you would like to hear more about Eloise’s adventures in France, you can read her blog ‘Eloise in Roussillon’ here.

Starting Fresh: Learning Languages From Afar

Most of us pick up our first language(s) as kids: we soak up our surroundings, and then stumble through making ourselves understood until we are as fluent as the grown-ups we learned from. It’s the most natural, almost painless way to learn, reliant on both instincts and necessity.

So what happens if you want to learn a language, but don’t live in a country or community where it’s widely spoken? Where do you even start?

Language learning apps like Duolingo are becoming more and more popular, and although I think it’s great that people are getting motivated and excited about new languages…how helpful are these apps for people to attain fluency? Is a 50-day Duolingo streak going to give you enough vocabulary, listening experience, and confidence in building your own sentences to get you through a real-life interaction in your target language? I have my doubts.

But if these online tools aren’t the answer, what is? How can people study languages from afar without breaking the bank? I have a few ideas.

Starting out

  1. Find a good tutor. A good tutor will be just warm enough to make you feel comfortable making mistakes and help you stumble through your sentences, and just scary enough to motivate you to keep studying! This person might be a professional teacher, or a particularly gifted and patient friend. Either way, make sure you choose someone that you think will be able to push you, and support you to work through material at a good pace for you.
  2. Language Apps. Despite everything I said before…I have used platforms like Duolingo, Busuu, Drops, FluentU, and LingoDeer, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with using them, as long as you are also supplementing them with other, more varied methods of language acquisition. These apps are colourful and reward achievements, which can be a really helpful motivation! They’ll get you started with basic vocabulary, greetings, and basic sentence building.
  3. YouTube lessons. Every major language will have keen online teachers offering free lessons on YouTube. It may not be a complete course, but it can’t hurt! They might teach slightly different vocabulary or use methods that suit your learning style better. Either way, it’s a good way to learn or revise content in a different context.
  4. Memorise vocabulary. Your brain isn’t used to this new language yet, so it might take some work to make your first foundation of vocabulary stick! Drill it into your brain with flashcards, by writing out lines, or by leaving little reminders to yourself around the house. Find a way that works for you. This is probably the dullest part of language learning, but the effort and drudgery will be worth it!
  5. Watch children’s TV. Find something on YouTube or Netflix in your target language, and see how much you can follow! Kids’ shows tend to be very visual and clearly-spoken, so they’re perfect for beginners to practice with. It’s a good idea to start listening to different people speaking as early as possible, so you can get a sense of how words should be pronounced, and how they might sound in different peoples’ voices and accents.
  6. Find a native speaker to practice on. No one is expecting a beginner to be able to rattle off monologues at this stage, but why not try your newly acquired sentences on a native speaker? Ask them their favourite food, where they’re from, and what they’re hobbies are. They’ll probably help you with your pronunciation and confidence, but if not, getting laughed at will be good for your humility!

Progressing

So you’ve completed your language app? You have a good basic understanding, and could throw together some simple sentences? Great! It might be time to amp up your study schedule. Here are my tips for pushing your language ability from beginner towards fluency.

  1. Read a book. Start out with children’s books, and work your way up! I usually start by having a quick read over, getting the gist of the story and simply underlining the parts I don’t understand. Only after finishing the story or chapter would I whip out the dictionary – it’s good practice to see if you can glean meaning from context. After all, that’s what you’d have to do if someone was speaking to you in your target language! This is such a good way to introduce yourself to new grammar patterns and vocabulary, and it’s an amazing feeling to finish your first foreign-language book!
  2. Find a TV show or drama you enjoy. Even a dubbed animated show would work. Start out with English subtitles, but as you gain confidence, try it with subtitles in the target language instead. This is such a good way to expose yourself to lots of accents, slang, and niche vocabulary – great for your listening skills! This is also about the only time when Netflix counts as studying.
  3. Find a language partner. Maybe you already have a friend you can skill-swap with, or you could use a site like Language Exchange to find someone online. The idea is to start holding conversations in your target language – work on building sentences spontaneously, and on understanding a native speaker who doesn’t stick to the vocabulary lists you might have learned! This can be such a scary thing to do, but conversing with real people is the number one best way to give your language learning a boost.
  4. Listen to your target language. Like, all the time. Can you stream a radio station, or listen to music in the language you’re learning? Do it! The more you can swamp your brain with it, the easier it will be for you to understand and reproduce natural speech patterns.
  5. Learn vocabulary and grammar in context. Languages are not secret codes, replicating your own language just with different sounds. Different languages structure sentences differently, use words differently, and conjugate verbs differently. At this stage, it’s so important for you to not only learn words or grammar patterns, but for you to see them used correctly in different contexts. For example, when I was learning the subjunctive in French, I found Celine Dion’s song ‘Pour que tu M’aimes Encore’. It’s absolutely full of verbs in the subjunctive, and because they were in a catchy form, I could always remember and use them as a structure for my own verbs.
  6. Visit the country. These tips are all helpful and will definitely help you progress with your language learning. That said…if it’s at all possible for you to get out to the country where they speak your target language – even if it’s just for a week – do it. There’s nothing quite like being immersed in the cultural and linguistic environment for a while – being surrounded by spoken and written language, as well as opportunities for practising with locals! It may be overwhelming, but it will be worth your while.

Good luck with your language learning adventures – stay strong and power through! It’s a long, frustrating process to pick up a new language, but it’s worth all of your pain and effort.

Love, Dani

  • What tips would add to this list for people who want to learn a new language?
  • What things have helped you the most in picking up languages?

Eleanor: Fluently

 “But inside us there is a word we cannot pronounce and that is who we are.”

Anthony Marra , A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

My name is Eleanor Chin.  I was raised in the United States, in the Bay Area in California.  Best known for its veritable traffic jams, increasingly bizarre tech unicorns, the astronomical cost of living, and extremely liberal political bent, it is also home to a significant Asian-American population. 

My father is Chinese-American, my mother is Caucasian.  Adopted from China at six months, I grew up speaking only English, and mostly spending time with other purely Caucasian families. 

From a young age, I had a natural inclination toward foreign languages and mythology traditions from other lands.  I was very good at Spanish, I taught myself French, and I played around with a few other languages.  I was a hopeless dunce at mathematics and sciences, however – a trend that would continue into my later schooling. 

At age eleven, I began attending a Chinese school with many Taiwanese immigrant families.  I was wildly in love from day one – the tones, the script, and of course, the miniature toys the teachers would bring us as homework motivators.  For the first time, I began to be conscious of my Chinese heritage, noticing that my family’s values, priorities, and habits were significantly different from other kids in school.  I used to hang out with a bunch of white girls, but I started seeking the company of other Asian-Americans.

I took my first trip out of the United States at age fourteen, to Vietnam.  It was a significant experience, and I came home with a renewed love for Asia and its languages.  I got more serious about Chinese, finding a private language tutor, reading more books about Chinese history, and actively pursuing friendships with people from China and Taiwan.  I also began to read memoirs about Chinese-American experiences.  Outstanding: Growing Up Asian, by Cynthia Meng, and Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua brought into striking relief a sneaking suspicion that I wasn’t an “authentic” Asian American. 

As I observed my family and community, I found myself to be at odds with myself in multiple directions, enhancing this belief.  First it was the academics.  There is typically a lot of pressure in an Asian-American homes to bring home excellent marks in school, particularly in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) related subjects.  I never experienced this kind of pressure, and as I was a complete dunce in maths and sciences anyway, I was extremely grateful.  But still, I felt that I was cheating somehow, that I should experience that kind of pain to legitimize my experience as “truly” Asian-American.

Then there was the violin.  I started playing of my own accord.  My parents never made me practice, and I never partook in any violin competitions, let alone win any of them.  This bothered me a lot.  A common theme in the “real” Asian-American world is the prevalence of developing inner discipline through a musical instrument.  I played the violin, like a “regular” Chinese kid, but I wasn’t very good, because I didn’t practice enough—to me, it was worse than if I didn’t play at all.  I was really ashamed of myself, as if my credibility in being Chinese-American hinged on how many violin competitions I won. 

Finally, there was Chinese.  I was very, very good at learning Chinese.  I had more fun in Chinese school learning words than I had in youth group throwing water balloons.  It might have been the drug of being so spectacularly good at something so effortlessly, but I was totally, completely in love.  I think I poured so much into learning Chinese because I desperately wanted to have a meaningful relationship with my Chinese self.  A relationship that wasn’t at odds with the cultural norms, and that would also be understandable to my non-Asian friends. 

 I went off and lived in Taiwan and China, one year in each place.  In both places, I found that I was more culturally American than I thought.  Despite my significant language abilities, and sometimes in light of them, I found myself once again estranged.  Now, I was not only a bad Asian-American, but also a bad Asian. 

Why did I ever learn Chinese? I asked myself.  The last ten years have been an extreme waste of time.

Jhumpa Laheri, author of In Altre Parole, once wrote of missing the Italian language, “that emotional distance is always more pronounced, more piercing, when, in spite of proximity, there remains an abyss.”

My Chinese had already hit a glass ceiling years ago, so I subsequently tried to define myself more fully as a linguist by pursuing Japanese and Korean, which are close cousins.  Fluency evades me though; my emotional connection to these languages is just not as deep.  Or maybe it’s because I’m still burned out from a decade-long linguistic journey that brought me right back to where I started. 

Language shapes existence, and so despite being thankless, onerous, and insanely demanding, I remain in awe of and inspired by foreign tongues.  The word I cannot pronounce may not be in Chinese, or for that matter, in any language I know.

I trust that someday though, I’ll speak it fluently.