If I Could Start Again (Languages)

Languages - 01 Feb 2024 - Andrew

My experience being a language nerd has been a struggle, mostly due to a lack of knowing how to approach language learning, which I’ve written about before. But I thought it would be interesting to highlight some of the mistakes I made in the past, and what I would do differently starting again from zero.

Unfortunately, I didn’t discover my fascination with foreign languages until I was already 15 years old, where I was finally forced to take my first Spanish class. Before that point, when someone asked me “What’s your favorite subject in school?” I really didn’t have an answer. It’s even more painful to remember the fact that in middle school (Starting at age 12), there was a lone teacher who taught both Spanish AND French! These classes were optional of course, and I obviously chose other subjects. But if I had only discovered my interest in these languages earlier, I’m sure I could have convinced this teacher to allow me to enroll in both subjects at the same time. That would have been two introductory years of both languages. The high school I went to offered both Spanish and French as well, so I would have been able to really take advantage of this period in my life.

On the other side of the token, I’m not a huge believer that language instruction in a classroom is a very effective approach. So, had I been lucky enough to take the two years of Spanish and French in middle school, the optimal approach would probably be to avoid any language classes from that point onwards, and immerse in these languages during the years that followed. In high school, I became fascinated with Japanese. But if I had been fully focused on Spanish (the language I was actually learning in class), I could have switched the language settings of all my video games to Spanish. I played so many video games in high school, and most of the games I played were story-oriented. This means that I missed out on a huge opportunity. I realize now that so many of these games are perfect language learning resources, because they contain huge amounts of simple dialogue. If I had taken advantage of this back then, I’m sure that I could have reached a very impressive level in Spanish much faster than I did just relying on classes.

Once I started college, I continued with Spanish there, and also finally had the opportunity to take some Japanese classes. Of course, at this point my Spanish was really not that great due to a lack of immersion, and when the Spanish teacher told us that the use of English would be discouraged in the classroom, I knew that I was in for a difficult experience. Nothing is worse than being forced to speak a language you struggle in in front of an audience, even if it’s an audience of other students. What I realize now is, academia treats foreign languages as an academic subject, while I see it as a hobby and a skill. I didn’t realize that by continuing to rely on classes, I was sending myself down a path towards studying literature and writing essays, when really my goal was to be able to use the languages I had studied in my day-to-day life.

Higher education in the US in general is lackluster, in my opinion, but that’s another topic. It’s difficult, though, to speculate on this without bringing up the prospects of my career, which of course was a huge concern for me at the time. I had been told all my life that a diploma from a university was essential for obtaining a decent career. But knowing what I know now, I could have skipped higher education entirely. Well, if I could have convinced my parents. Assuming I did, then at this point I could have self-studied for my career, while continuing to immerse in my languages of interest during my downtime. By this point, if I had done everything mentioned before, immersing in Spanish (and potentially French) at this point would probably not take much effort, and I could just enjoy a TV series or a video game without even having to think much about it.

It may be obvious that I have a tendency to dwell on the past. But at the same time, I realize that the experiences I’ve had are the reason that I have the insight now that helps me achieve my goals. In the long run, it’s possible that the lessons I’ve learned from the mistakes I made in the past will pay for themselves and more in the future. And it’s because of that that I’m grateful for my struggles.