What languages other than English do you speak?

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Learning to Talk in one and more languages...

I was born in Peru and at the age of 5 entered an American School in Lima. By the time I came to the United States at 8, I had a foundation in English. I was "immersed" in a school that expected me to speak English, but that had such a large population of Spanish-speakers (mostly from Cuba) that it was "normal" to speak both languages - Spanish and English. This environment helped in my transition to a new country with a relatively new language.

What are some of your experiences learning a language-- your primary language or other languages?


  1. I was born in the USA and only spoke English at home. In 6th grade, I started studying Spanish and continued with the language until college. During my junior year of college I decided to travel to Florence, Italy to study Art History. There I was exposed to the Italian language, however as of now, I only speak English.

  2. My first conscious experience of language learning was at age 9 when my fifth grade class began studying Latin with a teacher who visited our school once a week. We played a sort of relay race around the room each week, asking one another ‘what is your name? my name is _____’ (Quid est nomen tuum? Nomen meum est Raquella.) I was very interested in Latin but, for good reason, never really considered that I was actually going to SPEAK it - I was merely going to learn some words. This was consistent with my family’s attitude towards language learning – my father - whose own father had spoken English, Yiddish, Polish, Russian, and Lithuanian - but who had, himself, only spoken English growing up, prided himself on knowing how to curse in at least four languages, partly the result of his service in Europe during World War II. But my father never acquired a second language (though he did study French intermittently throughout much of his adult life.) Family conversations were occasionally punctuated with words from other languages, well or badly pronounced. When I was 11 we spent three months in Paris while my father was on sabbatical from his teaching position. My mother, sister, and I spent part of each week studying at the Alliance Francaise which was TORTURE for me. Except for my sister, all the students were adult and nearly everything went over my head. I was completely lost when it came to grammar, spelling, punctuation (all of which were problems for me in English, as well.) What came very, very easily was pronunciation. Over the course of three months I failed to pass each segment of the coursework at the Alliance but I gradually became fluent enough in French to ask for and understand directions with far greater ease than my parents. I remember the exultant and startling feeling of understanding something that was said to me and knowing how to respond… without knowing how I knew. At various points in my life I studied German, Italian, and (very briefly) Spanish but have never been fluent in any language but English. I love the experience of learning the vocabulary and grammatical structure of another language (each language is full of its own surprising correspondences…things that rhyme or share a root.) I dread the frustrating, panic-inducing feeling of being unable to find words in a language other than English, when I stumble and stop, hobbled by doubt.

  3. Both your posts remind me of how fleeting a second language can be in the United States. You can study many, but only really need to practice one -- English. I worry that like Rachel's dad, my own kids will not speak Spanish even though I only speak to them in Spanish. I worry because with Spanish (my home language) I can convey a special emotion to my own children that I cannot in English. Why is it that in America, and all over the world, English seems to be the only language really necessary to get by and even to succeed financially?

  4. I started learning French when I was in ninth grade, and by AP french in grade 12, I was pretty fluent in reading and understanding the language. My speaking was a different matter entirely. I was grammatically correct, but my accent has always been atrocious. It really frustrated me as a high schooler, I was a pretty high academic acheiver, but it seemed that no matter how much I studied or practiced, my ear wouldn't allow me to speak the language in a way that sounded remotely french.
    I went to Paris in college with a friend that had a real gift for languages. She had been in my high school french classes, and although she didn't do as well on the written component, her speech was flawless. On our vacation together she spoke beautifully and fluidly, and many Parisians were surprised to find out that she was an american, so flawless was her accent. No one would talk to me in French. I would begin the conversation, and they would immediately switch to English, because they could speak my language better than I could speak there's.

  5. The first time we were given the opportunity to study a foreign language was in 7th grade. From 7th to 12th grade, I studied Italian. I'd say I picked up on the language pretty well, but never reached that level of fluency that I would've liked. I studied abroad in Rome during my Junior year of college, again with the hopes of coming closer to being fluent in the language. My classes were in English and I found that most of the students at my school spoke very little Italian, if any. Out of the friends that I had made there, I was the only one who knew the language well enough to get by (but not well enough to hold an entire conversation).

    I believe that if we were given the choice to begin learning a language at a younger age, I would've been able to reach that level of fluency I sought after for years. The school district in my town has since changed their language program, making Spanish a manditory subject starting in 3rd grade. I think it is a great privilege that children are now given the opportunity to learn a foreign language at such a young age! I wish I had the same chance when I was younger.

  6. I have found that my experience learning a language is directly related to how comfortable and supported I feel doing so. With foreign language (and any language learning experience), it is essential to feel that you are being encouraged in all that you're trying. It can be an incredibly intimidating experience to try to learn a new language or enrich/deepen your knowledge of a language because it is out in the open. For someone who does not feel confident in their own abilities, it can be an experience filled with fear and uncertainty. I feel lucky in that my first experience with being immersed in an environment and forced to learn a foreign language was with a very loving host family who laughed with me and coaxed me to try and do my best. That support helped me feel much more confident and work so much harder to achieve fluency. I feel that that support is the single most important factor in my success.