Dissecting the whole foreign language learning thing (and some tips)

by on February 19, 2016

A bilingual background

I must first of all say that I am truly blessed to have been born in Singapore, where local newspapers are published in our four official languages—English, Mandarin, Malay, and Tamil—and where learning a second language in school is mandatory. One’s assigned second language depends on one’s ethnicity. As an ethnic Chinese, I learned Mandarin. In Singapore, it is also possible to be formally taught a third language, for example, French or Spanish. I am not sure if being exposed to a bilingual environment helps with one’s cognitive abilities, but I have to say that learning English as my first language and Mandarin as my second language has certainly sown the seeds of passion for language acquisition. When I was in high school, a typical day involved being taught in English in all subjects other than Mandarin-Chinese class and, after school, speaking Mandarin to my family, except my paternal grandmother, with whom I spoke Teochew (a Southern Chinese language variety). While I cannot speak for all Singaporeans, this environment has certainly helped me make useful associations between languages. Here, I must give credit to my alma mater, Bukit Panjang Government High School, which had excellent English and Mandarin teachers, who nurtured me to achieve proficiency in both languages. Having studied in London for more than two years has also made me more adaptable to different varieties of English, as Singapore Standard English is occasionally different from Standard British English: for instance, we Singaporeans use ‘flip-flops’ and ‘slippers’ interchangeably whereas in the UK, ‘slippers’ are the thick footwear worn during winter. Pursuing an Economics with Economic History degree has made me wonder about the use of Mandarin in settings where economic jargon is required. For this reason, and also because of the fact that I want to maintain my Mandarin proficiency, I am attending Advanced Business Chinese classes at the Confucius Institute for Business London (CIBL) at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). I have never been formally trained in using the more technical terms in Mandarin and translation, and I really enjoy this more technical component of my Mandarin language learning.

Reason, goal, and determination

The idea of learning a foreign language first came to me in 2012, during my stint in military service. At that time, I knew that I was headed to LSE and thought that French might be useful in Western Europe. Hence, I started attending classes at the Alliance Française in Singapore. After a while, I just fell in love with this Romance language. I shall not mince words—it was tough, especially when most of my friends at the time did not speak it. Fortunately, things became better when I arrived in London in September 2013 and made several French-speaking friends, who were really encouraging and helpful. Some of them even invited me to their homes in Paris, Brest, and other beautiful French cities. Because of their kindness and my growing passion for the language, I told myself that I would work hard and sit for the highest level of French language proficiency test (le Diplôme approfondi de langue française [DALF] C2) by 2015. Having an end in mind was effective in generating some form of good pressure. Indeed, it was a constant, in fact daily, reminder that I needed to put in more effort so as to be one step closer to achieving the DALF C2 accreditation.

When I did homestays in the homes of my French friends, I had the luxury of speaking to their families in French, for hours. This has been one of the most helpful experiences, as I got used to local colloquialisms and commonly used phrases. It was also how I progressed from only speaking a smattering of memorised phrases to being fluent in the language. However, I must add that these homestays were timely (i.e. at the beginning of level B1); not too early, not too late. At that time, I had completed level A2 and was at the start of level B1. I would say that—and take my words with a pinch of salt—this is probably a good time to do homestays, because you know enough simple questions and key sentences to have a basic conversation, but not so many that you are only used to textbook phrases. In addition, I learned so much about French culture. I truly believe that learning a new language is really a passport to a whole new culture, and I stuck with learning French. As hyperpolyglot Tim Doner puts it: “language is the living testament to a culture’s history and world view, not a shiny trophy to be dusted off for someone’s self-aggrandisement.” It was indeed the rich intercultural communication that made me subconsciously want to just enjoy using the language, and achieving the DALF C2 last year was secondary as all the other intangible benefits are actually of even greater value. It is also important to bear in mind that an examination should not be the be-all and end-all, and language learners should always aim to take it a step further. I am happy to say that I have the opportunity to debate in French at the upcoming Mediterranean Model United Nations 2016 in Menton, France.

Starting on new languages, making associations, and practising

I do not know what came over me, but after having done French for about a year, I decided to start learning Japanese. I guess I saw it as a personal challenge. Grammatically, Japanese is different from English, Mandarin, and French. Initially, its use of particles in speech seemed new, but then I realised that Mandarin, or Chinese in general, also has particles to indicate relations of words within a sentence. It was just that I had not previously noticed this, having not learnt Mandarin in a linguistically technical way. For example, the sentence-final particle 吗 (ma) in Mandarin and か (ka) in Japanese both function as question markers, so putting them at the end of a sentence makes it a question. Making associations is always useful. I started to pay more attention to similarities between languages in terms of grammar, vocabulary, and sounds. I was astonished to find out that the French ‘u’ is pronounced the same way as the Mandarin ‘ü’ (as in 绿, lǜ). About a year after starting Japanese, I decided to take on yet another language—German. In my opinion, picking up more languages actually makes learning them easier. I must admit that I was slightly taken aback at first, as the fact that verbs go at the end of a clause took some getting used to.

However, as one grows accustomed to discovering ties between languages, one tends to pick up nuances amongst them more easily. As a beginner in Spanish, I have been trying to draw as many links as possible between it and French (and sometimes English). Spanish also has similar vowel sounds as Japanese, which is really helpful. Asian and European languages may function differently, but some sounds are in fact transferrable. Moreover, whilst learning German, I have enjoyed looking out for the origins of some English words. Compared to French, German sounds less nasal, and this has helped me because I always make a conscious effort to sound different in the two languages. German also has greater regional varieties (or dialects) than French and one cannot help but wonder about how key historical events must have had lasting impact on countries’ official languages. Apart from making associations, an obvious thing to do in order to improve would be talking to native speakers. I consider myself really fortunate because studying in central London, at one of the world’s most international universities, means that I get to meet people from across the globe. I have done a few homestays in Munich, Ulm, and Heidelberg, where I noticed how German dialects tend to sound completely different from Hochdeutsch, or Standard High German. Besides, I have enjoyed having conversations with my Japanese friends and, more recently, with my Spanish friends. Tandem sessions organised by the various universities in London and polyglot gatherings initiated by passionate individuals also occur from time to time, and such opportunities are cherished.

Sustaining your passion and enjoying it

Two main challenges in foreign language learning are having the courage to speak it from day one as well as sustaining one’s passion along the way. Apart from the economic value of learning a new language, possessing the intrinsic motivation and enjoying the language are also key to sticking it out. I have formed so many meaningful friendships in my foreign language-learning endeavours, and learnt so much about their cultures. I have also come across many intriguing moments, for instance at a polyglot gathering in Berlin, where a Slovenian was speaking to me in Taiwanese about his experiences living in Taiwan, to which I replied in Mandarin (as I was not yet fluent in Taiwanese). These are precious memories that I hold dear, and it is moments like this that keep me going in this endless pursuit and learning of even more foreign languages.

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