My own experience with language learning has been a long and painful journey. Some people have told me they thought I had a “natural aptitude” for learning foreign languages. If only they knew. All of my more recent success is a direct result of spending 10 years failing… miserably.

Latin

Excluding the small amounts of Spanish introduced in Sesame Street, my first contact with foreign language learning was in middle school. Since it was some kind of fancy school for “gifted” kids, it was a small school and only offered one foreign language… Latin. I spent about five hours a week in Latin class and two hours a week doing Latin homework for three years. The end result? I remember class was fun, but I don’t really know any Latin. The only thing I remember is that the 3rd declension is weird… or something like that. If someone were to jump me in a dark alley and threaten to beat the life out of me with a Latin-English dictionary unless I could spit out 50 Latin words, I could probably have come up with 20.

French

I went to a medium sized high school, where I had the options of studying French, Spanish, or Japanese. Oh, how I wish I’d chosen Spanish! Instead, I studied French for three years. Largely due to the fact that my grandmother always gave me the impression that French was a suave, intellectually elite, dignified language that any “truly cultured” person must know, I worked hard. I always did my homework. I memorized dozens of irregular verbs. I drilled myself on rules for pronouns and contractions. I always aced the verb tests (in which we had to conjugate various irregular verbs. In class, we usually practiced sentence patterns and did drills in which we had to ask classmates questions and answer. We also did a fair amount of reading homework, which meant reading one or two paragraphs which included 10-20 new vocabulary words in bold along with translations at the bottom. During the third year we slogged our way through Le Petit Prince, spending a day on each page. I probably spent half an hour a night struggling through the page we were supposed to read the next day. While I did write translations above words I didn’t know and temporarily, at least, figured out what each sentence meant, I still have no idea what the story was about.

If someone were to jumped me in a dark alley and demanded that I give them the futur antérieur conjugation of an irregular verb such as savoir, it would have been no problem. If that same someone were to have actually spoken French to me, I wouldn’t have had a clue what he was saying. Despite memorizing hundreds of words, dozens of forms of dozens of verbs, and quite a few grammar rules, my ability to actually understand or speak French was very limited.

In college, I took three more semesters of French. I started from the intensive beginning review class, and then took the 2120 (second semester of the second year) French class. In these classes, we still had extensive practice with sentence structures (many of which I already knew), but also started to read a bit more. I think we were reading about 5 pages per week from our reading textbooks. This reading was from a book designed for foreign students, and was MUCH easier than Le Petit Prince. I probably only spent about 10 minutes per page. I found myself enjoying class more than before and making modest progress in my conversational abilities as well. The third year French class, 3110, was too hard for me, though. I couldn’t make the jump from working through text books to acquiring vocabulary and fluency from authentic native sources. I tried, but I felt like I was drowning in a sea of only semi-comprehensible speech and text. I took an incomplete in the class. If I meet a French speaker now, I’ll say “Je parle le Francais comme une vache Espanol.” Then, the French speaker will usually laugh, figure I’m an okay guy, and use English with me from then on.

Japanese

Back when I was making good money contracting as a junior web admin, my ex-girlfriend found a great summer Japanese course at CU. It was three hours a day for ten weeks and awarded the same credit as a full year long course. She convinced me that since I was a contractor anyway, I could easily take 10 weeks off and learn a ton. That’s exactly what happened. She had previously studied Spanish very successfully, and had quite a few language learning techniques I’d never thought of. Of course we did the assigned homework, but we didn’t spend any extra time quizzing each other on grammar points or vocabulary. We used post-it notes to put a Japanese label on everything in her apartment we could think of. The fridge, her desk, the bookshelves, the walls, the stove, the hallway, the doors, the toilet, nothing escaped a post-it note naming the object in question in Japanese. Then, whenever we could, we’d make lame observations in Japanese.

“The chairs are brown.” “I think bread is good.” “I don’t want to be old.” “Your blanket is blue, but it’s ugly.” “That bus has a picture on it, doesn’t it?” “What time is it?” “Where’s my favorite pencil?”

We also rented as many Japanese movies with English sub-titles as we could. Ten weeks later, We finished the course; both of us received A’s and she had the highest grade in the class. I enjoyed it so much I decided to become a full time college student. Upon entering the 2nd year course which started in the fall, we found ourselves far better prepared than the students who had been attended Japanese classes an hour a day for an academic year. Unfortunately, due to personal reasons she decided to leave college for a while. However, I continued to use the learning methods I’d learned from her, as well additional ones suggested by our second year instructor, Saegusa Kyoko. She was probably the best language instructor I’ve ever had in my life. She was very interested in modern L2 acquisition methods. Yes, we did study grammar and memorize vocabulary. But the “meat” of her course was communicative activities. We had to scan articles that were much too difficult to read for important information. She encouraged us NOT to use dictionaries. We had class activities in which we say phrases, which we couldn’t yet express in Japanese, in English. Then she translated them into Japanese for us, we taped them and had to be able to understand them the next class. She introduced me to the theory of massive comprehensible input, encouraged extensive reading, and encouraged us to immerse ourselves as much as possible in Japanese input.

By the end of that the spring semester, I’d actually made some Japanese friends on campus and started doing productive language exchanges. One of those conversation partners became my roommate that summer and later one of my best friends. We had drinking parties, chatted with good friends into the dawn (sometimes in English, sometimes in Japanese), watched Kansaiben comedy shows, and basically had a blast. During my following and final year of college, I continued to make good Japanese friends and really grow to love Japanese culture. Perhaps most importantly of all, I started doing extensive reading. When I graduated, after only 2 years of study, my Japanese was better than that of most students who study it for 4 years: When I watched Japanese movies, I could understand nearly everything, and with occasional dictionary use, I could read articles on the Yomiuri news site. Even now, after barely using any Japanese for 3 years, my Japanese is still far better than my French was after 5 years of study.

If someone were to have jumped me in a dark alley to test my Japanese skills, I’d have interrupted him and made a joke about his way of jumping… in a Kyoto-ben accent.

Spanish

I did some community service in Guatemala for a couple of months after graduating. During that time, I employed a number of the same techniques I used learning Japanese. I was only there for a couple of months, but I did get to where I could travel around the country on weekends, open a bank account, etc… I would say I understood about %50 of what was on TV. The dark alleys in Guatemala were way to scary, I don’t even want to think about that.

Mandarin

I’ve been living in Taiwan for about 3 years now. I’ve been teaching English at least part time the whole time I’ve been here. I spent 10 months in language classes at a mediocre language school that employs audio-lingual drills and frequent vocabulary quizes, tīngxiě, and grammar-based tests. I have not been able to find the wealth of extensive reading materials for beginner or intermediate language learners that I previously found when studying Japanese or Spanish. Also, I’ve found that the bar is set very low for foreign speakers of Mandarin Chinese. Even a few weeks after I got here, when I could barely say anything in Chinese, people complimented my accent or just general “good Chinese”. Consequently, for Mandarin, it’s harder to get massive comprehensible input from the real world.

Many, many Taiwanese people try to speak English just about any time they’re talking to a white person. Many of those who don’t speak much English, will refuse to speak at all rather than simplify their speech for a foreigner. When I was in Guatemala, if I went into a store, the owner would definitely talk to me in Spanish. If I didn’t understand, he’d keep jabbering away in Spanish, but add hand gestures, or simplify his speech. That was nearly ideal for a language learner. In Taiwan, many store owners simply try to speak to me in English even if I speak to them in Mandarin first. If they do speak Chinese, and I don’t understand, they’re likely to give up all together. On one occasion, I went into a store in a night market to buy a fan. I asked the owner, “有沒有賣電風扇? (Do you sell fans?)”. Not only did he not understand, but he didn’t even bother to say, “聽不懂. (I don’t understand).” He just held up his hand, with his palm facing me, while shaking his head as if it would ward off the foreigner. So, I took three steps forward and repeated my question more slowly, more clearly and very loudly. At this point, he graced me with a “聽不懂”. I tried unsuccessfully one more time, and finally just grabbed a blank post-it note on the counter and WROTE, “有沒有賣電風扇?” Then, do you know what he did? He looked up in shock and said, “你會講國語嗎? (Can you speak Chinese)”. After this, he understood EVERYTHING I asked him, including the wattage requirements of the fan, and went on to ask me about all kinds of various things regarding America that he was curious about. When I left, I asked why he didn’t understand me until I wrote out my question for him. He answered, “喔,我以為你在講英語. (I thought you were speaking English.)”
In any case, whether it is due to the fact that I have been focused more on work than studying, or if it’s because of the comparative lack of learning resources, my progress with Mandarin has been much less impressive than my Japanese learning was. At this point, my speaking is so-so, and my writing is at about the 2nd or 3rd grade level. I think that the extensive reading and cartoon watching that helped my Japanese so much would help my Chinese, too. It’s just that I have to reach a high level of Chinese before I can find material that I can read easily without a dictionary. Likewise, the better my spoken Chinese becomes, the more enjoyable it will be for local friends to talk to me in Chinese. I’ll keep at it, reading the 國語日報 (a newspaper for kids), and doing additional study when I’m motivated. With a full-time job, though, it may be a long time before my Mandarin is as good as my Japanese was.