Catherine Gracey

Living Life, One Misadventure At A Time.

Parlez-vous anglais?

on January 14, 2014

Several years ago I asked how I wanted to define myself as a person. One of the labels I wanted to be able to use was ‘bilingual’. With no particular language preference in mind, I bought a few CDs on learning French and spent a few weeks listening to them. Some of it even stuck.

A few weeks into my French experiment, my aunt asked if I would join her on a three week tour of Germany. I had taken German classes in high school, and some of that had stuck as well. I abandoned French and focused on brushing off my rusty German skills. Two weeks before we left I met my German partner at a party. French became history, and I have spent the last two and a half years learning German as a result. Combined with the two and a half years I spent learning the language at school, the maths astonishes me.

Over the last year I have begun to review my desired personal definition. No matter how confident I feel about my skills in German, I can honestly call myself bilingual now. My conversations might not be scintillating in that language, but the range of topics I can touch on is impressive. I can make myself understood in most situations, and I can easily survive by myself for weeks at a time in the language.

During the Christmas break, I decided that I was no longer content with the goal of being bilingual. Polyglots have captured my attention, and I want to see if I can join those ranks. It feels like an exciting label to apply to myself. There are dozens of practical reasons to learn, but most importantly it just sounds cool. This is perhaps one of the worst motivations in the history of bad motivations, but it is enough for now.

Without a particular language to focus on, I decided to return to French. We have French friends that I could practice with, several French language resources that I can study from, and a list of potential countries we might live in that have French as either a primary or secondary language. Not having to read so many subtitles is also attractive.

I began studying with enthusiasm. My goal was to complete one skill and one word review session in French on Duolingo every day, and to then spend the rest of my study time practicing German. I decided this would be my new year resolution, so on January 1 I began.

After failing at the second lesson repeatedly, despite the French I already knew, I decided to scale back my Duolingo goal. One lesson per day instead of one skill per day seemed far more achievable. I want to progress with French, but not at the expense of my German studies. Frustration began to set in as I failed at lessons consistently, and after 10 days I missed my first daily practice entirely. Today marks 14 days, and I have only succeeded at 8 lessons in total.

The last two weeks have taught me a few things. First, and most importantly, I know far more German than I had ever suspected. I have gone from hoping I would be able to pass the A1 examination to being confident I could tackle the B1 examination with only a few hours of practice to fill in the gaps between my vocabulary set and what is on the test. Secondly, the introduction I have to a language is just as important, because it shapes my perception of the difficulty level. I know that I am capable of learning a new language thanks to my practice with German, so this is clearly a method problem rather than an inherent inability to learn.

Duolingo is not working for me with French because it is too much, too soon, and too irrelevant for my early needs. As an English speaker I have a vast French vocabulary, and as an owner of a bilingual dictionary the rest of the word set is literally within my reach since the book is on the coffee table beside me. Unfortunately, books and robots do not teach me how to hear the language, to follow the sounds and the flow of a voice, to shape my own mouth to speak it myself. I do not have an understanding of how to build sentences or to deconstruct them. The bits of language are still fragmented and useless to me.

I have decided to quit Duolingo in French until I am skilled enough to need daily practice with what I already know, and to gradually add new vocabulary to the mix. I will return to the Rapid French CDs from earworms that I began with and finish learning that content before I move on to the next language course, which will probably be Michel Thomas.

Regardless of how my adventures in French go, I am much happier now to continue adventuring in German. A little bit of genuine perspective can do wonders for a woman’s confidence.


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