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Learning a language means failure, embarrassment and the enrichment of your life

Illustration for Catharine Hamm’s “On the Spot” column about learning languages running in print Jan
 
(Cat O’Neil / For the Times)

A reader recently wrote to ask about a language-immersion program. How in the world do you narrow the choices and figure out whether that program is right for you? Will the Spanish you learn in Mexico be comprehensible in Spain and vice versa? What if you make horrible mistakes and embarrass yourself?

Learning a second language puts you in good company these days, Francois Grosjean wrote in Psychology Today: In 1980, about 11% of the U.S. population was bilingual. Today it’s nearly double that.

“The position of prominence that English has in the U.S. is in no danger, but some room is now being made for other languages,” he wrote. “This can only lead to a person’s personal enrichment, increased ties between generations and cultures, and more diversity in job opportunities.”

Some pretty great reasons to undertake this, but before you plunge headlong into this adventure for yourself or your child, consider these factors that you may need to be successful:

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►Interest in the language. Taking on a new language isn’t easy, but if you have the desire — the interest — your chances are better. (Attention parents who are forcing their kids to learn [fill in blank]).

►Time. Language acquisition takes time for formal classes if you pursue that route, but hanging out with people who are native speakers can be time-intensive too. Both are time well spent, but they are time.

►Resilience. Admitting what you don’t know is often more difficult than showing off what you do know.

“To learn a language, you have to humble yourself,” said Julianne Bryant, an associate professor of Spanish at Biola University in La Mirada.

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Marc L. Greenberg, a professor of Slavic languages and director of the School of Languages, Literatures and Cultures at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, noted that language learning is an exercise in “humility.”

So why subject yourself to such an ordeal these days? Aren’t there translators that will turn another language into yours? Doesn’t much of the world speak English?

Both of these things may be true to a certain extent, but there’s also a sense of pride in accomplishment and a sense of belonging to a community that’s different from your own.

Further, Bryant said, having a second language can benefit your brain.

Making the commitment may be more difficult than finding the right fit for you, but here are some of the ways you can begin to explore:

►Classes do help. You can do some online learning through, say, extension classes to help with language basics or with such learning tools as Rosetta Stone.

►Immersion helps too. There are different ways to immerse yourself, Bryant and Greenberg said. You might listen to TV programs or watch movies in that language or listen to music. You might hang out with people in your community who speak only that language.

But an away-from-home stint in which you are surrounded by that language may be the best teacher of all, perhaps aided by formal classes.

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“Students have greater gains in oral proficiency and higher self-confidence,” when they are immersed, she said. “They have larger gains in cultural competence.”

Interestingly, buddying up with a person in another country who speaks some of your language is a bigger help than someone who knows none, Bryant said.

How do you begin narrowing the choices?

►Ask friends who have done an immersion. Don’t be shy. They have no reason not to be frank.

►If you have a specific language in mind, check with the faculty at a community college or university and get their advice on what works, Greenberg said.

You may notice different words are used in different countries to mean the same thing; just as American and British English differ (trunk vs. boot, diaper vs. nappy), other languages do as well.

How do you adjust what you’ve learned to the language you’ll now be hearing?

Bryant, who studied in Spain, ended up working in a community that spoke Caribbean Spanish. Here are her suggestions:

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►If you have the basic structure of the language, you can do two things: learn to tune your ear to that accent or way of speaking and ask questions when you don’t understand.

It’s less important, she said, to learn strictly the language you will be speaking than to have the framework for it and know you will need to substitute some expressions for others.

►Be prepared to make mistakes.

Having the confidence to speak the language helps you forge ahead, even if you err, such as insisting you need “squid — like you wear on your feet” to the extremely puzzled shopkeeper in Quito, Ecuador, if what you really wanted were socks. Not that anything like that ever happened to me.

►Even knowing you will stumble, be fearless, Greenberg said. Your mistakes are unlikely to be fatal. Unless you die of embarrassment.

He told this story:

He was in Croatia and was ordering a pizza in Croatian, which he read and wrote pretty well, he said. He asked for various toppings, none of which was available. In frustration he asked the woman what was available to put on the pizza.

At least, that’s what he thought he said. Instead he had just asked her what was available to put on a specific female body part.

“She cracked up,” he said.

He realized what he had done, and although it was cringeworthy, laughter knows no language barrier. Plus he will always have a story to tell.

Like squid. You know. Like you wear on your feet.

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