Duo, Je t'aime! Learning a New Language in the New Year

Posted by Craig Wesley on

For most of my life, I always thought my brain wasn't built for languages. More specifically, that it wasn't built to learn more than one language beyond English. Growing up in a multi-lingual house, where my mom spoke Cantonese, I can verbally understand Cantonese, but I never learned to speak and definitely not to read or write it. Even to this day, my brain hasn't made the connection in order to speak the language and in a life or death situation I would probably freeze.

In high school, I elected to take Spanish as my foreign language because people said that it was the easiest of the offered languages. I failed Intro to Spanish. Once I managed to pass Intro to Spanish, I did actually got a A in Spanish II, but that was it for me and new languages for almost the next 20 years. 

Then, a little over four years ago, I read about Duolingo.com through an online article. Before Duolingo existed, I think Rosetta Stone was and possibly still is the most popular form to learn a language outside of formal instruction. But, Rosetta Stone courses are expensive in my opinion and when I heard that Duolingo was essentially a 100% free version of Rosetta Stone, I signed up and started French.

While my reasons for starting French are a bit fuzzy now, I think it had a lot to do with knowing that Hermes was a French company. Working with leather, I made that connection and I suppose I went with French. I have visited France 3 different times in the past, but to be honest, I don't think that had anything to do with my decision because there are actually other countries, such as Japan, that I've visited almost a dozen times now.

Anyway, I am now four years in with on-and-off learning for the first 1.5 years and daily practice since then. I am pretty far from being fluent, but I'm also pretty happy in how far I've come. I can read a pretty formal news article in French and comprehend the majority of. I can write enough to chat with french natives and carry on some kind of "conversation." Listening is definitely a struggle and I'm pretty far from speaking it, but I can say I speak more French than Cantonese.

As you can guess, Duolingo is not enough to "get you there," in fact The Cut just published an article discrediting it, but I still think it's one of the best ways to start a new language with literally no financial or time commitment, assuming you're already online.

Here are a few quick tips to get you started in learning a new language in the new year:

1. Learn a language that you can/want immerse yourself in

Full disclosure, last year, after learning French for about three years, I started asking myself, "Why the hell did I choose French?" I was having a real hard time finding french language movies and television that I enjoyed, especially comedies. I keep on hearing about how people learned English by watching episodes of the American sitcom Friends. I came to a pretty big realization that I'm not really a big fan of most French movies and tv programming. For the most part, it's truly a cultural thing. The few movies that I do like are actually movies regarding the black experience in France.

I started having a whole language learning existential crisis. During my undergraduate years, I actually knew a few people who studied, lived and worked in France. They turned out to be some of my least favorite people. Then the few french speaking people I have met over the next 20 years more or less seem to clearly racist. I remember speaking to a French person on 4th Street in Berkeley for less than 5 minutes and somehow he managed to say very racist things towards Middle Eastern people in that short conversation. Naturally, I questioned whether there was much I liked about French culture in general. 

So, after three years of pretty consistent studying, I started wondering if I had just been wasting my time. Should I just stop and maybe move on to a different language.

Ultimately, I kept on going and the saving grace was french language music, specifically two or three bands that I really enjoyed. Just like most English language music, I don't enjoy most popular music, but there are some bands that just speak to me and I can listen to their music daily. Because of those bands, I found myself still wanting to studying French.

I definitely wish there was more to inspire me, but for now it's enough. But as you can tell, it really helps if you find something about the language that you can get into, such as music, film, novels, food, business, etc, to help keep you going. Especially if you're using Duolingo, you'll need a lot of outside listening and speaking to really get somewhere because Duolingo will not get you there. 

 2. Commit to studying 30 minutes a day

Just like a new exercise routine or diet, there needs to be some kind of self-commitment. I study at least 30 minutes a day and have done so for almost 2.5 years now. Some days it's a grind, other days I feel great about my progress and feel super motivated and study 2 or 3+ hours. It's really a never ending process, but you should make some kind of commitment if you want to show some kind of progress.

I study at least 30 minutes on Duolingo, but I'm also listening to french music throughout the day. Occasionally, I use an app called HelloTalk to find a french native to chat with. I also have french subtitles for everything I stream on my Netflix account.

3. If you get stuck, then remember repetition is key

I should(n't) boast, but I've managed to pass and ace subjects that in reality I had no business excelling in. But, I realized during my senior year in high school that the whole concept of practice makes perfect is absolutely true. I'm actually quiet terrible in mathematics, but I managed to get an A in all my quantitative courses in junior college and UC Berkeley, including calculus and economics, score in the 86 percentile in the quantitative section for the GMAT (mind you, this is going up against quantitative geniuses from all around the world who take the GMAT), and graduate with a B average for my Masters in Finance course at London Business School. I even got a B in a course in financial derivatives, which was an impossible quantitative course, but apparently I got the same grade as most of my classmates.

Despite all these courses, I still cannot do most simple mathematics without a calculator. Still, I was able to do A level work in undergraduate levels and B level work at the Masters level. That's all because of repetition.

To this day, over 20 years later, I tell people that the only way I got an A in calculus was just pure repetition. I barely had any understanding of calculus during the course and definitely have no real understanding of it now, but aced every test and assignment. That's because I did the same questions 10-20Xs. I didn't have to understand "why" step 2 came after to step 1, but simply that it did. After so much repetition, you start to see the patterns and know what comes next.

Answering "why" is great...for PhD students, but especially in language, the rules are made by other people and so do not necessarily make sense according to your own personal experience or what seems logical to you.

For example, siblings. The french doesn't have the word for it. So, in french you couldn't say, "i told my siblings that I couldn't attend." In French, they would have to say, "I told my brother(s) and sister(s) that I couldn't attend." When I learned this, I couldn't understand why they just didn't add the word to the language. They have words for computers, mobile phones, etc, but they didn't have time to add the word siblings. Point being is that to learn a subject, especially a language, you don't need to know "why," but rather just know what "is" and repetition is usually the key to getting there.

4. Think in your new language

I have a continuous internal dialogue going on in my mind and I try and think in french whenever I can. You'll need to have built some sort of foundation before you can get to that point, but once I was able to start thinking in french, I noticed I was able to improve by leaps and bounds. My brain is mostly likely still translating from English-to-French, but the time between that translation is becoming so small that it really feels like I'm actually creating my original thought in French.

I believe once you make that breakthrough, then it's really just about experience with learning grammar and new vocabulary, but essentially the new language is part of you now.

5. No one else really cares how far you've progressed

Lastly, remember, no one really cares how fast or how much you've learned. Nobody I meet cares in the slightest bit that I've been studying french for a while now. I'm sure I'd have to learn like 2 or 3 more languages and be at native fluency before anyone actually took any notice. Point being, you're just doing it for fun so there's no pressure to progress at any pace other than your own. So, have fun with it.

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