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On learning a language

Learning a language as a second one is difficult. People say French is hard, but believe me when I say English is as difficult to learn. You have to unlearn your mother tongue and get other grammar rules in your head. You have to learn new vocabulary to name things you always called a certain way. You have to form sentences, mixing grammar and vocabulary. And that is not all: sometimes you even have to learn a new way of speaking. There are so many accents in the world that it would have been too easy.

When you get into high school in Belgium, you have a few options regarding language learning. Coming from the French side of the country, I personally had the choice between Dutch (as important as French in my tiny part of the world), German and/or English (more international). I did not really think it through, it was quite obvious: I would choose the latter.

Year One went great. I was 11. I had an awesome teacher who made us repeat little life scenes in front of the class, making her teaching interactive and interesting. I had excellent grades and I loved English.

But from Year Two, my opinion about English fell appart, along with my love of languages. My teacher was not the same as in year one. She was more authoritative and cold in her approach. Of course, it was time to learn irregular verbs to form the past tense, and I could not get a single one in my head. I remember my mum trying to help me, sitting in my bedroom where she made me repeat my tables. Difficult times.

However, my memory could not download any of those verbs. I was at a dead end. And that is when my teacher said I was hopeless (along with other not so nice words). If I were hopeless, what was the point? I completely lost my love of learning languages. I spent my time in high school thinking languages were nothing more than a waste of time.

At 18, I had avoided learning all third and fourth languages I could. After all, if I could not get my head around a single one… you know the idea. My parents had spent their money on getting me on language camp or on hiring an English personal tutor. But the truth is: I did not want to learn. I did not want to make any effort because one single person had said I was hopeless.

When you are a kid, teachers have a huge impact on your life. If they worship you, you’ll make the best of your time in school. If not… well, what is the point in all this?

This teacher made an impression on me. A bad one.

Worse: my parents were sharing her opinion. They were not seeing any improvement on my English skills. I could not blame them: I was not making any. All I had to do was to have enough grades to pass, and to nod when they were making comments on my bad language level.

Languages are important in so many fields. In engineering or sciences, English is the main language to master. Because it is so international, and because it is important to share information quickly, one language is enough. But think about communication, translation, journalism, politics,… all these areas need different languages.

As an adult, I now know how important languages are. You are more valuable for an employer if you can work in more than just one. But I would learn the lesson after a few years of struggle and finding my own personal way.

At 22, I have met someone special who would become my husband. After five years of dating, I had the choice: following him in an English-speaking country or putting our relationship to an end. And you know what? I made a leap of faith. I, the girl who had no talent whatsoever with languages, took English courses because I wanted it. I went in London (United Kingdom) on my own because I so badly needed to learn English. And then we moved to London together. It was certainly not easy, but I did it.

If someone can make you doubt yourself, someone else can put enough faith in you to get through all the obstacles.

After three years in an English-speaking country, can I say I am fluent? Yes.
Would I tell my high school teacher that she was wrong about my abilities? Certainly.

I am now learning Dutch, and I find it easier to get around as I now know English. Learning a third language is not so difficult when you already know a second one. It is like a ‘learn – master – repeat’ model.

I would love to tell my younger self that she has no reason not to believe in herself. I would love to tell her that languages are an important part of her future. And, more importantly, I would love to tell her that the opinion of others does not matter, like, at all.

That is what I would love you to understand too. If you like doing something, if you love learning / creating / doing stuff, why would you stop because of the opinion of a single person? As long as you truly want something, as long as you are putting enough efforts into it, you will certainly achieve everything you dream of.

What is your experience with language learning?
Do not hesitate to tweet me @vdvestelle or to leave a comment down below

2 thoughts on “On learning a language

  1. Something similar happened to me. I used to hate English until I was 14. Once puberty hit I started to act out as a rebel and got into punk music as well as cool movies.

    I also started gaming heavily – all of this together with MTV and the 4 hours of English per week I was thought at school made me learn the language without even noticing.

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