An open letter to language learners (especially those in high school)
Hey you yeah you (especially if you’re near the beginning of high school and being forced to take a foreign language class against your will),
I made this video for you.
I took Spanish in high school. I was actually pretty good at it. At least that’s what the grades I got reflected. I wasn’t fluent or anything, but that didn’t bother me so much. I liked practicing the language when I got the chance, and I was lucky to have had a really amazing teacher. But it wasn’t until I graduated and thought about how much time I had actually spent in a classroom, and compared that with how well I could actually speak the language, that I began to wonder what the heck I was doing all that time. Think about it. The typical high school student is required (at least in Illinois) to take at least three years of foreign language classes. At fifty minutes per day, plus say ten minutes for homework, we’re at five hours per week supposedly devoted to learning a language. With forty weeks of instruction, that’s six hundred hours spent learning that foreign language. In my case, I took Spanish for seven years… Well over a thousand hours learning Spanish, and still I couldn’t carry a conversation. That hit me hard after finishing high school. I didn’t want to believe that those two solid months of time, of life, were in service of a skill I’d only ever be mediocre at.
Something had to be done. During my sophomore year of college I decided to spend a semester in a Spanish-speaking country, to learn the language once and for all. Lucky for me, the University of Illinois had a great international office for engineering majors, and I had the chance to go to Concepcion, Chile in 2007. As soon as I arrived, I realized how right I was. I couldn’t understand anything anybody said to me. It took me months of speaking no English before I managed to be able to express myself to any real effect. It was at once the most humbling and exhilarating time of my life. The best way I can describe it is that it was like feeling myself grow. Every night I could look back and recognize a way I’d changed or something I’d learned that day. Quickly I realized that learning Spanish wasn’t in itself worth much of anything. But the people I met, the experiences I had, after deciding to learn Spanish for real, that justified all the thousands of hours I’d spent not quite getting the job done in school. I left Chile with amazing new friends, roots in a faraway place, and the sudden ability to speak a second language.
I also left Chile with inspiration to do it all over again. After that experience, I just knew that learning another language was possible, and that it would be worthwhile. And I realized that I wanted to somehow convince other people that they could do it too, and that it would be worth it. That was when I thought of the Lernen to Talk Show. I thought that if I could somehow show people the slow, hilarious process of learning a language, then they would understand that they could do it too. That age is not a limiting factor in language learning. That natively speaking English doesn’t have to be a simple ticket out of learning a second language. That learning a second language forces you out of your comfort zone, requires you to make new friends, and demands that you see yourself in a different light. That you’ll understand the world more by understanding the world less (for a little while).
The reason I made the Lernen to Talk Show was to show my 13-year-old self that if I wanted to learn a language, I could. And that I could either take the four years of classroom instruction ahead of me and make something out of it, or I could coast through with everybody else and just get the grades I need. But I can’t talk to my 13-year-old self. (And it’s a good thing too, because if I could, then maybe he would learn Spanish well enough in high school to not feel pressured into going to Chile, and then never would have turned out the way that I am now.) But I can talk to you. So please, just think about this. You have to sit in that classroom for the next few years anyway. Think about the hundreds and maybe even thousands of hours ahead of you, in which you are going to be “learning” that language, whatever language it is. Life is short. You might as well open your mouth and get something out of it.
And yes, I realize that foreign languages will continue to seem more practically irrelevant in the coming years, as translating software improves and the singularity marches ever nearer, but just remember, it’s the effort you put into it that matters in the end anyway. And even the robot apocalypse can’t take that away from you.