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An open letter to language learners (especially those in high school)

June 20, 2013

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.



9 Comments leave one →
  1. Kevin permalink
    June 21, 2013 08:24

    This is awesome! I’ve been searching for something inspiring and Deutsch to fill the Schnitzel shaped whole in my heart ever since summer began and my classes ended. What program did you go through to get to Germany? How did you study on your own before you had german victims (er, friends) to practice with? Do you have any tips for people who want to travel to Germany?

  2. June 21, 2013 16:38

    I think you’re right that machine translation is going to make learning foreign languages unnecessary for most people at some stage in the future — perhaps sooner than we think. But I’m still glad that I managed to learn German before the robot apocalypse 😉

  3. June 21, 2013 19:33

    Muy bueno che! Ahora estoy aprovechando tus experiencias en Alemania que encontre en un post de reddit, ya que estoy aprendiendo el Deutsch. Mi inglés ya es bastante bueno pero me resistí a escribir en el idioma ahora que leo que pasaste 7 años estudiando español formalmente, y un año en Chile.
    Saludos desde Argentina!

    • June 22, 2013 00:46

      Gracias Esteban! Que lindo, que el video llego a Argentina! Me encanta tu pais… Solamente conozco Buenos Aires y Cordoba, pero las dos son hermosas. Desafortunamente escribo desde un teclado aleman, y me faltan las tildas… Ojala que nos veamos algun dia!

  4. Scarlett Overhage permalink
    June 23, 2013 21:29

    Hallo Mickey, soy de México y ya vi todos los Folgen de “The Lernen to Talk Show” están geniales. Gracias por haberlos hecho, no cualquiera tiene la dedicación y constancia de grabar 3-5 minutos, una vez por semana de algo nuevo, de una persona nueva, de una experiencia nueva e interesante.

    Danke! Du hast mich motiviert um meine Ziele zu erfülle. Meine Muttersprache ist natürlich Spanisch, aber seit ich war in Kindergarten, lerne ich Englisch (meine Zweite Sprache) und, seit 2 und halb Jahre lerne ich Deutsch (meine Dritte Sprache). Ich finde deine Deutsch sehr gut!! Gratulieren! Also, in andere Thema, Du bist sehr lustig! I’m sorry, also, mein Deutsch und mein Englisch sind nicht so gut. I have never went (or lived) for more than a month in a Country with those languages. But maybe next year… I would make eine Austausch nach Göttingen.

    (Ich hoffe gibt es kein Problem über diese Sprachen-Gemischt Beschreibung)

    Viele Grüsse

    • June 23, 2013 22:40

      Hallo! Qué lindo, dass du mir written hast. Eigentlich sind mezclas de Idiomas one of my favorite cosas! Me alegra mucho que has encontrado inspiración por los videos. Es war so divertido, making them over the año. Estuve en tu país para celebrar el año nuevo hace seis meses, y después hicimos una Reise in the South, en Oaxaca, San Cristobal de las Casas, La Selva Lacandona, Tulum… Tu país es hermosisimo. Me encantaría vivir algún día en el D.F. Weisst du, ich finde Mexico City und Berlin muy muy parecidos, vom Gefühl her. Warst du schon mal in Berlin? Your Deutsch and Englisch are amazing! What’re you talking about??? Ich wünsche dir alles Gute! Danke für den schönen Nachricht.

      • Scarlett Overhage permalink
        June 23, 2013 23:13

        HAHAHAHA awww. Gleichfalls, sehr schön. Danke für deine Antwort. Ich habe viele carcajadas con tu mezcla intensa de idiomas gemacht! LOL. Don’t stop being so funny. You got attitude, and that’s all you need to achieve whichever goal you want. Danke schön again. Und ja… he ido al D.F. y está de película, aber ich wohne gerade in Monterrey und es ist schöner hihi (du bist aber doch herzlich zu Monterrey eingeladen ;D) und nein, aún no he ido a la hermosa Deutschland, pero pronto (2014-2015) hoffentlich YEAH. Ich habe viel mit deinen descriptions in diesem Blog Deutsch geübt und gelacht.

        Ich hoffe du hast mich einverstanden.
        Wenn du möchtest, du könntest auf Twitter mir folgen, um zu Kontakt uns zu bleiben. (?) Ich habe schon dir gefolgt wuhuuu.

  5. Kiana permalink
    June 24, 2013 17:47

    Hi Mickey! I’m going to be a junior in high school and I’ve been taking Spanish classes. I want to learn more languages but I don’t know what to do with myself college major wise. I want to be fluent in many languages but don’t know what jobs I’ll be able to do. Your ideas would be greatly appreciated!

    • June 27, 2013 10:34

      Hi Kiana, thanks for writing! It’s great that you’re interested in learning languages. But you might be surprised to learn that your major doesn’t necessarily have to do with foreign language in order for it to serve you well on your way to becoming multilingual. I chose to study mechanical engineering, which as a major does very little to pressure students into learning foreign languages. I chose it for other (non-)reasons, but when I got to college I discovered that the engineering school had a really well-funded international exchange office, which actually enabled me to study abroad for a semester without costing too much. Today I find myself doing not very much related to engineering, but still my connections to foreign language were very much a result of having studied engineering. So you never know where you’ll end up. My advice would be to really scrutinize the study abroad programs in the colleges you are applying to. Those are the things people don’t often look at when applying, but it could really have a big impact on your experience if you know that studying abroad is something you really want to do. I don’t think you need to worry right now too much about “what jobs you’ll be able to do”. The working world looks for passionate people with practical skills. It’s your job now to just keep being thoughtful about what things really interest you, and always work towards getting better at those things. I’m still looking for what I want to do with my life, and I graduated from college four years ago. Sorry that got a little long-winded. Long story short, “being fluent in many languages” means spending a lot of time abroad, so be on the look out for opportunities to do that, and trust that the act of putting yourself out there and being open minded will serve your job-marketability.

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