karen shea, captain's log

language acquisition, living abroad

Fri, Jan 22 2021

three ways to learn a language

method 1

Start learning before you exist, while you are a bundle of cells, gestating in your mother's womb. Absorb the vibrations of the language through the protective walls and familiarize yourself with the rhythm, cadence and intonation. After you are born, the first step is to realize that the sounds we make can have meaning. Whenever you're ready, start making the sounds yourself, sounds that you'll later learn, others can't even hear. Answer the questions you are asked. Talk to people, mostly your family, address them by their titles, but never learn their names. Watch them closely: when you want to express surprise, humour, horror, it's their phrases and mannerisms you'll use. Grow up, leave home. Some things you will forget. Other things can only be said the way you first learned them. And still others you will realize you never knew how to say.

Method 2

Be very studious. The first class you ever take is one hour in the morning before primary school. Your mom buys you an educational desktop game from the big-box store, and you play it all the way through over one summer. Be the best student in every class you ever take. It's not about grades, it's about possibility. New words and phrases get stuck in your head like songs. Language classes become literature classes. Study abroad, a castle in the air, grounded. It's dirtier than you thought. There's more to learn than you thought. You know how to open a bank account but don't know how to drink wine. People understand you, but you don't think they care. A language can come to taste like disappointment in your mouth. Over time, let yourself forget it, until it's only a latent virus of vocabulary and grammar. But can you forget that it means nothing that you can say anything, when you don't have anything to say.

method 3

Meet a boy, who is patient. Get to know him on long walks and insist that he tell you stories that you can't understand, just to hear how they sound. Learn to say the important things first, like that you miss him, or that you want him. Learn to make him laugh before you ever open a textbook. Ask him how to say things until you don't have to ask any more. Move to his country and feel at home, because you talk to everyone the way you talk to him. Eventually, you can watch movies without subtitles, but he'll still have to explain the jokes. Make a rule that you only switch languages when you get in fights. Break up when you can't tell the difference between saying something wrong and saying the wrong thing. Realize how much you don't know how to say, because he had always been there to say them for you.