The pleasures and frustrations of learning a new language
From fully-functioning adult
Speaking my mother tongue all day and being understood is a privilege. Whether I go to the library, the bike shop, the café, or the office, I carry all the necessary vocabulary and grammar and all the necessary listening, speaking, reading, and writing skills to get what I need. Life is pretty easy in the mother tongue.
To sounding out words
Almost forgotten are the experiences of pushing against limits in language, such as the experience I blogged about in 2009, when I was learning Arabic in Morocco:
Mohssin from Bordeaux looks at me in surprise. Fish! I say, happily. Fish!
He looks at Hagar. Elle…? Oui! Elle– But now he looks back at me. Tu peux lire l’arabe?!
But I am looking at the sign.
Sa… La. Sau… Sou…. Souq. Souq asamak. Fish market.
He has stopped eating. L’accent, c’est bon.
Thanks, Mohssin. As a child in Arabic, it’s nice to be around people who don’t mind kids.
Even in Morocco, though, I had the privilege of learning Arabic for fun. Arabic was not necessary for work or for maintaining relationships; I taught English and spent time with expatriates or locals who spoke English, French, or Spanish. Pushing against my limitations was an activity that I associated more with pleasure than frustration.
Respect for learners
For people who need a new language for income or community, however, frustration often comes before pleasure. My housemates who speak German, Italian, and Spanish as mother tongues undoubtedly work harder than I do every day to understand and be understood—they deserve some respect and congratulations for their efforts and accomplishments. My students and clients deserve the same.
A tip for teachers and tutors
When tutoring clients become frustrated in their efforts to communicate in English—when they tire of feeling like children in a new language. I sometimes make them speak in their mother tongues. All the topics they are trying to explain, they elucidate perfectly. I cannot understand them, but I can acknowledge their obvious intelligence and coherence. Sighs. Relief. Smiles. Then we return to English, to push the limitations further.