School Can’t Teach You A Language

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Learning like a child.

I threw myself at Spanish in high school and never made less than A pluses. I was obsessed and I worked overtime on it. Guess what? I didn’t learn to speak it.

I had then and I still have a thing about foreign languages, but I am doubtful there is any system that can bring me to the fluency that I expect.

Except one.

I found my own method early on — it’s called the “girlfriend system.” It actually worked for me in one language, French, but I’ve fallen far short of my original ambition to learn five languages to full fluency.

I’m convinced that I’m not exceptional in failing at the academic model of language learning. An American friend who lives in Paris, and whose French is impeccable, says her twelve years of academic French studies didn’t help her speak the language on her first trip to France. She was shocked, because schools sell you on the idea they can teach you the language as it is actually spoken.

They take your money and test you and grade you, but if you expect to be able to converse normally with a native speaker — good luck!

At the time I decided to chose my college major, I didn’t consider language studies because I had already decided I couldn’t get the results I wanted in academia. I chose art, and I don’t regret that because it enriched my life immeasurably — and because I found another way to get my language fix — but had I “followed my passion,” it would have been foreign language studies.

I’m one of those people who have to learn a language like a singer learns a song from another singer. Listen and imitate, like a mockingbird. Grammar, text, verb tenses, vocabulary, memorization, is all secondary, to be used in the moment for a specific need. Otherwise it’s useless.

First the tools, then the poetry.

Language is a living thing between people. It takes on the plumage and the spirit of the folks who communicate themselves to others with it. To me, it’s music, which can be rough or harmonious depending on the speaker.

That’s where I have to start.

I occasionally write fiction and also about creativity, loving, language learning and travel. I’m a longtime painter and reader.

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