Thoughts on Learning Languages

At the end of 2016 I moved to Oslo, Norway with my then girlfriend and now wife. In order to obtain residency there it is mandatory that you learn Norwegian and they offer language courses to assist with that process. Prior to moving I had taken some courses at NYU so I had some base level Norwegian. Learning a language casually while living in a different country versus learning a language while living in that country is vastly different. It is easy to just do the homework go to class but otherwise forget about it. Contrarily, when you’re surrounded by the language and with other students who are highly motivated because their residence depends on it brings a certain… intensity.

No matter how you slice it however, learning a foreign language is tough. Bottom line, it takes a lot of time and practice. It is uncomfortable not being able to express yourself especially when you have been able to so clearly express yourself in your native tongue. It is very easy to try and just say what you want in your mother tongue rather than stumble and sputter through it in an uncomfortable language. However, to improve you have to do just that and do that all the time. Being in an motivated environment with other students and a passionate teacher really helped me learn Norwegian quite quickly. I was able to learn Norwegian at a much quicker pace in Norway than I did while in NYC. This might seem obvious but I cannot stress how much the learning environment helped. In addition, speaking Norwegian out in the real world helped, but the problem in Norway is that so many people speak English so well you can easily get by with just knowing how to speak English.

In 2018, I moved to Paris, France and so I did the same thing - started taking French classes while still living in Norway and then once I arrived took classes in a structured class environment. The huge difference is that in general the French don’t speak English as well and don’t switch as easily to English as they did in Norway. Starting completely over in another language was difficult and also when I tried to speak French, the Spanish I took in high school and college tried to come out which was…confusing. Then, at other times Norwegian would come out when I wanted to speak French. On the whole I would say French is a tougher language to learn than Norwegian and trying to speak French in Paris is a bit different because of the busy and fast pace nature of the city. For comparison I imagine trying to speak broken English to a busy cab driver in NYC would not get you very far and the cab drivers patience would dissipate very quickly.

The other thing you have to swallow when learning a language is your pride. There are going to be plenty of embarrassing moments and plenty of moments where you just can’t find the right words. Of course, 10 minutes later you know exactly what you should have said, but in that moment you feel like an idiot.

When I hear someone is fluent in a language I am immediately impressed because I know how much time and effort that takes. I’m not fluent in Norwegian or French, but I can hold my own in Norwegian and have a conversation and I can get by in French with a fairly basic conversation, but I have a long ways to go. Some days I feel super confident in French and feel like I’m making progress and other days I realize how little I really know and how much further I have to go. However, that is just the process of learning a language and learning in general.

I’m thankful that I’m able to take language lessons fairly easily with sites such as Verbling and with Alliance Fran├žaise now offering online courses along with Folkeuniversitetet. I have been able to easily to find language courses in a private tutoring or classroom environment with whatever fits my schedule.

Overall, I’m happy I’ve had the opportunity to learn multiple languages and look forward to more embarrassing moments and the moments where I impress myself with how far I’ve come.

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