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Life as a language learner

Updated: Aug 1, 2019

Being a language teacher is a fantastic job. It allows you to see the world and speak to a wide variety of people. I´m very lucky to have the job I have now and I would very much like to keep working in this industry if the industry wants me to!

I started work as a mathematics teacher, which was also a very interesting experience, but I feel that languages are where my passion lies. It´s something I have always been interested in. Even when I was younger I bought a ton of the Lonely Planet phrasebooks for such a baffinlg amount of languages that I probably never really had any interesting in studying thoroughly. I think I just enjoyed flicking though the books occasionally and trying to absord the languages if at all possible (it wasn´t).

I spent a lot of time like this when it came to learning languages. I only interacted with them passively, as if I was peering in through the shop window without ever trying entering the shop and taking the languages for a spin. I think this was mainly borne out of my own lack of confidence, and perhaps my own frustration with my French studies at the time. French was a language that I had chosen to study at school, but I never really felt that I was making any progress with it, despite the embarassing number of hours I had, in theory, spent studying it.

The thought that I could never truly master a language persisted until I went to France on my Erasmus year at university. It was during this year that I really had to use the language to communicate with people and try to make friends, however stuttering and bumbling my French might have been. Through this experience, I learned to just trust myself and expose myself to as much of the language as possible. This really forced me to notice patterns and common words. After months of reading and talking in French I finally felt more comfortable when expressing myself. Even though my French was far from perfect, I finally had the feeling that I was getting somewhere.

I carried this new-found confidence over to German, the next language I wanted to study. German had intrigued me since I was in France, and made friends with some German students on their Erasmus year. I was impressed by their own ability to speak French and English, and in my mind I thought that I should try to learn their language, given that they had invested so much time learning mine. I really kicked up my German learning into the next gear when I decided to move to Switzerland with my wife. It quickly dawned on me that my English would only get me so far, and that I would more than likely have to speak German to be taken seriously on the job market. Following this realisation, I promptly buried my nose in as many novels as possible to get myself used to the completely new and , at the time, baffling sentence structure. After a few months of persisting with the mostly alien vocabulary, I finally started to notice links between words, and understand how German vocabulary is constructed. This fascinated me no end as it frequently lined up with the etymology of English and French words. As an example the word "circumstances" has two Latin roots "circum" which means "around" (think "circus") and "stance" which has something to do with standing. Consider the German word "Umstände" which is also comprised of two parts "um" (around) and "stand". Seeing how languages are structured has led me to try my hand at some other languages, too.

From my language learning experience I have learned that it´s very important to expose yourself to as much of the language as possible and to not get hung up on small details at the beginning. This is a philosophy which I have carried though my language studies and it has helped me to start to grapple with some very difficult languages. Even though I can´t say I´m that fluent yet in Japanese and Russian, I am proficient in reading, and I understand and can say more and more every day. This is true for all of my languages, whatever the level. The learning process doesn´t stop. I have to keep learing not only French and German but my own native English.

Being a teacher of these languages forces me to try to understand all of them to the best of my ability and to not assume I know everything, but determine what I don´t know and try to improve myself.

For other language learners out there, don´t give up because you don´t feel you´re making progress. If you are interacting with the language in a meaningful way every day, then you will reap the benefits in the long run.

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