The challenges of learning a language as an adult
Ah, my teenage years! Spandex-clad 1980s rockers on 7-inch vinyl records, Senna and Mansell winning Formula One races, learning to code on a Sinclair Spectrum, and watching The A-Team, Dempsey and Makepeace, or Cagney and Lacey on the TV. Imagine, only four channels! And school. I can’t say I liked school a lot, being a teenage boy was awful.
Surprisingly, one of the good things about school was the opportunity to learn languages. I was never going to be a language prodigy, but thanks to the efforts of my teachers je parle français (badly, after 25 years), and ich spreche Deutsch (atrociously). I would have added Latine loquo to that list but I’m afraid barely any of that has stuck at all; I even had to use Google to help me remember the Latin verb “to speak”!
But that’s it. Like many native English speakers, leaving school marked the end of my language learning. I’ve kept my French speaking skills alive through watching French films and the occasional holiday, but being fortunate enough to speak one of the world’s most prevalent languages has meant that I’ve never found myself at a linguistic disadvantage as an adult. All very convenient, but rather losing touch with the fun element of acquiring new knowledge. Feeling rather sad at that, a while ago I decided I’d like to learn a new language as an adult who wants to learn, rather than as an unwilling teenager who has no choice.
As employees of a publisher of bilingual dictionaries in many languages, my colleagues and I are surrounded by language in all its forms. Many of those colleagues are linguistic polymaths, putting my meagre skills to shame. As it happens, we’re encouraged to learn other languages when they are likely to be useful to our work, but for some reason the idea of learning Arabic or Portuguese hasn’t set my heart on fire. Instead I picked an unlikely contender from much closer to home; I’m learning Welsh using an audio course.
Why Welsh, you say? Why not! I have no connections to Wales beyond tourism, but as a language I have a reasonable chance of speaking in the real world, it’s a much better choice for me than any of those from the other side of the English Channel. The Welsh border is only a couple of hours’ drive west of Oxford, while a trip to the Continent requires hefty expenditure and significant travel. And it is sufficiently different from any of the languages I have already encountered to make it an interesting challenge. I’ve written before on the paucity of loan words in English from the other British languages, so for a native English speaker learning Welsh, everything’s new!
But this piece is not about Welsh as such, more about the challenges of learning a new language as a linguistically untalented adult. The most obvious discovery on returning to learning is unsurprisingly that it takes some effort and commitment. I’ve had to plan a regular time at which I’ll work through the lessons and stick to it, and I’ve found that lodging new words in my brain takes far more repetition than I expected. Having spent an entire lifetime cultivating a very text-based approach to language, it is a very odd feeling to learn from an exclusively audio course; I am not at ease with being almost illiterate in my newly acquired tongue. My trusty Geiriadur Cymraeg Cyfoes Oxford has become well-worn, and I am extremely grateful to my primary school teacher — a native Welsh speaker — who all those years ago ensured all her charges understood the basics of pronunciation with respect to Welsh place-name spellings.
So as I’ve slowly progressed through the course, I’ve learned a surprising amount of elementary Welsh. I could now, in theory, have conversations that extend slightly beyond the extremely basic, I can understand the replies if they are spoken slowly enough, and with a little time and effort I can make a stab at reading simple Welsh text. I can even tackle the notorious consonant mutations that intimidate learners of Welsh, though I still get them wrong from time to time. No, scrub that: I get them wrong most of the time. But at least I try!
Sadly though, the theory and the practice have not proved to follow each other. I am fortunate in that I have a couple of Welsh-speaking colleagues who have even indicated that they’d be prepared to let me try massacring their mother tongue in front of them, but I find myself paralysed with fear. All my confidence has gone; the words will evaporate from my brain and their replies will come in a super-fast torrent of unfamiliar words which will embarrass me and leave me floundering. I suspect I have this confidence barrier in common with many language learners.
I learned something about language learning over a decade ago from a then colleague. Geoffroy is an extremely urbane Frenchman who speaks perfect English with a charming trace of a French accent. At the time I knew him he was in his mid-20s, and like most young men his interest on a Saturday evening lay with the art of attracting young women. Watching Geoffroy “on the pull” was an education; gone was the perfect English and in its place he brought out a perfect parody of a Frenchman with a truly outrageous stereotypical French accent and rudimentary command of English vocabulary. It made us laugh, but it was astounding how successful it made him with the opposite sex.
What I learned from Geoffroy’s fake Frenchman performance was that it is not perfect command of grammar or vocabulary that is the key to making yourself understood, but the willingness to just get on speaking without fear of failure. Perhaps Welsh is a hard nut to crack and maybe I need a few more lessons, but I should follow his example in language, and concentrate on the talking, rather than the quality of my speech.
Maybe I can’t quite yet say “Dw i’n siarad Cymraeg!”* and really mean it, but perhaps all I need to be able to say is “Dw i’n siarad Cymraeg yn wael!”**.
* I speak Welsh!
** I speak Welsh badly!