The joy of learning a language


When it comes up in conversation that I can speak more than one language, the most common reaction I get is ‘oh I wish I’d carried on learning xxx [insert language here]’, followed by ‘I was rubbish at languages, but I’d love to be able to speak something else’.

That’s such a shame. Some of the most memorable experiences I’ve had in my life are as a result of learning a language, or being able to speak to someone else in their own tongue.

  • Sometimes it was as simple as befriending the local butcher in a small Normandy village, and him offering us vegetables from his own kitchen, because all the other shops had already closed for the evening.
  • It can be as eye-opening as talking to remote Mozambican villagers in cod-Portuguese about their lives.
  • As terrifying as ringing the emergency doctor in Germany because my then-girlfriend couldn’t stop being sick. I learned some new vocabulary on that call, I can tell you!
  • Or being able to persuade a local woman to offer us a room for the night in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, because we had nowhere else to stay.

I was only able to do those things because I’d learned the language (to varying levels) and felt confident enough to at least try and have a conversation.

I can honestly say that the warmth I’ve received when I’ve talked to someone in their own language – often just to say ‘thank you’ – is immeasurable and never gets old.

It’s why I’m so keen that language learning starts early and that kids aren’t put off trying. It opens so many doors.

Lazy Brits?

It’s a cliché that the Brits are terrible at speaking anything other than English, but it’s born out in the data.

As recently as November 2020, the British Council released data saying that two-thirds of UK adults admit to not realising the benefit of studying a foreign language, while 64% wish they’d kept up the language they learned at school.

Why is this? What stops us from persevering (or even starting) to learn a new language? I have my theories.

There’s a definite laziness involved. The teaching of English is widespread in much of the world, so it’s rare that you meet someone from another country who doesn’t have even a basic level of English. That makes it too easy for us.

But one of the other key reasons, in my opinion, is how most subjects, and languages in particular, are routinely taught in schools. By and large, lessons aren’t set up to be enjoyable. Where’s the fun?

I’ll give you an example from my schooling. I was taught Latin as a young boy and had a teacher known as ‘Benny’ Rowett. To say he was eccentric would be an understatement. If he entered a classroom and no windows were open, he’d point at them open-mouthed and then leave the room until we righted the wrong.

I also have a memory of him riding around the classroom backwards on a chair to demonstrate the concept of the Latin words ‘celeriter’ (fast) and ‘tardo’ (slow).

That’s the kind of thing that sticks in your brain and makes language learning joyful, even a ‘dead’ one like Latin.

Making language fun

The ‘fun’ element of learning also explains the success of apps like Duolingo, for example. Since I started using it a few years ago, I’ve used it to develop a level of proficiency in Portuguese, Dutch, Arabic and Greek – some much higher than others.

Duolingo offers gamification – building up points, and gaining rewards – but that alone isn’t enough.

One of the things I love about the way they teach is their surreal juxtaposition of words. Often, this is to demonstrate a simple combination of common letters, but it stays with you.

For example, the Dutch course is obsessed with schildpadden (turtles) and olifanten (elephants) – they crop up in the weirdest sentences – while I quickly learned the words for ‘vinegar’ and ‘snake’ in Greek. Go figure!

As an example of the odd sentences that Duolingo often gives you, here’s one that stood out for me from the Dutch course a year or so ago.

Odd Dutch Duolingo sentence
“The ducks are insecure about the rhinoceros’s clothes”

The brilliance in this is that it teaches you the structure and grammatical elements, but in a leftfield and memorable way so you learn without realising.

But if you don’t want to use an app, there are other ways to incorporate fun and still absorb new language.

The ideal is to find someone who’s a native speaker and talk (and listen) to them, over a drink to make it easier.

If that’s not possible, find films and TV series that are originally of that language – Netflix makes this very easy in 2022, for example Call My Agent if you’re learning French – subscribe to a newspaper from the country you’re interested in, find books written in the language (even kids’ books are a great way to cement your language knowledge).

Doing this regularly – even reading just the newspaper headlines on a daily basis – will slowly improve your knowledge.

Of course, the gold standard is to visit a country that speaks your language and try it out in the wild.

And, for me, it’s all about trying. Not being afraid to make mistakes. Taking risks and a leap into the unknown. And, above all, having fun. Go for it!

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3 thoughts on “The joy of learning a language”

  1. I learned German, Spanish, and French in school and at uni, but my problem since then has been how to get any practice without taking more classes! Now that I live over here I guess I should just visit those countries more, though not sure how good once every few years will do :-). I did try Duolingo as a friend really likes it, but the childish animations and gamification didn’t appeal to me. I need to see what other apps are out there that would suit me. In the meantime, thanks for suggestions like reading online newspapers, and maybe some films!

    1. That sounded unintentionally churlish! And when I said childish animations, I meant Duolingo looks like a children’s video game and the funny voices, animations, treasure chest/jewel rewards etc, just don’t motivate me (but my female friend who is my age loves that!). You have prompted me to look around at other apps though, thanks 🙂

      1. Not churlish at all. I think everyone learns in different ways and Duolingo isn’t for everyone. What I think is brilliant is that it inspires do many people to try, and it’s hard to argue with that ?

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