My Voice

I have a question to answer – the kind of serious scientific issue that can only be answered by rambling in a blog post. My question is this: How can someone learn a foreign language which they consciously want to speak, if they cannot find the internal drive that pushes them to do so?


First, I’d like to ponder to autodidact route. Surely, if you have a real affinity for a language, you should be able to avail of the multitude of different means of self-study to achieve this goal. Just a few examples:

— Text books with carefully organised language explanation and practice, often with accompanying audio materials
— eLearning sites offering audio, video and interactive language explanation and practice
— Face-to-face group language exchanges in local bars, often low price or free.
— One-on-one language exchange partners, through webcam or live meetings
— General free material online: news sites, music, YouTube teachers, Duolingo, etc.

Apart from the first two examples, these sources are free and easy to use. So why are multilingual hopefuls all over the world not jumping up and down with joy, finally able to realise their dream? Is it as simple as laziness, or a lack of free time?

My Experience

I’ll confess something: I am one of these seemingly lazy students. I’ve grappled with this question for a long time as a language learner. I started 5 years ago when I first arrived in Paris. At first my partner (now my wife) was very supportive and helpful with the process of learning French, but I experienced an intense psychological aversion to language learning and practice — even though it was at the time essential for things like setting up bank accounts and insurance. It took me over one year in my new environment before I actually started learning and practising its language. Even then, my preference was to leave the text book and classroom lessons to one side in favour of live, intense practice with genuine conversation partners — struggling to push out simple jokes and social expressions to fit in at the dinner table or in the pub. This was where my progress rocketed, despite my persistent yet dwindling feeling of aversion.

My second, and equally long, language experience is the one which leads me to today’s blog post: my partner is German. Although we started and developed our relationship in English, I expressed interest from the beginning in learning German. I wanted to be able to communicate with her family in Berlin when we visited. I took private lessons, bought a grammar book, tried eLearning programs like Duolingo, Livemocha and Deutschewelle, audio courses like Pimsleur and Assimil, nothing inspired me beyond a handful of short practice sessions and neglegable progress.

When the time came for live practice, most of my wife Caroline’s friends and relations either spoke English, therefore negating the need to try my pidgin German, or tried one or two simple expressions out on me before of course launching into fully native conversations with the other Germans present. Again, little was actually produced on my side, and progress was minimal.

This situations has been repeated about once a year over a period of about 5 years now, and my disinterest in the learning materials persists. So, you may ask, your wife is clearly bilingual, why not practise with her? She has been kind enough to try, but anyone reading this who’s had a similar experience will know that once you’ve established which language will be used in a relationship it is very hard to switch later on. This includes platonic ones; my French neighbours for example sometimes squeeze the odd English sentence out to me, but the idea of uttering something in English to them in reply thoroughly gives me the willies.

So, the self-study route hasn’t helped, what has? Strangely, my listening comprehension in German is much better than my spoken ability. This uncountably comes from years of eavesdropping on Caroline’s conversations with her mum or dad. I experience a strange sensation where I hear linguistic hints that she’s telling them a story about our life together, and my brain deduces bits of the German terms from what I remember her saying in English. It’s a very strange phenomenon, and the more it happens the more I can suss out new conversations with words I haven’t heard before, or at least ones I couldn’t repeat if I wanted to use them myself.

Geeks and Sponges

So what does all this mean? The answer to the problem has become imperative, as we’re now expecting our first baby. This summer, therefore, my wife will be speaking to our child exclusively in German, and I in English, making my need to understand what she says immensely personal. Yet, even with such a compelling intrinsic motivation, I find myself imagining going back to the learning materials I talked about earlier and wince in boredom. So, I need to find that miracle solution, that answer to the ultimate question: how can someone disinterested by classic self study learn a language without being forced through a professionally taught language course that he doesn’t have time for?

I want to start my search by making a distinction between two types of language students: geeks and sponges. There are learners who are genuinely interested in the language itself, that is its sounds, texts and patterns, as well as how it works. These students find their voice through this empirical and methodical study method. Then, there are the learners who are interested in what can be achieved through use of the language. These students find their voice through immersion in situations where the language is ubiquitous, but accessible, and communicative successes can be realised at each level of their development to spur on their practice. I’d say this isn’t a dichotomy, more like a bell curve. The average student is as interested in the words and workings of the language itself as in its uses, forming the peak of the bell, then you get decreasing numbers of students on each side who prefer one to the other. Everyone in the curve is capable of learning and becoming a user of the language, but of course being predominantly concerned with its grammar and patterns will retard progress, as will simply throwing yourself into a group with no regard for the former at all. The ideal is probably the average — a healthy mix of the two.

So, leaving aside the geeks to another blog post, what can be done to inspire those sponge learners like myself into faster progress? Thankfully, having survived this experience with French, I have examples to draw upon. A key factor is that living in the country makes language encounters a daily occurrence whether you’re making an effort or not – even when just picking up a croissant and a coffee on your way to work. These pure-use kind of situations suited me very well as a sponge and, although my aversion to technical language study definitely slowed my progress, I’m now a master coffee-orderer — ready for anything they throw at me. I don’t have this possibility with German.

My German Voice

I could start making big promises like getting off my ass and finding a language exchange friend like I did before in French, but I know I won’t go through with it. I also know that anyone living here who speaks German probably already speaks English pretty fluently. Yes, that’s a stereotype, but it’s very often true.

Perhaps it’s the approach that’s wrong. As a sponge learner, I don’t see language production as a methodical process at all. I believe very strongly in humanity’s purely emergent language learning abilities, realised through meaningful practice (cue Dogmetists). When I speak French, it’s not a skill to me as would be dancing or typing, its another voice –coming from somewhere subconscious, basic and natural. My French voice is what I developed in speaking with real conversation partners; it represents my ability to be me in French. This may be what caused such resistance at the beginning. If my ability in French is so intimately linked to my concept of self, it was intensely uncomfortable to be able to say so little and be so frequently at a loss for words to advance the conversation. It’s like having the language part of your brain cut out and suddenly becoming powerlessly mute. This concept of voice in types of learner like myself may hold the key.

If my German voice is still muted, yet comprehension is increasing, I need to find a way to use it in a meaningful way that can confirm its value as a way to express my self, despite its limited capacity. I don’t have the answer yet, but comments would be both welcomed and appreciated.


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