Monday, July 16, 2018

How to learn twelve languages ... and forget some


People ask me often how I managed to learn so many languages. Here is the story.
Many people think that it’s an effort to learn a new language, and indeed, you need to do something for it. Nonetheless, it’s much easier, if it becomes a part of your daily life. So it’s for a child, so it’s for many living abroad, and so it’s for me: I prefer to read a book in the original language. I watch foreign TV channels, since I want to hear the news at first hand. I like penpalling with people in other countries. I travel often abroad. And I am simply interested in languages. Moreover, if your mother tongue is Dutch, as it is for me, you simply must use foreign languages if you want to learn about the world, and if you want to study. For who knows Dutch?
Already when I went to the primary school, I knew a second language. My parents came from a region, where many people speak Frisian (a language related to English). Although I didn’t live there, my parents had many Frisian speaking friends and acquaintances. So I learned to understand the language fluently. However, I never learned to speak it, for at home we spoke Dutch.
Now it is different, but when I went to the secondary school, you had to learn three foreign languages: English, French, and German. Moreover, after a psychological test, I got the advice to go to a “gymnasium”, a type of school in which languages are important, especially then. Here I learned also Latin and classical Greek. So I knew seven languages when I had finished the gymnasium. This didn’t mean that I spoke them fluently. Not at all! Because the gymnasium prepared for the university, I had learned only to read these languages, for then they thought that this was enough for studying. This was obvious for Latin and Greek, but I hardly knew practical words like potato in the modern languages, which you need, when travelling abroad. Moreover, during my school years I started to correspond with people abroad – which I still do –. This was my first real experience with foreign languages, for my parents didn’t go abroad on holiday.
At the university, where I studied sociology, it was supposed that I could read English etc. However, this was mere theory. My speed in reading sociological texts was at first very low. Gradually it improved and after a year I could fluently read English, and soon also German texts. However, we didn’t get French texts, or it was in translation. Also most professors found this language difficult!
At school languages were not my favourite subjects, for I didn’t like learning words. Moreover, we had to translate boring texts. At the university I learned that a language is more than just an instrument for expressing thoughts: It tells also much about the culture of its native speakers. I found this very interesting! However, my choice for my next language was still practical. I became interested in Latin America and I decided to learn Spanish. I didn’t go to Latin America later, but I have always had pen friends there since then. Now I come often in Spain as well.
Also after the university my interest in languages remained, so when there was a Russian language course on TV, I enrolled immediately. One reason was that I was curious what its special characteristics are. The course lasted two years and it included oral classes with a teacher. Also a pen friend in Latvia helped me by sending textbooks and other books. Of course, I wanted to visit Russia then, and so I made a trip to Moscow. I returned with many Russian books. I looked also for Russian pen friends. I still use Russian. However, reading and writing is one thing; speaking is something else. So when I met a Russian pen friend, we spoke German.
Now I had acquired a taste for language learning. I began to see structures in languages and relations between them. But all languages I had learned were Indo-European languages, which are the same to some extent, despite their differences. So I could understand a bit of other such languages I never learned, like Swedish or Czech. But how would really diferent languages look like? So, I enrolled for a course in Japanese. After two years I had reached such a level that I could continue by self-study. Moreover, I had got a Japanese pen friend. She sent me Japanese newspaper cuttings, magazines for learners of Japanese, books, etc. Later she also wrote her letters in Japanese. However, I never succeeded to write more than a few paragraphs of my letters in Japanese, and till today I can’t read it without a dictionnary. And when I met my pen friend in Japan, we spoke English. Even so, knowing some Japanese was useful, and the holiday was a wonderful experience.
But my lust for languages hadn’t yet been appeased. In the time that I was learning Japanese, the Dutch TV started to broadcast a Chinese course. I enrolled, and I spent many hours on it. I even read the famous tale of King Monkey in Chinese, but in the end I stopped with it. Learning both Japanese and Chinese simultaneously was too much, especially learning the characters, which are different in both languages. Since then I have forgotten gradually what I had learned of Chinese.
However, I kept the desire to learn yet two languages: an easy one, like Danish, and one not belonging to the Indo-European language group. The first desire is still a wish, but again the TV helped me, for it started a new language course: Turkish. The course was not good, but I worked through it. When I had finished it, I had a problem: How to continue? The Netherlands has a big Turkish population, but to my surprise I could not find a higher level course for self study nor other books simple enough for my basic knowledge of Turkish. Because there live no Turkish people in my neighbourhood, I found another solution: watching the Turkish TV, but I just had started or the Turkish TV channel was dropped from my cable TV package. Because my motivation was not very big for Turkish, this meant the end of this study.
Through the years I have learned twelve languages. Some have become rusty, but every day I apply at least six. In the meantime I switched from sociology to philosophy. For philosophy it is so that the more languages you know the better. Then there are my pen friends, foreign TV, and now also the Internet. Language learning has given me also a hobby, for I started to collect reference grammars. Learning languages is not difficult. You must simply like it to use them.

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