Learning a New Language, an Exercise in Patience
April 01, 2013
I took two languages when I was in high school. I had five years of French and two years of Italian. One day, we got a new student in my Italian class. Her name was Audrey, and she was an exchange student from France. I immediately wondered why she would be in an Italian class when she was still in the process of learning English. She told me it was not uncommon in her country for a student to take several languages. This was interesting to me, considering that in the United States most students never take a foreign language at all.
One thing that frustrates me is when I see people who are earnestly trying to communicate in English, be met with nothing but scorn by people who know nothing about the difficulties involved in trying to speak a different language. Because most Americans have never attempted to learn another language, there seems to be an idea that all you have to do is attend class for a couple of weeks and you will emerge speaking perfectly, fluent English. This is not the case.
Of course, impatience with those who can’t speak the language is not an American phenomenon. When I visited France one time, a friend of mine asked a local police officer where the nearest McDonald’s was. She accidentally used the word "what" instead of "where." The officer clearly understood what was being asked, but decided to take out his frustration over her imperfect French by looking at her like she was an idiot and explaining that McDonald’s was a restaurant.
If you have ever tried to learn another language, then you know how difficult it is, especially when you start later in life. Young children are like sponges when it comes to learning, but once you get older, it is much harder. A lot of countries know this and will start teaching foreign languages to their children the moment they are old enough to enter school. In America, we usually don’t start teaching other languages until kids are at least in junior high. This makes learning the language much more challenging.
Then, of course, there are the accents. I learned French from English speakers, and the first time I heard an actual French person speaking, I thought that I had been learning the wrong language. (I had a much easier time with Italian because my Italian teacher was actually from Italy.) And then you have the fact that people often speak with a lot of expressions that don’t translate. Oh, and there is also the speed at which people speak. Doesn’t it always seem that people speaking something other than English are talking a mile a minute? This is what people who don’t speak English are thinking when they are hearing us.
Since I 've been through the process of trying to learn another language, I understand what new English speakers are going through. As a result, I try to be a little more patient when I see them struggling. English is one of the most difficult languages in the world to learn (studies have suggested that English speakers are among the last to learn their native language), and even when people become fluent, they can sometimes have accents so thick that they are still hard to understand. But this doesn’t mean they are not making an effort.
We need to be a lot more understanding with the people who are struggling with English. If you encounter a new learner, try to speak a little slower, try not to use too many expressions, and try to be patient. Believe me, they are just as frustrated as you are. It also might be good if more Americans make the effort to learn another language themselves. Once you have actually gone through the process of attempting another language, you automatically have much more sympathy for those trying to learn English.
We have a lot of materials at the Antioch Branch to aid those who are trying to learn English in our ESL section, as well as ESL Conversations. This is a weekly program for those who wish to practice their English with others for whom English is a second language. We also have material for English speakers who are trying to learn something else in our foreign language section. In addition, MCPL has many online resources available for both groups, including multiple foreign language databases.
Unfortunately for me, without anyone to communicate in either French or Italian with over the years, I have lost most of what I learned. This makes me sad, because I put so much effort into trying in the first place. But I will never regret making the attempt, and I encourage other Americans to do the same.