Learning a new language – the ups and the downs

Unlike quite a few of my friends, when I was faced with the choice of doing a third language in Secondary School, I knew for sure which language was going to be the one. What with the sophisticated and pristine illustrations of the Eiffel Tower and romantic cafés which bombarded the media or the unmistakable sounds of ‘z’s and ‘euh’s – I knew right from the start that I was going to go francophone. I mean, who could resist the opportunity to sound as cool and posh as that Frenchman smoking cigar at the roadside café carefully munching on a freshly-baked baguette? And so began my unexpectedly perilous journey into the world of France, or as the French call it, l’Hexagon (yes, I’m not joking, France’s shape on the world map is a hexagon). So to those of you who are considering taking up a new language from scratch, I hope this article will prepare you well for what’s to come; or to those who are already in the midst of doing so, motivate you to continue on your journey to mastery.

The Downs

  1. You’re not going to understand your textbook when you begin, and it’s okay.

When I was a young and innocent Secondary One student, I did not understand a single word in my French textbook. And I’m not exaggerating. We were using the French textbook ‘Alter Ego’ and every word in that seemingly easy-to-read beginner’s textbook was in French (Honestly, just what were the publishers thinking?). Truth be told, sometimes I couldn’t even tell what the questions in the textbook were asking me to do. Match words in the two columns together? Or construct sentences with the given words?

Now, don’t let this scare you away from taking up a new language because I can assure you that this is perfectly normal. Apparently, a lot of textbooks in other languages are the same. You just have to accept that this is the rite of passage – if you want to have the right to say ‘Je suis francophone’, you’ve got to earn it. There’s just no other way. Clarify doubts with your teacher. Use dictionaries or if you’re lazy, google translate (which is by the way, not very accurate). Use word reference, linguee.com – seriously, use whatever resources you have at your hands. With the Internet, everything should be at your fingertips and you’ll be fine.

  1. Listening and speaking are going to be way more difficult than you thought.

Okay, I did not see this coming. You’d think that after 3-4 years of taking a language in school, you’d be alright with making basic conversation. Well, guess what? It doesn’t matter that you can read long comprehension passages or write beautiful compositions because without sufficient practice (something that’s honestly quite hard to come by in Singapore), you’d still be stuttering at a loss for words, and most terrifyingly of all, not understand a single thing in that French children’s show on TV.

Yet all it takes is a little effort to source out interesting videos and shows in your target language on Youtube to overcome this bouldering challenge. There’s also Tête-à-Tête – an event which brings together foreign language speakers all over Singapore to practise speaking their respective languages. Listen to foreign radio. Immerse yourself in the language. Though it will probably take some time to have effect, it is worth it.

  1. The learning never ends.

The harsh truth is that even after you complete the highest grade level in your target language, you will have a high chance of forgetting the basics without practice. And it can get extremely embarrassing. Write as many 1000-word academic essays as you want and you might still forget what ‘ankle’ is in French. The fact is that when you move on to more advanced levels, classes tend to focus less on functional vocabulary – that is, vocabulary you use on a day-to-day basis. Instead, the emphasis turns to academic mastery – basically, doing General Paper (GP) and the like in your target language. So remember to always brush up and revise your basics! Don’t stop learning.

Assuming you have overcome the challenges mentioned above, you now have the right to enjoy the Ups.

The Ups

  1. Welcome to a whole new world!

Congratulations, you now have access to a whole new world of literature, history, music, film and so many more. Indulge in Les Misérables in authentic French (instead of the commercialised musical). Learn about the French Revolution or the intriguing French ideology ‘laïcité’ in class. Language classes aren’t just all about learning the language – most of the time, you’re going to be learning about that country’s culture and society and it can get really interesting. Did you know that French parents have a particular way of parenting their children? It’s something even American mothers have written books about! Prepare to see the world through a new pair of eyes.

  1. Eavesdropping is fun. And good listening practice.

Ever experienced being awkwardly stuck in the Tembusu lift with a group exchange students speaking a language you’ve never heard of? Fear not for no longer would that happen to you. Take this as a chance for you to practise your listening skills. Challenge yourself to understand everything they’re saying and if you’re brave enough, strike up a conversation with them in that language!

  1. It is worth it. And it will feel so.

After many gruelling months or years of learning your language, you will inevitably feel a gratifying sense of accomplishment. Whether it is completing the grade levels in your language or even just fulfilling your dream of finally being able to make conversation with a native speaker, you will feel great about it.

Nevertheless, as I wrote above, remember that the learning never ends. Words will be forgotten, grammar rules will be thrown away. Do whatever you can to stop that from happening. Change your phone’s language into your target language. Make it a commitment to read at least an article in your target language a day. It is only then that you have deservedly earned the right to say ‘Je suis francophone’ or whatever ‘I am a ___ speaker’ is in your desired language.


About the Author

Clarissa is a Year 1 medical student with a strong interest in politics and current affairs. When she’s not drowning in anatomy, she can be found dreaming of having a Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte while hiking in a chilly forest somewhere. She is obsessed with the British accent and hopes to attend Hogwarts one day.