I speak four languages, and here's what I can tell you about learning a foreign language

Updated: Jul 8, 2020

Since I was a child, I’ve been interested in other languages. I officially started learning another one when I registered for French as an eighth-grade student. In college, I majored in Spanish Teaching and minored in French Teaching—which I did around an 18-month break living in South Korea, volunteering and learning Korean. I’ve also spent summers in France and Colombia. I spent several years teaching middle school and high school French and Spanish, and even earned my master’s degree in Spanish Pedagogy.

As you can tell, I’ve spent much of my life learning other languages, practicing other languages, and teaching other languages—and I can tell you that those processes have turned out to be a lot different than what I was expecting all those years ago as an eighth grader attending my first French class. So here’s a list of things I’ve learned about language learning since then.

1. Knowing a language is a continuum, not a binary state

People often see “knowing” a language or “speaking” a language as an either/or state. You speak the language, or you don’t. Simple.

If I could get across to you just one thing about learning a language, though, it would be this: Languages are not binary. Instead, they're on a continuum.

It goes something like this: You start off on one end of the continuum when you learn your first word or two. With practice, you start being able to put sentences together, and understand pieces of what others are saying when they speak it. As you keep learning, you keep making progress along the continuum. You become able to talk about a wider range of topics, to navigate formal versus informal, to generally understand speakers. As you keep learning, you’ll be able to use cultural references and idioms that don’t translate literally to your native language. Even so, you’ll still make the occasional mistake, and you still might not understand speakers from a country with an accent you’re not familiar with, or references from a culture you don’t know.

I love this quote about this that comes from an academic paper:

"Individuals can never be perfectly monolingual or bilingual: Even the most monolingual people have had some experience with another language…and all bilinguals have preferred languages or contexts."

Bialystok, E., Craik, F. I. M., & Luk, G. (2012). ‘Bilingualism: Consequences for Mind and Brain’, Trends in Cognitive Science, 16/4: 240–50.

Learning a language is a complex, lengthy process—even when you're a native speaker. There are a whole lot of stages to that process, and there are a whole lot of contexts, topics, grammar structures, and cultural understandings to a language. Instead of thinking of knowing a language versus not, think of the continuum that is the journey of language-learning.

2. Learning a new language is not simply learning to exchange one word for another

I’ve learned while teaching foreign languages that, often, when someone starts that process for the first time, they expect it will simply a matter of exchanging one word for another. Let me illustrate with the type of conversation that has happened a lot between me and my students over the years. It goes something like this:

Student: “Ms. Gold, how do you say ‘I’ in Spanish?”

Me: “Yo.

Student: “How do you say ‘am’?”

Me: “Soy.”

Student: “And ‘cold’?”

Me: “Frío.”

Student: “Okay. Ms Gold: Yo soy frío.”

Me: “…are you trying to say ‘I am cold’?”

Student: “Yes, that’s what I said!”

Me: “Ooohhh…so…actually…first of all, in Spanish, you actually say ‘I have cold,’ not ‘I am cold.’”

Student: “What? That’s ridiculous! That doesn’t make sense.”

Me: “Well, actually, things don’t always literally translate word-for-word from one language to another. It’s like in English, how you say things like ‘That’s hard to wrap your head around.’ If you said that word-for-word in another language, someone who has never heard that phrase might think you mean physically trying to stretch your head and put it on something—it wouldn’t make any sense!”

Student: “Oh…”

Me: “Also, different languages have different grammar and structure. In Spanish, for one, you don’t always have to use pronouns. The way their verbs are conjugated are so different between, say, ‘they are’ and ‘we are’ that you don’t even need to use ‘they’ or ‘we’! So, actually, you would usually just say tengo frío.”

Student: “…”

Me: “Yay languages!”

3. There are awesome benefits to learning another language--even as a beginner, even if you never get great at speaking it

As a junior high and high school French and Spanish teacher, I knew the majority of my students would not end up doing much more with the languages than that class. For that reason, I always made a point of how language learning has some awesome benefits--even if you don't go on to get incredibly proficient. Here are some of those benefits:

  • Learning another language teaches you about people who are different from you

  • It teaches you empathy

  • It teaches you patience

  • It lets you practice and refine your study skills

  • It shows you the world is bigger than you and your own culture

  • Studies associate taking another language with benefits like higher creativity, improved cognition, and better grades in classes like math and science

  • It improves your communication skills--even in your native language

  • It gives you practice in handling situations where you don't understand everything that's going on

  • It allows you to meet people and have experiences you wouldn't have otherwise