How I Learn Languages

Why do people speak to me in languages they’re learning?

I received a lot of feedback on my piece, “Why I feel uncomfortable when people speak to me in languages they’re learning.” I also asked people to share their views. A surprising number of people told me that it resonated with them, which made me feel less weird about my particularities. A few people also told me their view of languages, some of which were quite different from mine! At the end of the day, we all have different approaches to language-learning, and that is OK. Whatever works.

One of my friends however made me realize that I was being insensitive to people who are eager to practice languages with me: “I would have a hard time brushing off someone who spoke at me in shitty Japanese or even English because I remember also being shitty and needing help.” This is a very reasonable attitude.

My own tendencies just make it so that when I am “shitty and need help” in a language, I strategically limit my interactions with native speakers and increase my structured language-learning time by studying colloquial speech patterns through media such as TV shows and practicing with language exchange partners. For instance, when I went to Korea, I spent the first three months studying this way. I felt bad when I had to talk to my Korean roommate and sometimes couldn’t understand some things she said or reply appropriately. I also didn’t join any student clubs from the beginning, because I felt that at my level of Korean, I would be a burden. Later on, when I was better at holding conversations, I joined the ping pong club, and had a blast. While I still was far from perfect, I was good enough that in my initial conversations, people usually thought I was Korean.

2016-02-25 13.34.49
I even won a medal in a beginner’s tournament, so I felt like I was contributing to the team! 🙂

So part of my being thrown off by people speaking to me in languages they’re studying stems from my different philosophy towards language study. Since I would not go up to someone and speak to them in really broken language, I am confused when people do that to me.

Another part of the problem is that I am thrown off when people spout other languages at me. This causes me to respond in English or whatever language we normally speak out of instinct. As you can imagine, I was very bad at language pledges, which require students to speak to each other only in the language they’re learning. During my time in CET Osaka, a language program that has such a policy, I didn’t even realize that I kept responding in English to an American student who was speaking to me in Japanese until at least three minutes into the conversation. Something about the artificial nature of language pledges bothers me still.

Also since my focus is on becoming native-sounding, speaking to other language-learners doesn’t really help. My confusion at people wanting to practice languages with me probably comes from there as well.

So this piece is about understanding people who speak to me in languages they’re learning.

What makes it totally rational for people to speak to me in languages they’re learning even when they may have heavy accents or sound totally unnatural? Here are some conclusion I drew from my conversation with my friend and some of my own personal observations:

For some people, sounding like a native speaker is not a priority. Every now and then I get Facebook messages from friends who want to practice their languages. (Yes, this doesn’t just happen to me in person.) Over messages, accent and intonation don’t bother me, since I can’t hear them, but issues of grammar and naturalness stick out like a sore thumb. Sometimes advanced students are actually worse at sounding natural, because they’re trying hard to use more ‘advanced’ grammar and use it inappropriately. (I’m sure I am culpable of such mistakes too, but usually I will search on google to see if I’m using more standard sentence structures.) On top of this, since I was not expecting a message in another language, I am thrown off guard, which makes me annoyed and probably more judgmental as a result.

Ultimately, however, this judgment stems from my own approach to languages: I would feel embarrassed sending a message like these to anyone so I can’t understand why someone would send a message like that. Rather than seeing it as a half-assed attempt at the language though, I now see that these people just have different objectives. Their goal probably was not to sound native anyways, but to practice the language, keep it up, and not worry about the details. So while I’ll forgive myself for being thrown off by the grammar, I certainly shouldn’t judge.

This leads to the next point, which is that some people believe that you should be perpetually practicing. Maybe this is even the norm for most language learners. For instance people who might have made me feel like a language learning tool probably were not consciously “using” me. Although I felt that they were prioritizing language practice over talking to me, they probably saw them as one and the same. In fact, they were probably confused as to why I didn’t want the practice or help them if I liked language-learning so much.

My friend also said that “talking isn’t necessarily about a super efficient exchange of information, but also about playing with words and phrases. If you enjoy learning and speaking languages, it seems natural to understand why people might enjoy talking in a second language.” I have to admit that I had never thought of speaking any of my languages as intrinsically fun. But apparently, some people find speaking in another language a joy in and of itself. People like this probably also assume that I am also the same. While that is not the case, I do enjoy writing in other languages on social media. This allows me to reach friends in other countries, but also I like to think that there is an element of consent involved: if someone found my languages or pictures annoying, they could just remove me from their newsfeed.

One thing I like to do is look at the same photo and see what thoughts come to me in different languages. Two examples that come to me immediately are when my spring onion bloomed (left) and when my bathroom window looked very pretty after I was done with finals (right):

So clearly language for me is also not always about need (as I previously said). And I can imagine how people might find speaking in a language intrinsically fun.

So now the question is, given that I now understand what goes on in the minds of people who speak to me in languages they’re learning, how do I respond?

What should I do when people “spout languages” at me?

My friend put it well when he said,

Everyone learning a language benefits from free help from a variety of people, native and nonnative. If you reach a high level I feel like you are obligated to help newer people find their way as well, so the cycle of learning continues.

I think this is a very respectable attitude to have, and would like to use it to guide my response. And for the record, it’s not that I don’t like helping people with languages; in fact, I love helping people–just in compartmentalized language-practice settings, such as tutoring and language exchange. (My former tutees and language exchange partners can attest to this 🙂 ) I also don’t mind when my friends ask me Chinese questions, e.g. a friend doing homework asked me ‘how do you say submarine in Chinese.” Another friend would ask me questions about news articles on Taiwan. After all, I do know how much help I received!

Maybe the best thing I can do (after re-orienting myself from the confusion of being spouted at) is to say “Look, I just feel awkward talking to people in another language when we could be speaking in a language we’re both native in. That’s a personal part of my approach to languages. But I respect your enthusiasm towards language practice and I would love to learn about your language-learning philosophy.”

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