(Thank you to Alexei K. for the inspiration to write about learning languages)
Some people think that because my husband is French, I speak French fluently. Truth is, I’m not all that great in French.
Well, actually, sometimes I’m pretty good, but sometimes I’m not. It depends on a lot of things, but mostly it depends on how much I practice.
Practice, practice, practice
Practice (using the language as much as you can) is the key to fluency and improvement in language learning. I’m an English teacher and this is what I tell my students all the time.
Use the language you’re trying to learn and you’ll improve. There’s no way you can’t improve if you use it regularly.
People also think that because I have a French husband, I get to practice speaking French all the time. That would be the obvious conclusion, wouldn’t it? However, I’m lazy. And, although I have the perfect French teacher with me under my roof every day, I don’t take full advantage of that.
I speak English at home a lot. Olivier’s English, as a result, has improved immensely since we’ve been married.
Two different nationalities
People often ask us, when they learn that we’re of different nationalities (and especially when we were living in Moscow) what language we speak together at home. And our answer is always the same – it depends.
It depends if one of us is tired, or if we think the other person won’t understand what we want to say unless it’s in their native language, or if we’re so excited about something we can only think/speak in our native language. It depends on a lot of things.
And for us, there are no rules when it comes to which language we use with each other.
When Olivier and I first started going out together, I’d already learnt French and I could speak it to a certain degree. I’d learnt French for 2 years in high school, but then in my 30s I took evening classes and learnt French to a conversational level (although not for very sophisticated conversation!).
Learning a language as an adult
My French learning experience at 30-something was a lot different than it was when I was at school. There was a lot more focus on speaking when I learnt it as an adult, instead of learning lists of words and their translations which is what we did at school.
As an adult learner, I had one lesson a week, and studied for an hour or more at home EVERY DAY after work. I watched French films all the time. I read the Yahoo website in French. I really wanted to learn, it was a passion.
And, although Olivier had only learnt English at school many years ago, he still remembered a lot and could say a lot of things in English, with only small prompts from me when he forgot something or didn’t know a word in English.
A bi-lingual family
However, we both wanted to improve in our second languages. So, without even making a decision about what language to use, whenever we talked to each other, I spoke to him in French and he spoke to me in English.
And when people first heard us talking together they were amused – I’m sure it sounded very odd to hear us both speaking different languages to each other!
My French really improved in the beginning of our relationship, especially when I joined him in Paris and spent months there, speaking only French with him, with his friends, watching French TV and shopping in French.
Immersion is the best teacher when it comes to learning languages.
Then we moved to Moscow together, and a few months later I started learning Russian.
I’d had experience learning French for 2 years while in high school, and German for 1 year, plus then French again in my 30s as I just mentioned. I was no stranger to the language learning process.
But Russian language – that’s another story.
Learning Russian is difficult
I spent hours and hours reading Russian grammar books. I went to some lessons, but unfortunately the teacher wasn’t very good, and I wasn’t very good at getting up early to go to my 10.30am lesson. So I missed a lot. Then the group closed due to all the students dropping out.
I continued ‘studying’ Russian at home, reading grammar, reading little stories, doing exercises. But nothing seemed to stick. I couldn’t remember much, just random words.
Then Olivier and I joined another group to learn it together. The teacher was better than my previous one. And she had a lovely, friendly personality which made us want to do well in her lessons.
We did our homework together after every lesson.
We spoke as much as we could in the class.
It looked like we were making some progress.
Then for various reasons we stopped going to lessons. So I tried to teach myself at home, finishing the book that we’d started in the group, and generally tried to retain what I was ‘learning’.
Which wasn’t easy.
That was the end of my Russian lessons with a teacher.
Sometime later, Olivier joined another group, with the same teacher, and continued studying for another couple of years. Unfortunately, my working schedule made it impossible for me to join the classes.
Back to English
The problem for me, or maybe it’s an excuse, is that as an English speaker in Moscow, most non-native English speakers want to speak English with me, for practice.
I didn’t have any native English speaking friends in Moscow, only Russians. And a lot of them spoke some degree of English. They loved speaking English with me!
And why would I refuse? After all, it made my life a lot easier! (Remember, I already told you that I’m lazy)
So, all our Russian friends were speaking English to me, I was speaking English at home a lot, and I was speaking English at work all day with my students (because I was teaching it!) and the administration staff in the office.
Despite living in Moscow, it seems that I didn’t have much need to speak Russian fluently. I was doing just fine with mostly only English communication.
I could, and still can, function quite well in Russian in restaurants, cafes, bars, shops, markets, public transport and asking for directions. I can speak and understand functional language quite well.
I just can’t have conversations with people because I lack the vocabulary, and my mouth doesn’t work when I want to use Russian words.
Russian grammar is quite complex, and it’s extremely interesting (for me) to study it and learn it. I can correct Olivier when he makes mistakes with Russian grammar (to a point).
But I can’t use it myself!
Am I ashamed of having lived in Moscow for 12 years and not being able to speak Russian fluently?
Yes, I am.
However, after some years, after all the lessons I took and the hundreds of hours I spent pouring over grammar books at home, doing grammar exercises, and even watching Soviet films, there was a point in time when I realised that we weren’t going to be staying in Russia forever. We were going to have to leave at some point, so I wouldn’t force my brain anymore to try and master this very difficult language.
Yes, I took the easy way out. I didn’t try hard enough, I didn’t use every opportunity to practice with Russian native speakers.
I use the defence (excuse) that I didn’t need to learn more Russian, that I could manage my daily tasks with what little I knew already. It was just too hard for me to remember everything!
I do think, which I also use as a defence, that it’s harder to learn, to retain new information, as we get older. Age reduces our ability to learn.
At least, it feels like it for me.
One thing I also wanted to mention is that at some point, Olivier and I started speaking Frenglish. I mean that we would start a sentence in French and finish it in English, or vice versa. It seems that we had no control over what was coming from our brains to our mouths.
And it wasn’t strange for us to do this, it seemed (and still seems) a very natural way to communicate with each other. We do it every day, even now.
And then after learning Russian we started adding Russian words into the mix.
For some reason, there are some Russian words that most ex-pats and other foreigners in Russia use, instead of using the English word, or whatever their native language is.
- smetana (сметана) – sour cream
- remont (ремонт) – repair work (in an apartment/building/office etc.)
- babushka (бабушка) – grandmother (is also used for any ‘old lady’)
- dacha (дача) – country house/summer cottage
- devushka (девушка) – girl/young lady
- piva (пиво) – beer
- apteka (аптека) – pharmacy/chemist
- wagon (вагон) – railway/train carriage
So, when you combine English, French, and Russian, in our house you could hear us saying things like this:
“Did you know that the apteka is closed now? It’s closed for remont.”
“Tu veux smetana in your soup?”
“The babushka from next door spoke to me on the stairs today, mais j’ai rien compris!”
French, English and Russian all in the same sentence sometimes! And we don’t even realise that we’re doing it.
And, as if it wasn’t difficult enough for me to manage French and Russian as foreign languages, I decided to teach myself German.
Let’s try to learn German
Why? Good question. It’s because I felt like such a failure with Russian that I needed something to boost my self-confidence, and apparently German isn’t so difficult.
So, I’ve spent quite a lot of time over the years teaching myself German. I can understand some things, and I can talk in shops and restaurants when we’re in Germany. I can even watch films and understand them to a point. But I haven’t managed to get anywhere near the level that I would like.
It’s because I’m lazy. It’s because I don’t practice! It’s because I’m old!
But I really love the German language, and I guess I’ll find some time when we’re more settled and try to improve on what I already know. I can’t say it will be super useful now, because we don’t have any plans to visit Germany in the near future.
While we lived in Moscow we went to Germany at least once a year on holiday, sometimes twice. So it was practical to learn a little of the language to be able to communicate while we were there. I love Germany, especially Berlin, so I really hope we’ll get there again one day.
Adding Romanian to the list
And now, as you may know, we find ourselves in Romania. And, even though we don’t intend on staying here long term, we have made an effort to learn some Romanian to be polite in shops etc.
Although I have found that a lot of people speak English here, so that’s a plus.
We’ve learnt numbers in Romanian. When we do our daily exercise in the living room (an activity we started after being locked down in Bucharest), we count in Romanian! It’s been a great way to learn and remember numbers. Now when we shop, especially in the market, we can almost understand most prices when we’re told how much something is.
We’ve also learnt some basic words and phrases like hello, please, thank you, goodbye, as well as some food words so that we know what we’re buying in the supermarket.
Another good way to learn languages is to go shopping. Today I learnt the word ‘cabina’, which is the fitting room, or changing room, in a shop where you try on clothes. I saw it on a sign on the wall of one shop we were in.
Then when we were in the next shop Olivier wanted to ask the shop assistant if he could try on some jeans, but she didn’t understand him and he didn’t have the language to tell her what he wanted. So I just said ‘cabina’ and she understood me immediately and showed him where it was.
When I told Olivier later that I learnt that word just a few minutes before in the other shop, because it was written on the wall, he said that he didn’t see it because he hadn’t been wearing his glasses.
So, I guess the best advice for learning languages is practice, practice, practice – and wear your glasses when you go shopping.
What’s been your experience with language learning? Do you love it or is it hard work for you? Let us know in the comments any advice you have about learning a second language successfully.
~ Cheryl (scroll down for my language learning tips!)
My top tips for successful language learning:
- Make time every day for study, even as a beginner – just 10 or 15 minute a day can make a difference
- Find someone to learn with, or at least a teacher who can help you, especially in the beginning
- Learn your new language by doing activities that you love doing anyway, like watching films, doing puzzles such as crosswords, reading books, or just chatting to people online
- Don’t worry about making mistakes when you speak, it’s going to help you learn!
- Write something in your new language every day, just a few sentences about what you did and where you went, try to find new vocabulary to use
- Keep a record of any new, useful words you learn each day
- Try to visit a country where they speak the language you’re learning
- Join groups online or in real life where they only use your new language
- Practice thinking in your new language
- Read websites in your new language
- Don’t give up!