You Know You’re Language Learning If…

I have three pieces of advice for adult language learners: talk to people, don’t panic, and trust your brain.

Language learning brings with it a whole host of new physical and mental sensations. You’re going to feel awkward and like a poser sometimes. Some days it will feel like your brain is going to explode, or like you’re not learning a new language so much as forgetting your first one. But if you keep talking with people and don’t let these new sensations worry you, your brain will do something magical for you: it will learn the language.

While you are giving it lots of meaning-rich input from actual people, and trying not to panic, your brain will be calculating. You’ll be going in there and dumping tons of new sounds, syllables, and meanings on the floor of your brain, and at first, your brain will be like, “Uh… housekeeping?”

But soon, your brain will perform a kind of miracle. It will start to categorize all that meaningless stuff. It will find boxes in a back room and start heaping verbs in there, along with images, sensations, and memories to add meaning to those verbs. Your inner librarian will start putting stuff in filing cabinets and shelving like items together. (Am I the only one who pictures their brain like a giant library?)

Anyway, when you’ve been listening and talking all day and your brain shuts down and you can’t remember your own name, rejoice and be exceeding glad. This is a good sign. It means your brain is doing so many important things in the background that it’s closed the library for the day. 

Don’t be surprised if you wake up remembering a random word for which you have no meaning. Go find the missing meaning, and you’ll never forget that word. Trust the process. And if you need a reminder that you’re not alone on this language learning journey, read on.

You Know You’re Language Learning If…

Even though it’s more expensive, you often shop at the Supermarket because you still can’t tell the difference between 12 and 267, and because at the Supermarket you don’t have to talk to strangers with the seven words that you do know.

Or, if you are more extroverted, you only shop at vegetable stands, and become best friends with all the vendors, and stay there all day talking about how many brothers and sisters everyone has within a five-mile radius.

Even though you can’t speak a complete sentence in your new language, you cannot remember the word for “beans” in your mother tongue. It has been replaced by the new-language equivalent. Even though you worry this is permanent, you are secretly proud of yourself.

If this is your third language, your brain keeps offering you words from your second language. You reject these. As a result, your brain purposefully forgets your second language, leading you to think it’s gone forever. (It’s not necessarily gone; it’s in storage. Just be sure to use it occasionally, or your inner librarian will chuck it in the dumpster.)

Talkative people who repeat themselves a lot are your favorite people in the world. Especially if they give you cake and frequently tell you what a good job you are doing.

You get the gist of what people are saying… except sometimes you’re wrong. Like when someone asks you a question, and you respond, “I like chicken,” except they didn’t actually ask you what your favorite food was but rather where you are going, and they look at you like you’re from another planet.

You are thrilled to realize that you now notice the spaces between words. Soon, you can identify and ask about a single word that you need a definition for.

You post so many words on your walls that your apartment starts to resemble the shack in A Beautiful Mind.

Someone mistakes you for a native speaker, and you are thrilled. The very next day, someone doesn’t understand you when you ask what time it is.

You make a funny language faux pas.

You make an X-rated language faux pas.

You are thankful that everyone laughs at your faux pas. You laugh, too. You even laugh when you don’t know why everyone is laughing, like a two-year-old at the dinner table. Which is great, except when someone asks you, “Do you understand why we’re laughing?” And you have to say no because Christians don’t lie.

Your kids correct your pronunciation.

Someone says your spouse is better than you at the language. That very same day, someone else says you are better than your spouse.

Because of the two previous points, you realize you might need the tiniest little vacation. And maybe some therapy.

Sometimes you think you might be fluent. You are talking quickly and everyone is understanding what you say. Until the next day, when you can’t remember the word for “the.”

You make your first real word-play joke in the language. However, the comedic effect is ruined when your friends try to correct what they assume is a mistake.

You ask for the Chinese newspaper on a Chinese airline, but when you try to ask the flight attendant for water in Mandarin, she looks at you with disdain and says, “Sure. You want me to bring you the English newspaper, too?” (True story!)

You start dreaming in your target language and understand everything better than in real life.

You tell someone the gospel story in your broken, weird, childish way… and their heart is touched, and they want to know more, and you feel like you could do this forever, even if it is hard on the pride.

What about you? How do you know you’re a language learner?

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Abigail Follows

Abigail Follows has lived on three continents and understood the life stories of friends in three languages. She has served as a missionary since 2010, alongside her husband, two energetic kids, and cat, Protagonist. Abigail is the author of Hidden Song of the Himalayas: Memoir of a Gospel Seed Sower in the Mountains of India.