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Let’s All Gang Up on the Multilinguals: Three Ways to Combat Language Learner’s Envy Posted by on Apr 21, 2014 in Language Learning, Uncategorized

When I lived in Morocco in 2012, it was in Al Hoceima, a seaside town on the Mediterranean coast. Built by the Spanish in the mid-1920s, Al Hoceima became Moroccan in the 1950s after independence, but as such a young city, it retained a lot of its international influence. The majority of locals in Al Hoceima with a basic education grow up speaking fluent Moroccan Arabic, Standard Arabic, French, Spanish, and Tamazight (the regional flavor of Berber).

That’s just where they start

Many people I met during my time there also spoke another language or two on top of that: English, German, Italian, or Dutch were popular choices due to emigration. In Berlin, where I currently live, I have a friend who speaks Spanish, English, and German as mother languages. Perfectly! He never studied any of them, he just grew up in a multilingual household. His father speaks fluently every single language I’m trying to learn, plus a few more to rub it in. It’s really quite unfair.

Meeting others that can speak 3+ languages as a mother tongue can be a bit frustrating. “Look at the head start they had,” you tell yourself. “I know that learning languages is easier after the second or third language. They’ve already accomplished what I set out to do, three times over! Plus, it’s harder to learn languages the older you get! How am I ever supposed to catch up?” Believe me, I’ve been there. In fact, I’m there right now.

Just stop, breathe deep, and take that noose off from around your neck, my friend. It’s not over until it’s over! Let’s cheer each other up.

First, remember that you already speak a mother language! As you read this, somewhere, someone is trying desperately to learn your language, and probably having a hell of a time of it. All those exceptions to the grammar rules? All those figures of speech and weird verb endings? You don’t even have to think about it. So, pat on the back. You’re the master, they are the pupils.

Secondly, it’s never too late to start. That goes for pretty much everything. Yeah, mastering a language takes a long time, and it helps to start early, if only to have the head start. But it doesn’t take forever. Do you know why kids are so good at learning new languages? Sure, part of it is that their brains are little information sponges. But they also spend most of their time learning! The vast majority of their waking hours are spent struggling with language comprehension, pronunciation, and grammar. How many hours a day do you spend working on your language learning? One? Three? You know, you can always drop everything and move to a small village in the Alps to immerse yourself in German. I guarantee you’ll be fluent after a year. What’s stopping you?

(Very interesting side note: I spoke to a guy once who was in the French Foreign Legion. For those that don’t know, any non-French citizen can join at any time, no questions asked. From day one, however, it’s required you speak French and only French. For those that don’t, you’re paired with a French-speaker whose responsibility it is to get you up to speed. It’s total immersion. This guy claimed that within 3 months under those conditions, everyone is fluent in French.)

Third, it’s not a race. There’s no finish line. To paraphrase a wiser wizard than myself, all you have to worry about is what to do with the time you’ve got. Nobody gets a reward for learning ten languages, or punished for knowing just one. You’re not competing against people who are better than you. Set yourself a goal, then do your best to reach it. What more is there?

Besides, remember that 90% of native multi-language speakers are jerks, and it’s probably harder to be them than it is to be you. Okay, just kidding, I’m not prejudiced. Some of my best friends speak multiple languages fluently, I swear! But seriously, there’s nothing to be done but buckle down and get back to it. Nothing worth doing is easy to do, and there are so many rewarding benchmarks to learning a language. There’s really nothing like your first successful conversation with someone in a language you’re learning. It’s exhilarating.

You might just say it would take all the fun out of learning it if you already grew up speaking it!

What have been your experiences? Did you grow up speaking several languages? I know some people lose their childhood languages. What’s that like? What kind of immersive experiences have you had? How many of you can speak multiple languages as mother tongues? Now, who wants to join me in beating those people up?

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About the Author: Malachi Rempen

Malachi Rempen is an American filmmaker, author, photographer, and cartoonist. Born in Switzerland, raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico, he fled Los Angeles after film school and expatted it in France, Morocco, Italy, and now Berlin, Germany, where he lives with his Italian wife and German cat. "Itchy Feet" is his weekly cartoon chronicle of travel, language learning, and life as an expat.


Comments:

  1. Melissa:

    I have 2 languages that I can call as my mother tongue. Not the third as my father prefers to speak to me in English and not his native language. His relatives speak to me in the national language, which was taught to me tentatively in my reception year, then more immersion after that. So generally, I said I know 3 languages. As for the others… I have a passing knowledge. And I am not fluent enough to hold a conversation. Yet, every year, for two weeks in a household speaking Polish, I can actually understand it. I know that if I stayed longer, I may be fluent in it. Just dont ask me to read Polish… now that is tough.

  2. Katie:

    I love this! As an American with our poor foreign language education focus, I feel SO far behind with my German (and other “hobby” languages) compared to most of Europe and everywhere else. This feeling is exemplified post college, since my language-learning has had to take a back seat to paying bills. Thank you for the encouragement.

  3. Trena:

    Very inspiring story. I’ve always wanted to learn Italian and recently French, now i’ve added Latin just for fun. My one sibling wants to learn Spanish. I think i’ll pull out those DVD and workbooks and try again and this time NOT worry about how long it’s taking me. Thank you.

  4. Diana:

    Haha, I know how you feel. But you know what’s worse? People that learn to perfectly speak several languages after their 20s. They don’t even have the advantage of being kids! I hate those geniuses. Just kidding, you have to learn to love them and convince yourself that you can beat them at something.

    • Malachi Rempen:

      @Diana Very true! Another friend of mine in Berlin, English fellow, didn’t speak anything but English until he was 21, and now he’s 24 and has learned fluent German and Italian, and is conversational in Hebrew and Arabic. What gives??

  5. Nicole Lyka:

    That made me feel way better, honestly.

    I speak 2 languages as my mother tongue, although due to Western influence in our country, I’m pretty sure I understand more English than native Filipino. (Which is sad, really.) I’ve been learning the basics of Danish and French recently and it’s really difficult, especially since I’m just a teenager and I don’t have the resources to professionally learn or migrate someplace else. But to imagine myself speaking said languages fluently in the future, I’m pretty motivated to push through no matter what.

    • Malachi Rempen:

      @Nicole Lyka These days, with everything online, you have access to amazing resources. Skype 2 hours a week with a French person, and you’ll be well on your way to fluency!

  6. Xenia:

    I speak Catalan and Spanish as mother togues, and I’m quite fluent in English. I’ve also studied French, German and Basque, although I’m not proficient on any of these. I can also understand some Italian (one of the advantatges of having two romance languages as mother tongues! :p)My next targets are Esperanto, they say that you can be proficient with just one year!, and Catalan sign language.

  7. Barbara:

    Thank you for posting this. I live in Brazil and even though we learn English and Spanish at school not so many of us get fluency. I love English language since I can remember and started studying it by myself before i started at school. I don’t consider myself fluent because I don’t have the opportunity to practice as much as I can. I’m also learning French, German and Spanish. But as an over 30-ish I find it very difficult. But it is as you said. Practice. Practice. Practice. Younger ones beat us because they don’t give up easily. They focus onto something and don’t rest till they figure it out. That’s what I’m going to do!

  8. Diya:

    I can relate with this article so much! One of my close friends is Algerian, and so can speak French and Arabic, and it’s so annoying because I’m aspiring to be fluent in French, Spanish, Urdu and Arabic and she has already reached half of my goal without even trying! My parents speak urdu but I reply in English, I wish they’d made me speak urdu when I was younger, I would be fluent by now, very frustrating lol!

  9. Kiki:

    Dutch (mothertongue), Limburgs (dialect), German, English, French, Luxembourgish (Yes, it is an official language, not a dialect ;-)), basic Spanish and trying to learn Mandarin now. My four kids all speak 5 languages as well. Vive Luxembourg!! And I mean “speak” in the sense of “conversation”, not just able to order a cappuccino!

  10. J Wilson:

    Thanks ! Merci ! My goal is to be able to speak French better ! I speak English ! Must be wonderful to grow up surrounded by so many languages that you learn them without even trying ! But thanks – I will set my small goal of sticking to trying with my French !

  11. Kriztina:

    I’m at university studying German and Spanish. I started German in secondary school but as British systems (at at least English ones) don’t put nearly enough stress on the importance of language learning, I feel like it’s taking me forever to learn German. I started Spanish at university two years ago and have recently started Swedish. My goal is to be fluent in all of these plus another language like French, but the pressure of first graduating from uni with my target grade kind of puts other language-learning in second place. I’m conversational in German and also in Spanish and Swedish(just rather slowly). Reading this article really helped me to see that these things do take time and that I need to focus a lot more on what I can already do and not what I can’t do 🙂

  12. Manuel:

    Hi! It’s a pleasure to read this! When you start learning a language you can’t stop to learn other and other… The clue is to meet new people who can help you with the language you want to learn and improve. My mother tongue is Spanish and I also speak English, French, Italian, Portuguese, Korean and Mandarin Chinese (I’ll go to Taiwan for 6 months to improve it) and it’s also very very nice to help others to practice the language you speak and at the same time it helps you too. So, don’t be afraid to learn a new language, it’s awesome 😀 hugs.

  13. litebobcat:

    > Third, it’s not a race. There’s no finish line

    It is a race, but not for speed.
    It is a marathon where everyone who finishes is a winner.
    And those who did not finished get a reward for trying.

    Bob


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