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Three Terrifying Things About Language Learning Posted by on Oct 26, 2015 in Archived Posts

Itchy Feet: Casual Costuming

It’s that time of year – the days are shorter, the evenings are chillier, and the leaves are dying in droves of yellow and brown, their shriveled, bone-dry corpses falling unceremoniously to the ground where they will wither and decay, shattering into a gory, crunchy mess under the feet of children everywhere. Yes, it’s a ghoulish time. If you’re in the USA, it’s time to start thinking about what wacky costume you’ll be wearing to the staff party this year. For the rest of the world, it’s time again to wonder what the big deal is with this whole halloween thing anyway (see: comic above) and bemoan the global advance of yet another over-commercialized American holiday.

But it’s also time to get scared.

Fans of the dark, the macabre and the downright spooky are rubbing their skeletony hands in anticipation of this year’s bout of scary stories. Well, I for one won’t deprive you of the joys of this season of horror – allow me to switch on the flashlight under my chin, bare my fangs, and regale you with the three things that terrify me most about language learning. BOO!

1. Speaking in public

Ah yes, public embarrassment. If you haven’t noticed, I’ve written about this particular fear of mine quite a few times already, which should tip you off that it still haunts me to this day. Now, speaking in public is scary even when armed with your comfortable native language, but when forced to walk the creaking floors of conversation with a stranger with only your learned language to comfort you, you suddenly feel the hair raise on the back of your neck.

Why, only recently I found myself at a book signing put on at a local Italian bookstore, and as the author explained his ideas to the crowd gathered there, I realized with cold dread that I had a question. I knew I could not just keep silent, for this was an opportunity to practice my Italian, yet here was a large group of people who natively spoke this language, and did not yet know that I did not. By speaking up, I would reveal myself to them, an imposter in their midst. Who knows what terrifying turns the evening would take from there? Would they point? Would they laugh? Would they feast upon my flesh? The horror!

As it turned out, it went just fine. But perhaps next time I’ll be devoured alive!!

2. Losing what I’ve learned

I sometimes feel my brain has the storage capability of a rusty, haunted old sieve. Perhaps it was owned previously by a brainless zombie robot, or perhaps it was forged by the hand of some absent-minded skeleton werewolf, but it sure doesn’t seem to want to keep much that it learns, and that’s a truly terrifying prospect. All that time, all that work, all that energy put into learning something, and it just falls out of my head like the brain matter of some sort of undead ghoul? Auuuuughhhhh!

Over the summer I spent a few days with my wife in Bordeaux, a ghostly land of spookily fine wine and blood-chillingly tasty cheese, where we spoke with the suspiciously friendly locals in their voluptuous tongue. It had been some time since we had opened the rusted gates of the tomb-like wing in our brains titled “French”, and so our attempts at civilized conversation were more a gruesome display of villainous butchery. We dismembered sentences, disemboweled pronunciation and decapitated figures of speech, leaving a grisly trail of linguistic viscera behind us.

After a while, like riding a bicycle, it all started to come back to us, and in fact we realized we hadn’t lost that much at all. But I assure you, for a while there our “French” better resembled serpentine incantations from HELL!

3. Grammar tables

Look at a table of German declensions. You’ve been warned.

What about you? What scares you most about language learning?

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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.


  1. Diana:

    I’m English-French bilingual per L’Alliance Française. I am a functional Spanish-speaker, at least enough of one to resolve shipping issues with Spanish-speaking customers, shipping company employees, and customs agents when exporting freight shipments while I worked at the HQ of the North American branch of a Danish automation company. I have had formal instruction in basic German. I am a beginner Irish Gaelic speaker and Norwegian speaker. Learning Irish Gaelic and Norwegian are my own personal independent language-learning pursuits.

    Granted, I have a rather freakish ability to pick up languages rapidly and with relative ease (keyword: relative; my language learning is by no means easy). It’s as if my cognitive linguistic functions never left that key window of brain development experienced by young children when languages are easiest to learn. I even pick up languages the same way as very young children- not by studying heavy formal education textbooks, but by mimicry.

    Unlike young children, my natural language mimicry applies to both spoken and written language. Similar to the language acquisition of young children, I find meaning through context. By actively exposing myself to foreign languages- i.e. reading classic French literature- Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris was no light reading; having Twitter conversations in Irish with native speakers- based on received responses, evidently I am understood; watching German films- as a beginner, I frequently pause the movies, repeat the last line I heard, rewind, listen and repeat again, and so on until I can say what they actors say. I have family members in Norway; I informed one of my relatives of my desire to learn Norwegian and he has helped me by emailing short news articles published in Norway to me.

    As an American, it is no surprise that I regularly encounter Spanish-speaking migrants. Many of the maintenance employees of my apartment complex are Spanish-speakers who can speak English as long as it’s kept simple. I do my best to return the favor- besides, anyone can say “Gracias” to someone for holding the door. Does it matter? I couldn’t say, and I can’t make such a grand generalization. However, I have never heard more sincere responses of “Muchos gracias,” than when I said, “Los muros son hermosos. ¡Bellísimo!” as maintenance employees were finishing up the repainting of our building’s hallways. Was my grammar perfectly correct? Did I phrase my compliment oddly? Would a native speaker have used different words? I don’t know. What matters is that the message leapt and cleared the language barrier.

    In another instance, I was attending an event and a family friend had brought her sister- a native of Colombia who spoke no English. She was welcomed in Spanish by several, but after that, no one said a word to her! I pulled a few people with whom I am close to the side, casually, one at a time, and quietly encouraged them to speak to the woman. “But I don’t know Spanish!” was always the reply. “I’m probably pretty rusty with Spanish. We should still try, for the sake of making her feel included,” I’d say. “Try how?” I sighed and, walking away backward for a few steps, said quietly, “Like this, dammit.” I spent the rest of the event sitting with our Colombian guest, stumbling, stuttering, apologizing, retracting phrases, and asking her to repeat herself or speak a bit more slowly for me. Yes, I was embarrassed, not being prepared to converse entirely in Spanish that day. By the end, my brain was exhausted. I made many grammatical errors- and I know this because I recognized them and rephrased several of my sentences. Whatever. I had an actual, hours-long conversation in Spanish, including a bit of joking around. She didn’t care that my speech was clumsy. She cared that I was the only person who tried.

    I’ve lived with a family in France to continue my studies of French language. They were amazing hosts, quickly catering to my every wish and far more, for which I will always be grateful. They did not speak English. I attended school with their daughter- of course, I was given a wide margin of error during classes as a foreign student. Every waking hour was a race through the filing cabinets in my brain, leaving quite a mess in there, as I listened carefully when addressed, translated to English in my head, thought of a response, translated it to French, and tried to pronounce it accurately aloud- all within the normal time frame of responding to someone in a conversation. I was extraordinarily tired at the end of each day. The payoff was incredible. I recently attended a friend”s family event, and wouldn’t you know it, a young man from France was in attendance. His English was impressive, I must credit him for that- but I thoroughly enjoyed the smug feeling of turning everyone’s heads when I introduced myself to him and began to converse with him fluidly and easily in French. “You speak French?!” said my friend’s aunt to me. “Yes, she speaks French,” answered the young man.

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