By Corey Heller
Photo credit: Neil Conway
I admit it, I’ve been flirting. A lot. And what started as a fun little fling turned into a full-blown affair. He’s suave, debonair and hot-blooded. His accent is fantastic, he’s always available and I feel great when I’m with him. (And yes, my German husband knows all about it. He’s been very encouraging, in fact.)
Lately, however, the affair has been losing its allure. Something is missing and my heart just isn’t in it anymore. Sigh.
Heart and Soul
You never really know how things will go when it comes to language learning. As we know, it takes commitment (goodness knows how many times I’ve emphasized that) but there is something more to it. If our heart and soul aren’t into it, then it will be nothing short of a long, uphill battle. We were looking forward to sailing on the wide, open seas but instead find ourselves trudging through a deep jungle. Not good.
As much as I have been enjoying learning Spanish (my hot-blooded affair), I have been drawn to it primarily for its practical elements: My children are learning it, so working on it with them has been ideal. One of my friends is raising and homeschooling her children in the language, which is another bonus: I could practice my Spanish with her and her kids! The language is lovely, fun and fantastic, so what is the problem?
The problem is this: try as hard as I might, I don’t feel a personal connection to the language. I can’t find anything to “grab onto” when it comes to this language. I can barely remember the last time I was in a Spanish-speaking country (we used to make a road-trip in our 1968 VW Van to Mexico every winter when I was a kid, but that was a long time ago) and even though I’d love to visit again, it isn’t really in our foreseeable future. Not being able to speak with native-speakers is not what is holding me back from learning the language. It’s that I can’t seem to get a feel for the language, deep down inside me, which visiting a country where the language is spoken would most likely help instill.
The videos and online shows that I have found aren’t helpful in this respect either. They are often not to my taste (other than the fantastic Mi Vida Loca language learning program – I enjoyed every minute of that!). They just don’t “speak” to me and I rarely feel a camaraderie with the personality of the characters. Children’s books have been great but those only go so far. They inspire me to help my children learn Spanish but don’t provide me with that which I need.
When all is said and done, I feel like Spanish and I need a break from one another.
It Starts with a Book
Part of my decision to take a break from Spanish has to do with my husband’s rekindled language affair. While I have been focusing on Spanish, my husband has been breaking baguettes and sipping café au lait with his own muse (the French language). She is lovely, very lovely: Sophisticated, relaxed and definitely in control of the relationship. They seem so happy together as I watch with envy from the sidelines.
To top it off, a few weeks ago I received a review copy of the fantastic book Bringing Up Bébé, by Pamela Druckerman. I read it voraciously over the course of a few days and before I knew it, I had fallen in love with France (and Paris!) and the French language all over again. Reading it brought back sensations, memories and experiences that I hadn’t thought about in decades. I wanted my French language back – now!
French was my first (language) love. It was the first foreign language I learned (starting in 5th grade) and I fell madly and deeply in love with it and everything about the French culture (yes, even the annoying bits). I was that girl in high school French class at Berkeley High School who knew every vocabulary word (but didn’t admit it) and looked forward to opportunities to chatter away in French. I loved how the language sounded and how I felt speaking it!
As a high school Sophomore, I took Arnaud, a visiting French exchange student, on a tour of Berkeley and San Francisco just so that I could finally practice my French with a native speaker (he was a nice guy but I was more interested in his language and culture than him – sorry Arnaud).
So while my husband has been babbling away in French these past 5 weeks for his Language Challenge 180 adventure (he learned French in grade school in Germany) I have been listening longingly from the sidelines. It has been like two dear friends meeting up together each week to gossip and I not being invited. When Bringing Up Bébé arrived in the mail, well, a dam broke inside me: French was my friend too! I missed her and I wanted her back!
With Bringing Up Bébé as the launching off point, I started scouring the internet and my local library for inspiration and found just what I needed: websites, books, music, videos. I find the little, subtle things the most inspirational: photos of storefronts in Paris, 25 ways to tie a scarf (I love wearing scarves), a discussion about shoes, a wine recommendation.
The book Entre Nous, by Debra Olliver has been a fabulously fun read as have been Mireille Guilano’s books (most of which I read the first time years ago). A recent internet search brought up this list of inspiring websites:
- Paris Breakfasts
- David Lebovitz
- Radio France – France Bleu
- Girls’ Guide to Paris
- Hip Paris Blog
- The Paris Kitchen
- Do It in Paris
- Paris By Mouth
It isn’t that any of these sites are useful for my language learning, per se. It is more the feelings that they evoke and the impressions that they leave. Who can’t fall in love with France after looking at the photos on the Paris Breakfast blog? And while indulging in some mini chocolate cakes that we made from a David Lebovitz recipe, my family and I felt that we were sitting in a Paris cafe for an afternoon goûter (yes, we have even been implementing our own version of French meals plus afternoon snack).
I am feeling a connection to something in my past while, at the same time, something wide and expansive – a resonance with the world out there beyond my reach as well as the one in my heart. And, of course, I am sharing this with my children (and husband) who are embracing it whole-heartedly. How could they not? We take more time while eating our 4-course meals and my kids get to bake something sweet every weekend (all on their own!).
In fact, as I write this, my three children are organizing a 4-course meal that they want to prepare for me and my husband tonight. Now tell me that that isn’t fantastic (even if the courses are rather basic: salad, noodles with sauce, fresh fruit plate…)! Now this is what I call joie de vivre!
Language of the Heart
This post is a reminder: There is so much more to language learning than words and grammar. Language has a heart and soul to it and we excel in it when we connect with those pieces. We don’t always have to fall in love with a language. Polyglots tell us that their languages play different roles in their lives and embrace different personalities (with English, not surprisingly, often being a language of commerce and business).
What does the language you are learning feel like? What does it taste like? How does it resonate? Does it have a hot personality? Or maybe refined? Do you feel connected to the language because it is familiar to you or because it is so different from you? These are the questions to ask yourself! Trying to logically convince our heads to learn a language because it is good for us seems like such a futile effort. It may work for a while but over time it will lose its luster.
This is true for children as much as adults! I can’t tell you the number of times I have heard parents tell me that they are signing up their children for a language class simply because the language would be useful in the future (Chinese, Spanish, etc.). I can’t help but shake my head in dismay. My recommendation? Choose a language that has some kind of emotional connection for someone in the family: father, mother, grandmother, aunt, nanny. Or learn it along with your children! Just make sure that you feel something for it. Have a bit of an affair with it and find ways to keep that affair alive and passionate. Vocabulary is important but only if there is some passion behind the words.
If we have always wanted to learn Danish because of that Danish boyfriend we had back in college who left a strong impression, then do it! So what if Danish isn’t “useful” and “practical.” And help your kids learn it too! You can always add in the other more useful and practical languages later when you need/want them.
My affair the the Spanish language isn’t over. It is just on hold for a while. We are stepping back to remember why we wanted to get to know one another in the first place. That initial passion will return. Maybe it was too hot and steamy? Maybe I want something a little more familiar right now? Whatever the case, it feels good to take a break from Spanish for a while. In fact, we should all probably do this from time to time to keep the (language) romance alive.
I must run now. My French friend and I are getting together to sip café au lait. She wants to show me how to tie a silk scarf for those sunny spring days in Paris. Just in case.
Which language(s) have you falling in love with? What made you fall in love with it/them?