“Before vs. After” – My Personal Language Learning Victories

A beautiful day in Paris. I sit in a brasserie très chaleureux and order une assiette de charcuterie from the waiter, compliment the charming atmosphere and appearance of the place and throw in a small-talkey comment about the weather. They politely ask me something about my stay and if I like it here, I assure I do and ask for tips for something interesting to see in the neighbourhood. Everything in French, bien sûr.

That’s the dream. I don’t know any statistics, but I would guess it is the typical dream of  an average language learner: being able to travel and speak the language. The great moment of language success we aim for may be successfully making an order in a restaurant, or managing to hold up a 15 minute conversation with a native speaker, or even surviving the whole trip speaking the target language only.

At least I admit I have always been a travelling-oriented language learner (besides just being passionate about the languages). In upper secondary school, I was learning French and German, and had really high expectations about testing my skills in practice on an after-graduation interrail trip I was planning with a friend.

But language learning is a long process, and personally, I really don’t travel that often (wish I could, though). So when I do get to travel somewhere a target language of mine is spoken, I put a lot of expectations on the trip and on the upcoming language-speaking glory. Then I get disappointed, if I miss any chances to speak or if it just doesn’t go as smoothly as I’d imagined. On the interrail trip, after three years of studying French, I didn’t even manage to buy stamps at a post office without switching to English.

That was, of course, many years ago. I like to think I have matured as a language learner. I now realise I need other goals and milestones, too, and that language learning success comes in many forms. It is important for motivation to find moments when I can look back and say: “I’ve learned a lot. I’m better at this than before.”

But in everyday language learning, the moments of success are hard to catch, because the progress is often so subtle. For example, with my Russian tandem practice, it took three months before I could even notice I am getting better. And still I sometimes feel like I’m getting nowhere and I’m getting there too slowly. That is when I might start losing motivation if I wasn’t able to tell myself I can do it.

I’ve already learned a few languages, and they say you get more confident as a learner with each new language. The thing is, until last year, I’d basically only learned languages in school and at uni, and I hadn’t really thought that much about how I know if I’ve made progress. The courses I passed and the grades I got were my metrics for that. I was quite confident as a language learner, but after starting to learn on my own, I have struggled a little with being unable to measure my progress.

My personal language learning victories

I’ve been here before. “Here” is at the beginning of trying something new in a language, and finding it really difficult, but not impossible.

A while ago I had an experience, that made me think of how many personal victories I can actually find in my history of language learning.

This happened over a month ago, when I was sick for a few days and got really bored and totally ran out of stuff to do. Then I got the idea to try listening to Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s stone in Russian, just to see how it would feel. (In case you didn’t read this post, I’ve previously listened to Harry Potter audiobooks in French). I didn’t expect to understand enough to be able to actually keep listening and enjoy it. I really didn’t consider my Russian to be on a level where I could listen to an audiobook, even a familiar one.

But when I started to listen, I instantly got a funny feeling. Like I’ve been here before.

“Here” is at the beginning of trying something new in a language, and finding it really difficult, but not impossible.

It felt exactly the same as when I first started to listen to the French version: At first, I could only pick a word here, another there, but could still follow the story. And I was only able to listen for a few minutes before getting overwhelmed and tired.

It was of course great that, unlike I had expected. I was able to listen and pick a few words here and there and follow the story. But what was really brilliant, was that with French, it only took me a couple of months that my ability to listen had improved what felt like ten-fold, so I got the feeling I’m not that far from my goals with Russian, either.

Inspired by this, I wanted to make a list of things that prove me I’ve made progress and improved in other languages before. So in the future, if I ever lose courage, feeling like I’ll never get anywhere, I can look at the list and see, that I’ve been there before and I’ve gotten far. It might also help me recognise new milestones I’ve reached.

This is my list of reference points of where I was before and where I am now:

  1. BEFORE: I can recall when I was around 16, and stayed in England with my aunt’s family for month in the summer and I really struggled to get a whole sentence of English out of my mouth trying to talk to my British uncle, even though in theory I was supposed to know a lot already. AFTER: I’ve spoken English quite confidently for at least seven years.
  2. BEFORE: I also remember the first times I tried reading a novel in English. It was so slow, I couldn’t concentrate, I had to stop and check words in a vocabulary frustratingly often. And I got tired after a few pages. AFTER: Now I read scientific articles for my thesis and wouldn’t think twice about should I read a book in its original English version or not.
  3. BEFORE: In 2009 I was on a week-long language scholarship trip in Sweden, and we went to the movies to see “Män som hatar kvinnor”. I felt like I didn’t understand a word. AFTER: Last year I watched a couple of Swedish films without subtitles, and struggled a bit, but not too much.
  4. BEFORE: Two years ago at my summer job I tried speaking French with a Brazilian guy who’d studied in France, but the conversation practically stopped before it started. And a year ago in Sweden I participated some language cafes to try and speak French, and I was able to say something, but probably sounded like a two-year-old. AFTER: this month, I was able to explain the topic of my Master’s thesis in French (it is rather complicated).
  5. BEFORE: In October I was in St. Petersburg in October, and I actually didn’t even dare to properly try speaking, unless you count reading out loud the Russian name of the food I ordered at a restaurant. AFTER? I’m not sure yet how much my speaking has improved during our tandem practice, but at least I most certainly do dare to open my mouth and try to say something!

Quite an amazing feeling, to realise all this. May the list get longer as I keep going!

Before and after… but after what?

Besides reminding me about the fact that I have succeeded before and I can do it again, there is another important purpose for the list above.

You know those “Before vs. After” pictures of people who lost half of their weight in no time with a super diet or training program? This Before and After list, I assure you, is not like that. What happened between Before and After here, was not a magical intense language course or program I paid a lot of money for. None of these happened overnight.

How did I make it? At least for numbers 1 and 2, it took years of practice and being forced to use English in my studies and immersing in it in my free time via films and music etc. For number 4, it took a lot of defrosting of what I’d learned in school, with a 1000 Goldlisted words, maybe 200 lessons (and reviewing them continuously) on Babbel and at least 60 hours of audiobooks.

So the list should remind me of not only where I’ve gotten so far, but also what it takes to get there: hard work, time, patience and persistence.

What is on your list? How do you know you’ve made progress? I recommend giving that some thought! Even if you are learning your first foreign language, pay attention to the small things that tell you you are moving forward. Start building your list of language victories. It will get longer and longer!

The everyday language

To begin with, I want to introduce how I learned some of the languages I already can call myself rather fluent in. Each language I started to learn has a different story and place in my heart.

To begin with: English, the everyday language.

Everyone in Finland starts to learn English in elementary school, so I’ve been studying it since the age of 9, all the way through high school and upper secondary school. But obviously, I didn’t only learn it in school, since English is everywhere: the TV, internet, movies and music make sure you adopt some of it almost automatically.

In university, I’ve had just one English course, but I need the language on a daily basis: for reading study materials, writing reports, doing group assignments with international students. Even most employers expect you to have professional proficiency.

So English, above all, is a language I need. But you could also say it is a language I trust. It’s like a good old friend.  Or like a cup of tea with a scone. Speaking it comes quite naturally to me, I don’t hesitate to switch into it whenever necessary. Even my thoughts seem to slip into English from time to time.

You could also say it is a language I trust. It’s like a good old friend. Or like a cup of tea with a scone.

At some point in learning a language, there’s not much to learn from books anymore, and the only way to learn more is by using the language in as many different ways as possible. My English is past that point. It’s far from perfect, but it feels difficult to make an active effort to learn more.

I would still like to improve it. Firstly, one can never have a vocabulary too rich. Speaking a language fluently is not about nuances of grammar. The more words you know, the easier it is to speak.

Secondly, I would very much like to improve my pronunciation, to sound like a native speaker. Preferably to speak a lovely, sophisticated Queen’s English.

At least I wouldn’t want to sound like this:

Well, I don’t, exactly, but it is still hard to get completely rid of a Finnish accent. Not that it’s entirely a bad thing! At least most Finns speak English quite well, so nevermind the accent.

And the English pronunciation isn’t exactly simple!

As Gerard Nolst Trenité brilliantly put it in his poem, The Chaos:

“Dearest creature in creation,
Study English pronunciation.
––
Just compare heart, beard, and heard,
Dies and diet, lord and word,
Sword and sward, retain and Britain.
(Mind the latter, how it’s written.)
––
Blood and flood are not like food,
Nor is mould like should and would.
––
And your pronunciation’s OK
When you correctly say croquet,
Rounded, wounded, grieve and sieve,
Friend and fiend, alive and live.
––
Seven is right, but so is even,
Hyphen, roughen, nephew Stephen,
Monkey, donkey, Turk and jerk,
Ask, grasp, wasp, and cork and work.
––
Finally, which rhymes with enough,
Though, through, plough, or dough, or cough?
Hiccough has the sound of cup.
My advice is to give up!!!”

Moi – hello, hej, привет, salut!

This blog is about my attempts to learn languages.

And who am I? Let me introduce myself – in all the languages I’ve tried studying so far!


IMG_0472

My name is Tiia. I’m twenty-four, and I live in Espoo, Finland. I study Environmental Management in university.


Jag älskar naturen och att vara utomhus. En av mina favoritsaker i Finland är dess vackra, rena skogar och sjöar.



J’aimerais bien apprendre toutes les langues du monde! Je parle déjà finnois, anglais et suedois, et un peu de français et russe.


В свободное время я люблю заниматься ручным трудом и гулять на природе. Мне нравится тоже пробовать новые виды спорта; сейчас я занимаюсь триатлоном и ориентированием.


Ich habe zwei Katze. 😀



よろしく おねがいします。


(I’ve totally forgotten all of my German and I hardly ever even learned anything useful in Japanese.)

A dream just twenty thousand words away

Whenever I listen to a language that is strange to me, I’m dying of curiosity. What are they saying? How does this language work? Does it resemble any other language I know? What does the world look and sound like, through the words of this language?

“The limits of my language means the limits of my world.”
-Ludwig Wittgenstein

This blog is about my love for languages. To be honest, I would like to learn all the languages in the world. But at least, to begin with, it would be cool to one day have mastered the seven languages I have given a go so far. A general rule of thumb says that you need to know 2000–3000 words of a language to be able to express and understand most of things. So I have just around twenty thousand words to learn. Not that much, is it? (Yeah, grammar and all that… minor details, eh?)

The seven languages I’ve learnt or attempted to learn so far are:

IMG_3318Finnish, my mother tongue; English, Swedish, French, German, Japanese and Russian. Some of these I can actually speak and understand, some have been just short acquaintances of which I’ve already forgotten most.

It is my dream to really learn all of these – if not fluently, at least so that I could actually communicate. The problem is, it takes a lot of work to learn a language, and the project is easily forgotten under other tasks. What I need is goals and a way to track my progress.

So I ended up creating a blog. It might not help me learn the languages, but I hope telling others about my project will help me set the goals and motivate me to work towards them. I’m also hoping to find other language lovers all over the world. It’s also the first step towards better skills in one of my six foreign languages. English is perhaps the strongest one for me, but it’s far from perfect, so writing a blog in English can’t do any harm!

If you are also interested in learning languages, please feel free to leave a comment.

This blog will contain my experiences with different learning methods and my feelings and thoughts about the languages, share some real-life experiences of actually using them – and, hopefully, it will also follow my progress. Maybe a year from now, I will be just a bit more fluent in Russian or French, or perhaps German or Japanese…

May the journey begin!

belgiaI want to be able to travel the world and speak with people in their own language. Me in Belgium, 2010