Learning a language with the attention span of a 3-year old

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Whenever I daydream and play mental movies in my mind, I always speak some exotic second language. While I love the Scandinavian languages, they’re just not exotic – not even close. The English language plays a huge part in my life; even though I haven’t lived in the States since 2006-2006, I still think and dream in English a lot of the time. But you know what…? I’m just gonna go ahead and state the obvious: English is not an exotic language either.  

I’ve probably had more opportunities than I deserve to learn different languages, but my lack of 100% commitment always seems to get in the way. I just can’t seem to focus on one thing at a time when there is such an abundance of fun stuff to learn. Languages! Cooking techniques! Guitar! Pinterest! Yeah, I’m easily distracted…

My first language-love was Swedish. My mother’s best friend lived in Sweden and we used to visit in Gothenburg every summer. I thought Swedish was the most cool and most beautiful language in the world. When people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said “Swedish”.

Then I turned 7.

I was taught French in school for 6 years and I’m half-decent when it comes to reading and understanding it. But I never got around to really speaking French myself, so the language never stuck. I hope, I hope, I hope that I can get the opportunity to live in a French-speaking country before it’s too late and I lose everything I learned. I know it only gets harder and harder to pick up languages the older you get, so I better get around to it!

But there are so many fun languages… so how can I focus on just one?

I wanted to learn Arabic while I lived in Egypt because I thought it was pretty darn exotic, and because my roommate and bestie was half-Moroccan and fluent in Arabic. I only came so far as to learn “Taxi-Arabic”. What I mean by that is that I learned necessary phrases like Go left! Go right! Stop right here, please! I work here just like you, so don’t try to pull the fake money trick on me! Can I smoke in here? Please remove your hand before I knock you out. I forgot most of it, but I can still count to twenty! How cool am I, right??

The second time I lived on Crete, I made a half-assed attempt at learning some Greek and even did (free) online classes, but let me tell you: there is a reason why nobody bothers to learn Greek. It’s freakin’ hard. It makes no sense. So unless I marry a Greek man and am forced to deal with Greek in-laws, it ain’t gonna happen. I hereby wave a white flag.

(Giving up on Greek makes me feel a little bad because the Greek people I know so appreciated when someone made an effort. They’re not like the French or the Russian who just expect the whole world to know their language. Most people never get past the Hi! Thank you! Good morning! part of Greek, so they really notice when you’ve taken in interest in learning their language. I was on the phone with a really nice lady working in one of our hotels one time, and as I was giving her some information about a guest, I said the room number in Greek. “Ah, Christine! You learn Greek! Aahhh!” I could hear her mega-watt smile through the phone. What was the room number? Four (tessera). That was enough for her to know what I’d made more of an effort than most people.)

Moving to Cuba was a game-changer because for the first time in my life I was absolutely forced to learn a new language. (Learning to speak Danish doesn’t count, even if there was just as much effort involved). Sure, most of the people who work in tourism in Cuba speak English, but I apparently did not work with those people. I had the hardest time in the first few weeks because my job required me to communicate with our Spanish-speaking agency over the phone. If you haven’t met me: I’m a huge hand-gesticulator and I’m big on body language – turns out, my expressive body language did nothing help me over the phone. I was screwed, basically. I banged my head in the wall a few times in those first few weeks, until I said to myself: “Grow up. You’re in Cuba. You cannot expect people to meet you halfway when you are a guest in their country. Learn Spanish. End of story.”

So I kind of did. By the end of my four-month stay in Cuba, I understood a lot of Spanish, spoke what I could, and had really no trouble at all communicating with people. Mind you, I did not speak a word of Spanish when I moved there. I was pretty proud of myself! And rightly so, I might add!

Meanwhile, in the real world….

Turns out that you need to actually keep speaking the language if you intend to make it use of it. I forgot all of my Spanish within 6 months of living back home in Norway. It’s completely gone. Left no trace. I’m practically back to domingo being the only day of the week I remember.

So I’ve decided that it would probably be a good idea at some point to focus on just one language to put the odds in my favor. And I’ve decided to make it a useful one: Spanish. I’m hereby declaring a long-term goal , and I hope you’ll all keep me accountable. I shall become fluent in Spanish. 

(But first, I have to study a little Italian because that’s the only language they offer at USC besides Japanese and Indonesian.)

Xx Christine 

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