Whenever a friend compliments me on my knack for languages, I always deny it. Not out of modesty, but out of knowing my abilities. I love languages, but they certainly don’t come natural to me. On the contrary, I work my ass off and most of the time feel like I have to try harder than many many others. I’m so envious of my trilingual and quadrilingual friends who learned when they were young because they lived abroad or because their parents speak a different ethnic language. I’m envious of those that can learn “naturally” by listening and imitating the sounds.

I learned English for 6 years in Vietnam. In fact, I even went to a specialized high school and got 3rd prize in a highly competitive national English contest. (Thanks to it, got a spot at a prestigious university in Vietnam without having to go through the entrance exams.) I arrived in the US, and imagine how shocked, depressed, and even humiliated I felt when I could understand only 65% of the conversation among my peers. What happened to my 630 out of 670 in the TOEFL? I was supposed to be more than proficient. But the truth was I didn’t understand why they would all crack up and had to put fake smiles on my face and nod along. I couldn’t participate in group discussions. By the time I formed a complete sentence in my head, the topic had changed. And half of the time when I did utter something, people would have to ask me to repeat then they went “oh, “cultural”…” and I thought in my head “yes, that’s exactly what I said the first time.” That feeling of being misunderstood, being left out in conversation blew a major blow to my confidence, and at the same time it forced me to throw myself into the water, again and again. And in the water I kicked as hard as I could. I went to parties, to after-class lectures, to plays and shows. And finally after a year, the first question that people asked me after I opened my mouth was no longer: “Where are you from?” (It would come much later in the conversation.) And only then did I realize how horrible my pronunciations had been. My ears in the beginning were practically deaf to vastly different accents. To me Vietnamese English and Singlish and British and American sounded just the same.

I used the same approach when I learned Japanese, French, and Spanish. I surrounded myself with native speakers, or at the very least, fluent speakers. I was determined to not feel uncomfortable when I didn’t understand what was going on, and not get embarrassed when I said the wrong phrases or didn’t know how to say very basic expressions. I always had the radio on and would listen to anything from news to weather forecast. I still remember in France, it took me a full 2 months to crack through weather terminologies. It always paid off. I figured out what works for me to learn a language and it’s no secret or surprise: immersion and practice.

And that should be the key to retaining a language too right? And if you can’t have immersion, practice much harder? The answer seems straightforward but easier said than done, especially when I have to juggle multiple languages. Kato Lomb, who started to learn foreign languages in earnest at the age of 35 and in the end collected 16 languages in her brain mostly self-taught, has been an enormous inspiration. I’m only at a few now and I can already see them leak away and it is frustrating. Even English, which I consider my true second language. By my second year in the US, I’d acquired a light and easy-to-understand accent. Native speakers could tell I had an accent but would have trouble locating it. And now, a year and a half after I left the US, my accent from the old days seems to be crawling back. The first person to notice was Nancy when I met her in Myanmar. She constantly had to ask me to repeat, even simple words. A couple of weeks later, Col came and it was one of the first things he noticed. When he saw me 6 months earlier, nothing was too off to prompt a comment. But now, he said it’s a 6.5 compared to a 9 before I left the US. I feel like a failure.

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