Use that language or lose it!

When I left Vietnam in December of 2003 after living there for nearly 10 years, I was fluent in the language. I could hold a conversation with anyone on most any non-technical topic (and even some of those if they were related to history or culture.)

I revisited Vietnam and 2005 and felt like I hadn’t really lost anything.

I revisited again in 2009 and everything, communication-wise, was still okay. Perhaps a little rusty.

Yesterday, some Vietnamese friends popped by my tropical island paradise and I began to realize something painfully obvious – 12 years of not speaking a language will seriously slow you down!

I can still speak, but the words don’t flow nearly as easily as they once did. The vocabulary is a little fuzzy, especially some of those words I didn’t use as often. The listening skills are also a little slow – I wouldn’t mind hearing that one again!

That’s the painful truth concerning language – you gotta keep using it!

I love speaking Vietnamese, and I do miss it, but I realized this weekend that for me to ever re-attain the level I previously had, I  need to go back to Vietnam!

(I just stopped writing this post and forced myself to translate in my head that last sentence. I did alright. Yeah!)

So if you are a second language learner, seek out opportunities to keep up with it. Pick up some books in the second language. Reading is a great way to remind yourself of a whole second layer of vocabulary that you may not use too often.

And the best way of all, go somewhere they only speak that language!

When can I book my next trip to Hanoi?  Hopefully this year.


The Best Way to Learn a Language: Follow YOUR Goals

The methodologies of language learning are as various and self-inflated as political opinions on Capitol Hill. Every language guru thinks her method is the best, the truest, the most sure-fire way to conquer a new language in 30 days, or six months, or one year.

I’d like to make this declaration: all language methodologies are true and all language methodologies are false.

There’s no right or wrong. There’s only you. You, the learner, is all that matters when it comes to language learning. The best methodology is the one that fits your goals and follows your path and drive. If a language methodology does that, then it will work.

I’ve been a language teacher and a language learner at many different junctures of my life, and what I learned from being a student of language is that most teachers simply teach with their accustomed methodology – their language way is the one that will work for everyone regardless of whether it will or not and regardless of whether it feeds into the language learner’s goals.

Before I expound on this point, I want to highlight two distinct periods of language learning which I had in my own life. The first one is my formalized learning of French in high school and college, and the second one being my learning of Vietnamese while I lived in Vietnam.

I spent four and half years learning French in 8th to 12th grades. I picked French because my older sister had studied French. I had no goals with the language other than trying to get decent grades. I was taught French is a very teacher-centered way. Repeat after me. Write this down. Copy this. Conjugate that. I got decent grades in high school French. For my language requirement in college, it was foolish, in my mind, to try a different language since I was rocking my high school French grades. So I continued with the same type of methodology and I got excellent grades in college.

Six years of studying French: What did I get? A few phrases, some conjugated verbs, and a lot of good grades. What I didn’t have was a new language I could speak. Those courses did nothing for me. Granted, I had no goals for French other than to pass the course and receive the required credit.

Honestly, it was all a waste of time.

My second  language learning experience was completely different. I moved to Vietnam in 1994 and it became immediately, painfully obvious that no one around me spoke English. I would have to adapt and learn if I wanted to live. My immediate goals for language learning was to go to the market and successfully buy food. Talk about motivation!

I gathered vocab from books and friends. I asked people how to say them. I recorded and practiced basic sentences and words. In no time, I was saying basic market sentences and bringing home the right food. A good start.

Over the first three years of my language learning in Vietnam, I collected a lot of vocabulary, went to a language teacher once a week to practice, and tried to do the best I could. But it wasn’t enough. I needed more to conquer this difficult, six-tone language. So I enrolled in a local language school to learn Vietnamese full-time for one year.

I had one instruction for my teacher on the first day of my one-on-one class: never speak to me in English. Week after week led to month after month and before I knew it, I had come to the realization that I had become a speaker of Vietnamese. Six years learning French and I couldn’t find my way around a Julia Child’s cookbook. Six months of learning Vietnamese in Vietnam, I was fluent.

Of course the differences are stark, but what I have come to learn is that it’s all about your goals for language learning. This is the make or break issue in whether you will be a successful second language learning or not. Your goals will drive your passion and your methodology, so here are my suggestions as to  how to get the most of truly learning a language well.

1) Identify why you want to learn a language.

2) Make a personal learning plan, listing what you want to accomplish in this language.

3) Find a language tutor – not teacher – who will be moldable to your desires and goals. This is a the key. Don’t trust a regular language teacher who has their ideas about what you should learn and when. Now this isn’t to say that you can’t learn a language with a teacher. Of course, you can. However, I contend (with absolutely no research to back it up) that a self-motivated, self-produced, and self-sustaining plan with a tutor who will back you up and do what you ask will be extremely effective.

4) Keep, whatever plan you chose, focused on practical aspects of the language. Focus on listening. Be active in your approach, use what you are learning. Embrace mistakes, laugh at yourself and learn, learn, learn.

This is, in my humble opinion, a great way to go about learning a language. I’ll have some future posts which will get more specific on the how such as some possible learning acquisition plans which can help you get the most out of your language adventures.


When Language Learning, ask “how” not “why”

A wise man once told me, as I was about to head off overseas for the first, “Don’t ask ‘why’ ask ‘how’.”

I’ve never forgotten this good advice. If you really want to learn a language, or if you are living in a new culture and really want to fit in, questioning the legitimacy of how they do certain things will not only cause you grief, it will further keep you from being on the inside of the new culture.

If you want to learn, observe and listen how it is done and do it. That is the only way the communication gap will be filled.

Why is this the case?

When you ask ‘why’ in language or culture learning, you are comparing it to what you know. But each language and culture is unique and should not be meant for comparisons. Questioning ‘why’ also sets you up for ridiculing the culture and language you are trying to learn because, I’m pretty sure, you won’t like the answer to ‘why’ anyways.

“Why do they say things like that?” “Why is it written like that?” “That doesn’t make any sense. Why would they do it that way? Isn’t that stupid?”

All of these questions are simply just comparing what you know with what you can’t accept.

That’s why the best question to ask is ‘how’!

Once you learn how they do it in this second culture, you are on your way to getting further into the inside. Asking ‘how’ is the way to insure that you are being a learner and not someone who is comparing.

It’s nature to feel some ethnocentricism in language learning because we know and love where we came from, the way we speak, and how we do things. But the members of this second culture we are trying to enter will obviously think likewise about their culture.

Questioning builds up walls. Doing and mimicking shows empathy and the attitude of a learner.

I used to question why the ‘r’, ‘d’, and ‘gi’ in the northern Vietnamese dialect all sound like a ‘z’ in English. But I finally realized that it just doesn’t matter. It is what it is. Just do it.

And once you do you’ll be on your way to learning a new language and culture.

Remember, don’t ask ‘why’, ask ‘how’.

Come to think of it, I was always a writer – Part III

In a couple previous posts (PART I HERE!PART II HERE!), I did a little reminiscing over my life, acknowledging the fact that I’ve always enjoyed writing, even if I often doubted my skills. But in each segment of my life, writing played a meaningful role in one way or another. As I now look over my current writing era, (I’ll call it my modern or contemporary era just for fun! 2006 – 2013), I am extremely aware of how the past has shaped and molded me into the writer I am today.

All I needed was a spark.

I received my first spark during the second year of my current teaching job when I took over the role as drama director and I set out on a journey with a group of students to write our own play. Now I’m in my seventh year of play-writing, which in turn gave me the confidence to try a novel. Then two. Then three. And now four. I’ve highlighted my different works before, and so I don’t intend to do that again right here.

These play-writing experiences eventually led me to one conclusion: I’m a writer.

Perhaps that seems so simplistic. It is. It completely reminds me of when I was studying Vietnamese in Hanoi back in 1998. One day, I came home from a lesson and said to myself, ‘I’m fluent in Vietnamese.’ I wasn’t perfect. I still had new words to learn. It was not a declaration of ending by any means, but it was a realization that I no longer was that person who merely knew some Vietnamese words. I no longer was that person who had to strain to understand a conversation. I could talk to whomever I wanted and I could talk about whatever I wanted. I, the shy boy from Western PA, was a Vietnamese speaker. It was a freeing declaration, knowing that I no longer had to rely on English to build a friendship or to get something done. It was a way of turning the page and getting on with my life in a new direction.

This is exactly what has happened to me again over these last couple of years in regards to my writing. I had to realize that I was no longer the person who would just get an idea and wish I could accomplish it, only to realize that I couldn’t. I was no longer the person who compared his writing to others, always thinking that I didn’t measure up. I was no longer the person with the low SAT scores and a limited vocabulary who couldn’t string together more than three or four sentences without wanting to scrap them. Finally admitting to myself that I was indeed a writer freed me up to do the one thing I’ve been wanting to do for years: write.

Now I don’t try to be Hemingway or Fitzgerald or anyone else. The only writer I want to be is myself. But just like my Vietnamese revelation, I’m still very much a work in progress. I continually strive to learn and improve and have a lot of fun enjoying the process. My goal is simple: write stories that I enjoy writing and (hopefully) that readers enjoy reading.

If you’ve tried my writing, I’m flattered and humbled. I hope you’ve enjoyed.

If you haven’t, I hope you’ll give me a chance.

Either way, I’m going to keep the creative juices flowing and ride this modern phase of my writing career into the future unsure of where it will take me.