The art of learning another language

2 steps forward, 1 step back



Did I tell you I was learning Cantonese? Well, I am, for two reasons (three actually).

I’ve always wanted to learn a 2nd language – not really sure why. I know that in many other parts of the world people speak 2 or more languages almost as a matter of course, and Australians don’t really have to. I’ve always been impressed with people who can. But more recently, I’ve wanted to for some very practical reasons.

I know it’s good for the brain. I’m not old but I’m not young either, and I’ve been a pretty forgetful person for most of my life. Just ask my family! And in recent years (a couple of years ago actually) I started forgetting where I was right in the middle of a song whilst playing at a gig. If there’s anywhere where you can’t afford to have memory lapses is right in the middle of a song! You can’t wait 10 seconds to remember – the song just keeps on going. The real problem was, I had never had such lapses in the middle of playing before. That was one of the things I just wasn’t forgetful about, but over the space of a few months it had begun to happen with some regularity.

So I thought I’d better start doing some brain exercises if I want to avoid the possibility of Alzheimer’s. That’s a bit of a jump from being forgetful to having Alzheimers I know, but it’s absolutely a possibility and one I want to do everything to avoid. Studying a language is supposed to be the very best way to keep the brain active (and I must say since I have been studying I have never had a relapse of those blank moments, so fingers crossed).

And then, why Cantonese? I am not a sucker for punishment (Cantonese is one of the harder languages to learn, for a non Asian speaking person I mean). My daughter lives in Hong Kong and is marrying a young Hong Kong man in July, so, being ever practical I thought it would be great to learn a language I will actually use (they speak Cantonese in Hong Kong). As a matter of fact, that adds a lot of much needed motivation (and most language trainers emphasise the value of being able to use what you learn).

So I started a couple of years ago, slowly and a bit on and off again, but have been fairly hard at it for about a year now. I listen to recordings of someone speaking English then speaking the same thing in Cantonese, I write out flash cards of words (I know around 600 or so at the moment, but a fair bit still has to sink into long term memory). I also link in with someone in Hong Kong for a 30 minute lesson every couple of weeks. The goal is to speak Cantonese with them and learn a few bits along the way, but my speaking is painfully slow and full of errors, and they also have to repeat themselves over and over and slower and slower for me to understand what they are saying. That’s okay, that’s how you learn.

My goal is to be able to converse at a very basic level by the time we visit in July, to understand people at cafes and shops and at the hotel. I can’t see myself actually getting to that point by then, but it’s my goal nevertheless, and I will push on. Whether it happens by then or later, to me it will be a massive win when I finally get there. It’s like a hump that I have to get over, and then once speaking and listening is working at a basic level I will just add more words and grammar to that as I move forward. I will get there sooner or later, this I know, and I can’t wait!

It’s like learning to play guitar. For any of you who have learned guitar, there is this painful period where you place your fingers on the fretboard, strum the chord, lift the fingers off, place them in the position for the next chord, strum the guitar, then lift your fingers off and place them on the next chord …  and so on.

That’s a very frustrating period of time because you can’t play a song until you can move fairly quickly from one chord to the next. But once you get over that hump – you’re off and running! Oh sure, there’s still plenty to learn, and sophistication takes a long time to develop, but the joy of playing has begun. I think of my Cantonese in much the same way. Once I can speak, and understand those speaking to me, at whatever basic level, I’m off and running, and just have to build sophistication and my range of vocabulary as I go.

But it is hard! I think I know what I have learnt, and then I listen to the Cantonese dialogue on its own a week later without the English counterpart, and find that I’m just as mystified as before! Or I listen to my Hong Kong teacher, and I know every word they are saying but take too long to assemble it in my mind and so end up not understanding them at all!

It will come, in time it will. But I now have a huge appreciation for those who speak a second language, and whenever I talk to them (eg those who have learnt to speak English) I am keen to learn how long it took etc. Or for those who are studying another language, I am keen to hear their stories. I know I am not alone, and like anyone who has taken a new interest in something, I tend to notice everywhere people who have learnt or who are learning to speak in another tongue. The drummer in our band, for example, I have discovered, is learning Norwegian just because he can!

If you’re learning another language, I’d love to hear how you are going and any tips you might have. But for now, ha tsi gin (see you next time).

Author: Terry Lewis

I'm a guy in his 50's who thought it might be fun to write about day to day issues - the stuff that life is made of. It's helped me think and develop some deeper perspectives. I enjoyed it so much I thought I might start posting it in a blog, and here we are! I intend to mix it up as much as I can. I am a thinking kind of guy so the majority of my posts will probably have some kernel of truth or (hopefully) wisdom nestled in there somewhere. But I also hope to have some light hearted posts as well. Too much thinking can make life pretty dull! Anyway, hope you like it.

3 thoughts on “The art of learning another language”

  1. Can see why it’s good for the brain as it sure is challenging to learn a new language at 50+. And for you to choose a language with no real language connection to English makes it double difficult. Hope to hear how you get on further along the road. I learned Afrikaans from a very young age. It is similar to Flemmish, Dutch and I get an inkling of meaning when I hear German or Swedish so it was not completely confined to S Africa, I suppose. Learned French at school. Currently trying to learn Latin, a beautiful language and one which gives more meaning, structure and insight into the roots of many English words. Good luck 🍀

    1. Wow, Latin! I learned French at school as well. After our Hong Kong visit in July, we’re going to France in September. I’m going to brush up on my French in between.

      1. 😊 I’m looking forward to your posts on language and travel! I’m off to Norway for a week on Saturday and the wifi of coffee shops willing, hope to do a few posts. One thing for sure, I can’t read Norwegian. Ha tsi gin

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