Why I learn languages

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January 25th 2011
Published: January 27th 2011
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Zhouzhuang, ChinaZhouzhuang, ChinaZhouzhuang, China

July 16, 2010
I've gotten a few messages here on travel blog asking me or encouraging me about my language learning and passion for it. Special thanks to D MJ Binkley for suggesting to put it all into a blog.

This has kind of been my mixed-up gap year, trying to figure out what I want to do, but also learning languages. I just got back from my first trip out of my home country in August and now I'm studying languages abroad for a while. Not any hardcore traveling from place to place hitting famous sites, but I can use the city I'm studying in as a base to explore a lot of the surrounding areas. The trip last summer was to China and right now I'm in Germany improving my German.

It's also my first time in Europe so I've really experienced a lot of new things since I'm a "noob" traveller having done my first ever trip this same year. China was a lot more different, but living alone in a different country is definitely a challenge at 19. I've really gotten to experience a lot of Europe though since most of the students in my school are from different countries,
Beijing, ChinaBeijing, ChinaBeijing, China

July 23, 2010
so I learn a lot about their customs and seen a lot of Europe on weekend trips to Vienna, Prague, Paris, and seen a lot of different places in Germany too. It's pretty stressful moving out from my parents place and living alone somewhere so far away, but it definitely has its advantages too with all the awesome places and things I can experience.

I'm now in the C1 level in German (European Union standards) and I started at B1 when I got here so I really feel like I've improved. When I started German in high school I wasn't planning on doing more than one semester. I just wanted to get a feel for the language and kind of see and hear what it was like. This was after I realized how much I really liked foreign languages.

I realized it my first year in high school when I finally took French. I had been wanting to take French since I was in the third grade, but my school only let third graders take Latin. I had one year of it in third grade and don't remember anything at all from it, although my mom says I

January 17, 2011
was pretty good. In my first elementary school they forced English grammar on us hard. I think I've still had all that stuck in my head until today. How to analyze a sentence and break it down into each part. Conjunctions, verbs, nouns, adjectives, ect. I've never been good at math, but all through middle school English class seemed easy for me. And I've always loved to read. In 4th grade I changed elementary schools and at the new school had a 20 minute Spanish class a couple times a week. Mostly singing, making pinatas, and eating Taco Bell. The teacher was really nice, but we didn't learn very much.

So in 9th grade, my first year of high school, my teacher from 8th grade recommended that I could take a foreign language. Usually in 9th grade in my high school the students didn't take a foreign language unless they had real control over English and grammar, so I was proud to be able to take one my first year of high school. I chose French since I had always wanted to learn it. I loved it. I loved the class and I loved how fast I was learning
The AlpsThe AlpsThe Alps

October 9, 2010
to speak and read another language. I started reading the book that my favorite movie is based off of, The Bourne Identity. Almost the entire book takes place in Paris and the author, Robert Ludlum, even puts in French text without translations. I was so happy that I could read and understand what I was reading in another language. I took 4 semesters of French total, until the French program was closed down due to budget issues.

I loved how Bourne knew all these languages, how he could travel around and do everything he needed to without a translator. It just seemed so much more important than all the math I had always failed at and gave me hope that I could do something too. In 9th grade I took World History and started getting interested in WWII and the Cold War. This obviously included Russia and I started becoming really interested in "the Russian soul". This was a country that once took up 1/6th of the world's total land mass. I had always heard from some of my family how dangerous Russia is (probably because they were around for the Cold War and some of the propaganda was

August 14, 2010
still playing a role in their impression of Russia), but that just made me even more interested. I loved history too and I started reading on my own about Czar Nicholas II, my favorite story in Russian history. I also started reading The Hunt for Red October, by Tom Clancy. In the book he throws in a couple of Russian words every once in a while and one day I just thought, why not learn Russian?

I went out to find a "learn Russian" book at my local bookstore and was shocked. In The Hunt for Red October he had used the transliterated version of the Russian words. Meaning, I had no idea that Russian used a different alphabet, because Tom Clancy had written the words by transliterating them to the Latin alphabet. I was shocked and this really seemed like a set back. The alphabet looked daunting and I didn't know if I wanted to try it. But I found a book and I did it! I studied my ass off every night and worked at memorizing and learning how to use this alphabet and I mastered it pretty quickly. Nowadays I can read the Russian alphabet about

October 23, 2010
as easily as my own Latin alphabet.

This was 9th grade, I continued French into 10th grade and continued to study Russian on my own. I also picked up a few books on Chinese, Dutch, and Italian. Just to try. In 11th grade I also started Arabic and learned the entire alphabet, but was more drawn to Chinese, so I made that my focus.

In 10th grade I decided to branch out at school a little bit and try some of the other languages they offered, since I couldn't continue French. I never wanted to take Spanish at school for a few reasons but the main one was this: everyone who took Spanish in High School didn't seem to really care about learning languages. Spanish was said to be an "easy A" and that you could finish the 2 mandatory foreign language credits, without really trying.

I decided to take Latin and German instead, because my girlfriend at the time convinced me to try German so that we could be in the same class. I had already wanted to take German, because I had read that the German teacher at our school had won a German teacher

November 1, 2010
of the year award and he seemed to know what he was doing. I thought I would just take German for a semester and get the basics, just to see how the language looked and so on.

I really didn't like Latin. It was just as complex grammatically as Russian, but didn't have the awesome Cyrillic alphabet I had learned to love. I took one semester of it and stopped after that. With German I put everything into my "short term memory". Luckily for me, I can study a list of vocabulary minutes before a test, reading it over twice, and then I'll be able to remember all of the definitions for a quiz or test. This is what I did, and it worked. I got an A in German, learned the basics and still remembered a bit that stuck with me. But nothing as extensive as I could have if I had applied myself more. I also continued with Russian and Chinese on the side. I found a Russian art gallery really close by and started talking to the two owners. They were incredibly nice people and she even helped me with my Russian and led me to

October 31, 2010
a tutor. I started meeting with my Russian tutor and I met with her for about 5 months I would say. She helped me with the Russian case system and perfecting my pronunciation a bit more.

That was the second semester of 10th grade, so next was 11th. In 11th grade I took my last semester of French, which was basically not even a class. Our original teacher had left and we had a new teacher that bragged "if you want to make sure you get a job after college, just minor in French, you don't have to do anything and you can just teach it". Needless to say, we knew more French than she did. I refused to do her work in the class and ended up getting a bad grade, but I didn't really care, I was studying other languages on my own. Overall, I really had 3 semesters of French, so a year and a half total.

The second semester of 11th grade was when they closed down the French program. I had two options for a class now; speech or German II. I picked German II. I never thought about traveling to Germany, living

January 4, 2011
there, becoming fluent or anything. All of it kept going in my short term memory. Speaking in German came more naturally than in French, maybe because German is so much closer to my mother tongue, so I was able to get by with an A again.

After the second semester of German I knew a bit more, but was still far from serious about it. I really liked the class though. The teacher who had won the award had a real passion for German, which reminded me of the way I feel about languages too. This was a teacher that actually took trips to Germany and continued to try to improve his language skills too. You can always learn more when learning a language and I liked that this teacher actually pursued that, even when he was teaching it. My French classes had always been spontaneous topics and no real structure. I noticed that this German teacher put his lessons together systematically so that you could learn as well and quickly as possible. And he did this with all of his classes the same way. He came up with his own jokes and acronyms for remembering grammatical structures and it made it a lot easier to learn the language.

It wasn't until 12th grade that I started putting as much as I could into long term memory. I decided to take German III, because I had some really good friends in the class and I started thinking even more about college. I couldn't have continued Latin even if I had wanted to, because the Latin teacher was also laid off.

The American High School system really over-stresses kids out about their futures and college. Most students stay in-state and go to college, because it's much cheaper than going to a state you don't live in. You also have your parents near-by to help you with everything and to come home on weekends and stuff. I started working harder in German III, because I started considering going to college in Switzerland. Seeing as French and German are the two biggest languages in Switzerland, I figured it would be a good place for me. Zurich and Geneva are very international and I had always heard good things about the Swiss education system. I would want to enroll directly as a student, not as an exchange student, so depending on if I went to Geneva or Zurich I would need to speak good enough French or German (Geneva=French Zurich=German).

With all of the "do it yourself" language learning I was doing, I found the fastest way to learn a language. I started looking for these “language immersion schools” in other countries, because this method of language learning had really proved itself to me. It’s by far the fastest and longest lasting method in my opinion and now I’ve actually gotten to test it out. When you live in a different country it’s absolutely necessary to remember the words you learn. When you have to use them everyday or have to be able to read and understand something, it’s much easier for the brain to remember. Also, you acquire a much better accent than from a classroom lesson in the US with an American teacher who minored in teaching French. And I decided to enroll. I picked EF International Language Schools, because they had a multi-language program that especially caught my attention. With the multi-language program I could pick up to three places and divide at least 36 weeks between the three locations.

Most of the locations EF offered
Great Wall of ChinaGreat Wall of ChinaGreat Wall of China

July 28, 2010
were in Europe, but they also had a few in South America I was looking at and 3 in Asia. (They also offer English immersion schools in tons of locations, but I don't need English).

The first selection was:

1.) Nice, France 2.) Munich, Germany 3.) Beijing, China

Then I switched Nice for Paris. Then I found out that I could get college credit for any of the schools except China, which was disappointing, but I wanted to learn Chinese whether I got credit or not so I kept it on. But eventually I realized that with 36 weeks split 3 ways into 12 weeks each that it wasn't enough to become fluent enough in French or German, which I would need for a University in Switzerland. So with a great struggle I changed my plan to 18 weeks in Munich and 18 weeks in Paris.

The language immersion school should work within one guideline: you must be taught the language, IN that language. Meaning (unless you're a complete beginner) your teachers teach you in the target language. No translations. This also forces you to use the language and can be used to teach people from
Terracotta ArmyTerracotta ArmyTerracotta Army

August 1, 2010
all different places, since there's no common language to translate everything into. When you don't know what a word means, you can ask the teacher, "was heißt das?" (what does that mean?) and she can reply using words you already know, to help you understand the meaning of a more complicated structure or word. For example, if I find a word I don't know in a text, "prahlen" (to boast). So I ask the teacher "was bedeutet 'prahlen" (what does prahlen mean?). She could say back, "wenn man zu viel Stolz hat und man spricht immer darüber" (when someone has too much pride and they always talk about it). Teachers can even use the opposite of a word to tell you the meaning of a word. This way, when you try to remember what prahlen means, you don't translate it, but you remember the context it was used in. When you speak and use this word, it comes more naturally and you don't have to translate every sentence you try to say. This really is the best way to learn a language. When you're forced to remember, use, and think in the language. When you think about it, this is

December 26, 2010
the same thing dictionaries usually do to tell you the meaning of a word. Obviously, the "meaning" of a words goes deeper than that linguistically, but dictionaries use the easiest way to explain, which is to use other words you already know.

There were people from all over the world learning German in my school. I made friends with a lot of French speaking people and actually got to practice my French a lot too. I was really surprised how much I remembered even after 2 years of not having any French.

I finished Munich and due to a lot of complications had to cancel Paris. I had to move 5 times in Munich, because of the school and the accommodations through the school really suck, so I didn't want to go through that again in Paris. But living in Germany brought my German to a whole new level. Having to use it all the time gives you so much more confidence and you need confidence when trying to speak a foreign language. I'm now in Dresden, Germany and continuing my German studies until I go back to the states for a while in February.

I still
Nanjing, ChinaNanjing, ChinaNanjing, China

July 20, 2010
don't know where I'm going to college yet or if I won't do more language programs first. I'm looking at a university in Berlin, which I could start next fall if I wanted to, because my German is good enough now. I'm also looking at universities in Paris (Sorbonne) and Saint Petersburg, Russia, but if I go to either of those I will need a little more training with the language first. I'm looking at a lot of different career options so I suppose I'll have to decide on that before I decide on which school I want to go to. I guess I'll have some time to think it over when I get home.


I guess in all that text I didn't give too many reasons why I actually like learning languages. First of all, it's something I'm pretty good at. I can pick up a new language fairly quickly and learning them and memorizing grammar and vocabulary, luckily isn't very difficult for me. I also love being able to speak to a friend or just an acquaintance in their own language. Even if it's just a little bit, it surprised me how much it means
Hong KongHong KongHong Kong

August 13, 2010
to someone if you even take the time to learn a simple phrase in their own language. It's fun for me to be able to talk to people in a language other than English.

Language is also one of the most important parts of culture to me. Each country/region/culture has a different language or their own unique dialect, but it's not a part of culture that usually interests many people. And learning the language of a place you're visiting can really make your experience there a lot more exciting and in depth even when just being a tourist. You hear things from the locals first hand or you can read famous texts or books in their original context. I once read a quote, I can't find it again, but it went something like "when you learn a second language, you experience a second life." Or something roughly along those lines, if someone knows the whole correct quote, I'd love to have it and know who said it. But that quote describes the feeling of knowing another language (for me) pretty well. It really is a second life, or at least sometimes a different way of thinking. A different way of speaking. Things are seen, said, and heard in (what feels like) an entirely different way. "A different way of thinking"; when you start to think in the language. Living the language in a country where it's spoken is the best way to start thinking in the language. It happens when you're actively using the language everyday. You stop thinking about the words you're saying, you stop translating them in your head before you say them. You think them.

If you have any questions about anything I didn't cover or about language immersion schools, just send me a message or leave a comment 😊


27th January 2011

Languages will allow you
to travel, work and see the world.
28th January 2011

I don't have any questions, but I'd like to say that I really admire your dedication to languages! I've tried three times to learn a language, and failed pathetically each. I like how your way sounds though. I'm online schooled, and it's pretty much impossible to learn to do anything but read a language when you're learning on a computer. We'll see though. By the way, you take AMAZING pictures. I love the Prague one.
28th January 2011

Same here!
I love studying foriegn languages and im also really bad at math but i can speak english like its my native language. I can read and write in japanese characters and i listen to spanish radio and read spanish books. Learning languages has become a comfort zone. What i lack in computation skills and the frustration i get from math, physics, and accounting; i make up for it by being good at things that im good at and am pasionate about. Coz i know that ill never be good at math so i concentrate in the areas where i excel! I think its better to focus on your strenghts than on your weaknesses. Because i think if i focus on improving my math i can be an average math student and good at languages but not excellent on anything. Id much rather have a weakness and be excellent at something!
28th January 2011

only i exist - yes, I completely agree. I feel the same way. I'm glad someone else shares a passion for languages! It sounds like you've got a knack for them. jess - I know what you mean with learning languages in online courses. I actually didn't mention it, because I forgot, but my last semester of high school I took online Russian level 1 through my school. I had already taught myself all the material 4 years earlier, so the class was a no brainer, but I looked at the way they taught through these online courses and there's no way anyone could learn a language well through online public school courses. Another problem was that they let you use all the learning material when taking the test...which gives you the answers. I wouldn't give up yet on a foreign language. Maybe just try a course in your city or something? I'm sure you could do it
28th January 2011

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28th January 2011

Don't let him fool you...
He's pretty good at math too... Love you...
28th January 2011

Hey Johnny, it's pretty cool that at such a young age you already know so many languages. I have to give you extra credit for that, as you're an American, and most of your fellow countrymen don't bother learning foreign languages because they think they can get around in English almost everywhere. Keep going, and I hope you're enjoying living in Germany. Bis dann, Jens
28th January 2011

Thanks Jens! Yes, monolingualism is a disease running wild in the US! All the Europeans I've met so far are pretty surprised to know I'm American when they see I'm not an obese, McDonalds lover and I don't only speak English. I like showing them a different side of the US. Thanks for your comment Haha thanks dad, but we both know I can't do math!
29th January 2011

ever thought about majoring in European languages or Consular and Diplomatic Affairs major in Europe or something like that? What program are you looking into for college and what would you like to do after college?
29th January 2011

I've just randomly come across this blog and it's made for a very interesting read. Your story is very inspiring and now I feel like there are no limits as to how many languages I can learn. I've recently just come back from Japan as an exchange student and I agree about experiencing things, especially with the language, first hand is the best. Now I'm going into my senior years at high school (I'm from Australia so I don't really understand American grades) and I'll have to study Japanese by correspondence. I was a little skeptical about teaching myself but hey, you taught yourself, so why can't I? haha I'm also starting Italian this year. ^-^ Why didn't you ever pursue the other languages you mentioned; Dutch and Italian?
30th January 2011

RE: Brittany
Hi Brittany, I'm glad my story inspired you to learn more languages. Japanese is a really difficult language, I admire the motivation you have to learn it. Why did you pick an exchange program in Japan? As for Dutch, Italian, Arabic, and all the others I started, there's a couple reasons I haven't yet continued. The first reason is that when you're teaching yourself so many languages at the same time, sometimes it can get in the way of becoming fluent in one. I couldn't practice that much at home (in the US not many people speak more than English) so I picked some of my favorites to concentrate in for now, then I'm planning on going back to some of the others later. Another reason is that I already learned a lot of French and a lot of German, Italian is closely related to French (Romance language) and Dutch is extremely close to German. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but I want to learn at least one language for each continent (other than English and excluding Antarctica haha). Asian languages interest me a little bit more than European and I like the challenge. So that's why I haven't pursued some of the others more. My German and French are about good enough now though that I'll probably start a new one soon :) Good luck with your language learning! And tell me if you need any advice, materials, or motivation!
12th February 2011

Your language skills are truely astonishing! Thanks for a great blog. :)
15th April 2011

hey johnny thanks for you blog, it has inspired me... I am from Australia and have a love for languages too and have considered for some time to do the EF multi-language course in Barcelona, Paris and Rome. I haven't yet done it, and the cost of it is holding me back a bit, but I am strongly considering doing it. Do you have any feedback since you have done it in Munich and Paris? I admire your dedication to your passion for learning languages and the courage you have!! Keep going and all the best.
15th April 2011

Hi Kathy, I'm really glad you liked the blog. I learned a ton at EF, but I'm not sure if it's worth the price. The problem I had with it was that each individual school doesn't really communicate with the department you talk to at home (so for me the US offices and for you it'd be the Australian offices). The offices outside of the school don't really know what's going on in the schools and couldn't give me much accurate information. Also the living conditions weren't very good, I was moved 5 times, which is kind of a pain when you're there for (semi) long term. The "EF residences" were actually just hostels and the beautiful buildings advertised in the brochure were only in select cities. The best thing about EF for me in comparison to other schools was that almost all the students were around my age. The average was 19-22 years old. So as I said I did learn a lot, but the accommodations really weren't worth how much I payed. And also the communications between corporate EF and the schools: corporate EF requires that all the teachers be native speakers of the target language, but this school had no problem giving us teachers from Asia for German classes. It's just a problem that the corporation doesn't check up on their schools and give the customers accurate info. If you have any more questions about anything I'd love to help! Send me your email if I can help in anyway. Take care.
26th September 2011

The Quote
I think you were referring to was.. “To have another language is to possess a second soul.” - Charlemagne I love this quote!

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