“Denisa can speak five languages!”
This is one of my friends’ favorite characteristics of me. They love pointing it out, especially when there’s someone else in the room speaking one of my “five languages”.
“Oh, you speak French? Denisa speaks French as well!”
“Vraiment ? Très intéressant ! Liberté, égalité, fraternité, n’est-ce pas, Denisa ?”
Sure, I speak French, apart from the fact that I haven’t properly practised it in almost a year and I basically peaked at it when I was 19.
Sure, I speak German, I just haven’t spoken German to an actual person in like four months, my level is B1 and even when I can read Harry Potter in German and understand most of it, it still takes me ages to construct one sentence out loud.
Sure, I speak English, although sometimes I still mess up my grammar, and I surely speak Czech because it’s my mother tongue, even when often I can’t remember words anymore and I create Czech sentences in an English way. I don’t speak Slovak. I just understand it and can imitate it sometimes.
By saying this, I’m not letting myself down. I’m just stating facts. Learning to speak a language is an amazing process filled with all-time highs and eye-opening moments. It’s very beneficial for our brain, it broadens our horizons, it changes our mindset, it makes us more open-minded and it enriches our experience of living. What’s more, learning languages can be lots of fun. I would recommend it to anyone.
But there are pitfalls. There are things that frustrate me to no end, there are days when I feel like instead of “speaking 5 languages”, I don’t speak any. And we don’t talk about this side of being a polyglot quite often.
It seems to me that we sometimes glamorize bilinguals and polyglots. We expect them to have a strange superpower that we don’t possess, we assume that when they speak a foreign language, they speak it fluently and understand everything, always. I’ve also met people who genuinely think that speaking many languages at once is actually very easy and anyone could do it.
Yes, anyone could do it.
But it’s not easy.
It’s not all pink and fluffy. The initial high where you feel like you’re acing the language and everything seems so easy… that will soon pass. And then it will come again, don’t worry, but you’ll have to overcome some obstacles first.
Learning a language is a curve, it goes up and down, and I will present you with some troubles you could encounter along the way. I don’t speak for all polyglots, of course. It all comes from the personal experience of my friends and myself.
Practising irregularly means losing progress
“I feel like I haven’t done French in such a long time that I basically don’t speak it anymore.”
If I don’t actively practise my language skills for a period longer than two months, it takes its toll. I become less confident. I forget lots of vocabulary. Sometimes, I even fail to recall super important grammar rules.
A language is like a plant. If I don’t regularly water it, it starts to die a little. And that’s frustrating because I was growing it for five years. The bigger your language plant becomes, the longer you can go without practising. If you don’t practise for a few years, though, the skill will inevitably falter.
Speaking a foreign language is not a skill that you learn and have forever. It’s a life-long process. The good results that come along the way will only stay at their peak if you keep working hard.
It’s a learning curve
“Last month, I felt like my German was really good. I understood everything. Now, there’s suddenly so much new vocabulary everywhere. There’s so much I don’t know!”
Every time I learn a new language, I notice the same pattern. As I progress in my skills and go from a level to the next one (based on the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages), my confidence fluctuates.
When I was on a solid B1 level in English, I felt like I spoke it perfectly. The more I neared the B2 mark, the more I realized how little I knew. That affected my confidence and I let the overwhelming disappointment in my lack of skills let me down. I continued learning, however, and when I was comfortable being on the B2 level, my confidence was boosted again.
Every time I realized how much I didn’t know, I felt overwhelmed. Now that I’m more familiar with the process — after repeating the same pattern with 3 languages — I know that this is just how it works for me. We should embrace the opportunity to become even better and to continue growing. If there was no space left to grow, learning would probably become quite boring.
Speaking more languages makes it more difficult to reach fluency
“I was in France for such a long time that when I try to speak English now, it all keeps coming to me in French!”
Speaking more languages than two does not have to mean that it’s automatically difficult for everyone to reach fluency. It does for me, though. That’s mostly because when I focus on one particular language, I push the rest of my languages away. I disregard them in order to deal with the language in question with all of my capability.
I’ve been focusing on German a lot for the past year because it’s my degree and I’m moving to Germany soon — because of this, my French has not been the best. My Czech is also suffering quite a bit because I live in the UK and use mainly English on most days. When I went to France last summer, I switched my mindset to French and couldn’t remember German words very well because everything kept coming to me in French.
I try to keep my languages in separate drawers; otherwise, my brain would be a mess. That means, however, that sometimes I have to keep some drawers closed in order to be able to open the drawer I want and rummage through it without disruptions (like finding the translation of ‘a table’ in Czech, English and German, when all I really want is to say it in French).
Speaking four languages also means that your energy is divided into four things rather than one or two. It takes longer to reach fluency in a language if you direct your energy into other languages as well.
There are good days and there are bad days
“Yesterday, I rambled in English for ages. No grammar mistakes. It felt so good. Today, I made three mistakes and forgot a word only when ordering a cup of coffee.”
My language skills are often tied to how relaxed and comfortable I feel that day. If I’m feeling social and confident, I make fewer mistakes and even when I do make them, I don’t mind it. When my anxiety is very high, though, I stutter easily and blush with embarrassment after making a mistake, which only leads to more mistakes and higher anxiety.
I strive to get over myself and just speak with confidence, no matter how I feel, but as this aspect is also connected to mental health, it’s not so easy to overcome it. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible, of course. I will keep trying.
This is also one of the main reasons why I don’t like oral exams. I think they’re important, but I also detest them because it largely depends on how you feel that day. Any exam does, though, so my argument does not really stand.
Your brain is a mess
“Hand me the… chemise… Hemd… košili… oh God… I mean shirt! Shirt! IT’S A SHIRT!”
Remember how I talked about keeping the language drawers separate?
Well, often they’re not so separate after all. They tumble into each other and all the things inside of them mix together in one big unrecognizable mess. My brain is overloaded and although it’s doing its best to categorize things and put them back where they belong, it’s simply not doing the best job.
Speaking multiple languages can make you feel like you’re either going nuts, or you’re losing your memory. Everything is mixing. You could argue that you’re actually becoming smarter and your memory is extending to take all of the new information in, but… well, I suppose it depends on how you choose to interpret it. The latter makes me feel better about myself, so I go for that.
Learning languages is one of the most enriching things that I’ve added to my life so far. Being a polyglot allows me to speak to people I wouldn’t have otherwise been able to speak to, it enables me to study abroad, it makes me use logic regularly, and it helps me interpret nuances in meanings much better than before.
Ludwig Wittgenstein famously said:
“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.”
Speaking more languages extends our limits of experiencing the world. It’s good to be prepared for the frustrations I’ve mentioned when you decide to learn a language because:
- you might be able to handle them better if you know about them in advance
- it’s important to realize that obtaining language skills might not be as easy as some people make it out to be
These frustrating things are, however, always worth it.
After all, it wouldn’t be fun learning something if it wasn’t at least a little bit difficult, right?