John Green

My Experiences as a Language Learner

I have learned two foreign languages in my life: French and Spanish.  I learned French in the classroom well enough to be able to communicate before I ever visited a French speaking country.  I learned Spanish in a very different way, with a little bit of classroom experience but mostly “on the streets” in Venezuela and Puerto Rico.  People sometimes ask me which way is better, learning in a classroom or learning by living in a culture where a language is spoken.  My answer is that both ways can work if you want to learn, and if you are patient and persistent.

I also tell people that the kinds of learning experiences that worked really well for me might not work equally well for everybody.

Here is the story of my language learning experiences.

As a child, I had almost no contact with languages other than English.  My family was monolingual, and I grew up in neighborhoods in Southern California like Newport Beach, where everybody else was monolingual. In case you are wondering, that is the Newport Beach that the TV show The O.C. is based on, and Newport Harbor High is the high school I graduated from.  By the way, when I lived there nobody ever called Orange Country “The O.C.” At this time of my life, I was aware that other languages existed – it was possible to hear stations from Mexico on the radio, for instance – but other languages were not really part of my world.

My first foreign language learning experience was with French.  I took two years of French in high school – in ninth and tenth grades – partly because foreign language study was a requirement for admission to college, and partly because I loved to read, and I thought it would be great to be able to read French literature in the original.  However, it took me much longer to be able to read good books in French than I thought it would when I began studying French!

Ninth grade French was very difficult for me.  I had trouble learning vocabulary and remembering which words were masculine and which were feminine.  I spent hours every week with flash cards, and this particular memory strategy, which had been recommended by the teacher, did not work well for me.  I recall vividly how my tests and quizzes always came back with red marks around my many mistakes in grammar, accent marks, and the gender of nouns.

The textbook was called French for the Modern World.  I didn't like it.  It had a lot of grammar exercises, and short dialogues about two American students visiting Paris.  We did the grammar exercises for homework and corrected them in class.  The way the homework was corrected was this: the teacher would send students to the board to write out sentences from the homework, which were then subjected to group scrutiny and comments by the teacher.  As I recall (although I'm not sure I'm remembering this accurately), we also had to translate the dialogues.  I thought the dialogues were stupid.  I used to write parodies of them in English and hand in the parodies with my homework.  I don’t remember very much communicative practice or use of the spoken language in ninth grade French.  All this did not produce very much of a sense of French as a living language!  I managed to get low "C's" in ninth grade French.

In tenth grade, I got more "C's" in French, but by the end of the year, I wasn't as worried as I had been in ninth grade about possibly getting "D's" or even "F's" in French.   The class did not seem as difficult, and the lessons in the text were starting to make more sense to me.  We spent more time using the language in activities like role plays, and less time with grammar drills, than we had the previous year.  But even after completing tenth grade French, I still could not read books in French.  Later I realized this was not surprising and that being able to read books in French would require more than two years of slow paced high school foreign language classes.

It was not possible to take more than two years of French (or any other foreign language) at Newport Harbor High School.  I could have taken one or two years of another language (Spanish and Latin were the only possibilities), but I did not.  I took no language classes in grades eleven and twelve, and did little or nothing in those years to improve or maintain my French. I never came into contact with French speakers, and if I had come into contact with them, I would not have been able to say very much to them in French.

I resumed studying French when I went away to college. Because I had taken French for two years in high school, I was advised by the college counselors to take Intermediate French.  This was a very big mistake.  The teacher was from France, and he expected the class to read French novels like L’Étranger (The Stranger) by Albert Camus and Les Enfants Terribles (known in English as The Holy Terrors) by Jean Cocteau.

I had never had a native speaker for a French teacher before.  The novels were difficult, and I couldn't understand them very well.  I tried looking up all the words I didn't know in a French-English dictionary, which took hours.  I later found out that was not a strategy used by good language learners.  In class, I sat in the back of the room and hoped that the professor wouldn't call on me.  The professor's favorite kind of test was a translation test.  He would write sentences in English on the board and we would have to translate them into French.  The emphasis was on correctness rather than communication.  I did not do well on these tests, and I was having trouble with my other classes as well, because I had made the mistake of signing up for seventeen units of credit in my first semester of college.  Before the semester was over, I got very sick and went home.

The following summer, I enrolled at the local junior college and started all over again with beginning French.  This time, I was able to learn the language.  The beginning French class was basically a review of material I was already somewhat familiar with, but by going over it again I felt that I was learning it more thoroughly than I had before, and I was not anxious about being overwhelmed by the course content.  There was a lot of memory work, but the teacher always emphasized verb forms and conjugations on his grammar tests, so I knew exactly what to study and did well on the tests.  As it turned out, knowing the verb forms did help my ability to understand and speak French.  There was also a lot of conversation in class. We prepared oral reports on articles the teacher had selected from the French press.  The teacher, who was not a native speaker of French but loved France, talked a lot about French culture.  After four semesters of French, I was ready to go on and take various classes in French literature taught in French at the state college I transferred to when I graduated from junior college, and to use those courses as part of a minor in World Literature.

Several years later, when I got married, I began learning another language: Spanish.  I had learned French in a school setting.  Now, although I did not know it, I was about to start learning another language in a very different way.  My wife Colette and I spent our honeymoon in Mexico.  She had studied Spanish before, and I hadn't.  As we drove south from California toward Mexico City, I read the dialogues from her beginning Spanish textbook out loud to her in the best pronunciation I could manage.  The dialogues didn’t seem any more intelligent or realistic to me than the dialogues in my high school French book, but the language seemed real because it was all around me, and I was going to have to try to use it.

There was at least one occasion, though, when I felt like one of the dialogues from the textbook was coming to life.  In the textbook dialogue, a couple of Americans went to visit the great Aztec pyramid at Teotihuacan outside Mexico City.  Their guide, who was named Carlos, told them, “La base de este pirámide es más grande que lo de Egipto” (The base of this pyramid is bigger than the one in Egypt).  Colette and I visited Teotihacan that summer, and we went with a Mexican couple named Judy and Carlos.  Suddenly, I heard Carlos behind me saying the exact words of the dialogue: “La base de este pirámide es más grande que lo de Egipto.”  He was reading out loud from an information leaflet he had picked up at the entrance to the historical site.

My French was still a lot stronger than my Spanish, however, even at the end of the summer.

When we visited France three years later, I was able to understand and participate in conversations.  I will never forget how, when I first arrived in France, I felt a sense of amazement at being surrounded by people speaking French. Even little children spoke French!  I suddenly realized that when I had studied French in school, even in college literature classes, the language and the culture had never quite seemed real to me.  Even though I had successfully learned French, the French language for me was something that existed in classrooms, rather than in the real word.  I knew intellectually that there were native speakers of French in the world, but this knowledge always seemed theoretical rather than practical until I visited France.

French people told me that I spoke French "comme un anglais" (like an Englishman), which meant that I spoke it better than most Americans.  I assumed that this was supposed to be a compliment.

My Spanish at this time was still quite weak.  I never took a formal class in Spanish, but I did attempt to improve my Spanish (with Colette's help) by listening to talk shows on Spanish language radio stations in California, by going to movies in Mexican neighborhoods, and by taking occasional vacations in Mexico.

In 1976, Colette and I were offered jobs in Venezuela.  Before leaving, we attended a Spanish class for adults that met once a week in the evening at the local high school. The class was not for credit; the students just wanted to learn.  The teacher, Sharron Bassano, emphasized communication and made sure that the class was fun.  We talked in Spanish about things that interested us, we sang songs, we performed short dramas, and we laughed a lot.  It was one of the best language classes I'd ever seen. Later on, when I started teaching ESL, I would have this class in the back of my mind as a model of what I hoped my classes would be like.

I went to Venezuela speaking just enough Spanish to get by.  I could carry on a conversation, but I could only speak in the present tense.  I got a book of grammar exercises, and when there was something I felt I needed to learn and couldn’t pick up “on the street,” such as the complicated system of direct and indirect object pronouns, I studied the grammar exercises at home, and then went out and tried to use what I had studied.  I also read Spanish language newspapers and watched Spanish language TV.  I was frequently in situations where it was necessary for me to communicate with people who spoke no English at all.  We lived in Venezuela for three years, and during this time my Spanish gradually improved.  In 1979, we moved from Venezuela to Puerto Rico, where I continued learning Spanish through practice.

In Puerto Rico, I was shocked to find that some American professors in the English Department where I taught did not make the effort to become fluent in Spanish.  Maybe they were lazy, or culturally arrogant, or maybe they knew that they would not sound as smart speaking imperfect Spanish as they sounded speaking English and it was very important to them to sound very smart all the time.  I personally felt that since I was living in a Spanish speaking country where I was teaching my native language to Spanish speakers, it would be both a disgrace and a missed opportunity if I did not try to learn my students’ language as well as I could.

In 1993, we moved from Puerto Rico to Massachusetts.  My Spanish is still not perfect, but I can function in most situations, I am continuing to practice, and I know that I am improving every year, slowly but surely.

Because I was using and practicing Spanish a lot for over a decade, and using and practicing French hardly at all, my Spanish got better and my French got worse.  In recent years, I've been trying to improve my French (without losing my Spanish), through visits to French Canada, and through reading.

On our first visit to French Canada several years ago, I was curious to see whether my ability to speak French would come back in a French-speaking environment.  I was able to communicate in French a little bit, but I kept finding that I had forgotten the words for things I wanted to talk about.

On this trip, I decided to try an experiment.  I bought a French book that I really wanted to read: Le Premier Homme, an unfinished novel by Albert Camus that had just recently been published for the first time. When I didn't know a French word in the book, I tried as much as possible to follow the advice I had been giving my ESL students, and guess the meaning of the unfamiliar word rather than looking it up in the dictionary.  I also bought the English translation of the book, which I used as a comprehension check.  I would read a chapter in the original French, and then if I wasn't sure whether I had understood the key points, I went back and read it again in English.  If everything in the English version looked familiar, that meant I had understood what I'd read in French. 

Guessing meanings of words instead of looking them up made me nervous at first.  I was afraid I might miss something important if one of my guesses were wrong.  But when I checked the English translation of the book, I was surprised to find that even when I felt nervous, my guesses about the important points were almost always correct.  I continued reading in French this way, and learned to trust my guesses and not to worry about understanding every word. Before I finished the book, I had become confident enough that I didn’t feel I needed the English translation.

In the summer of 1997 I read a novel in French (Le Testament Français by Andrei Makine) that had not yet been translated into English, and so I was not able to use a translation.  (The novel has since been translated; the English title is Dreams of My Russian Summers.)  With some scenes, I did not understand all the details, but I got the main points: where the scenes were taking place, who was there, and what the scenes meant to the characters involved.  Even without completely understanding everything, I enjoyed the book immensely, and when I finished it, I felt very proud of myself.

As I said at the beginning of this essay, people sometimes ask me whether it is better to learn a language in the classroom or “on the streets,” and I say that both ways can work.  I think what matters most is whether somebody really wants to learn, and whether they are patient and persistent.  In my case, I was not an “A” student in the language classes I took in high school and college.  On the other hand, I was interested in learning other languages.  I wanted to read books in other languages, and when I eventually visited countries where people spoke other languages, I found that I wanted to be able to talk to those people in their own languages.  Mostly, I did not give up, and eventually I learned both French and Spanish well enough to use them in real situations.  Learning other languages turned out to be a longer road than I realized when I started studying French, but I kept going and made the journey, and knowing more than one language has enriched my life immeasurably.

(Revised January 15, 2007)