Who’s the Linguist in the Room?

Don your imagination hat. We are about to do some serious travelling!

You are in a strange land with only your friends for company. You find yourself straining your ears to absorb snippets of the conversations happening around you. You then try to make sense out of the rapid fire staccato like bursts of speech. It all seems too overwhelming. Then, out of the madness, a lone friendly word miraculously finds its way to your ear. You smile, nod wisely, and you respond. Or you at least attempt to.

This is how a language first assaults, angers, annoys, then amazes, assures, and finally astounds you. If you have ever tried to speak in a tongue that’s not your own for more than a few hours, you would only be all too familiar with the overwhelming feeling that your brain is working overtime.

The good news? It’s supposed to feel like that. What’s the name of that person you met while you were waiting in line to meet that other person who asked you to contact a third guy on the phone? Imagine this when you are trying to remember what you had for breakfast three days ago because that, according to your doctor is apparently the reason for the headache that you’ll get tomorrow. Well, you get the picture. When the brain tries to process multiple streams of information, it always wants to go back to type – it prefers the path well known. This is all strictly experiential. For all we know, a neurologist may read this one day and shake his head at yet another misfiring neuron-led case of writing!

When you are learning multiple languages, you will always be tempted to say ‘this’ instead of esta, especially when you are in the throes of hyperbolic euphoria (a borrowed phrase). After all, you have just learnt the correct Spanish pronunciation of ‘llama’ in ‘¿Cómo se llama?‘ and your mind has already boarded another train of thought and you are now thinking of the ‘I am so disappointed that it’s just a third llama in the background and not the second llama on the right ringing a bell’ image.


But we digress. Learning a new language can be extreme fun if you have a baby in the house. My children are now up in arms if anyone says water kettle. “Dad, it is called ‘jeongi jujeonja’. Has your Korean gone for a walk around the house?”, they say in their own adorable way.

Wait. We were speaking Spanish. When did we change continents? Is it really that easy to learn new languages or is this just another ‘word out of the dictionary’ attempt? Let me tell you my story. I have an A1 certification in Spanish (the very first level) that I completed without having set foot in a Spanish class. A lot of people now do this. The resources on the Internet today are so structured that people don’t need a human teacher to get them started. Many of these resources are free to boot!

I strongly believe that you don’t have to embarrass yourself before a human being in the initial stages of your learning. We now have apps for that. That said, I think you should either live in your country of interest or learn from a native speaker once you cross the first few bridges on shallow waters.

I must indeed be a man blessed with amazing memory prowess and a gargantuan appetite for learning. Am I not? Well, no. The best part of these online apps is that you get to play them like a game and get rewarded along the way. It gives you that extra bit of incentive to remember many words.

I would be the first one to admit that this sounds like a cheesy advertisement for one of these apps. But they are so effective that I have taken it upon myself to be the unofficial ambassador for language learning.

Let me tell you this. While my other conversation starters have often failed me (so what do you add to your coffee, do you really think Sir Alex should have retired, do you think flying cars will still be stopped by errant cops, were EA Sports really so mired in poverty that they could only manage to call him Sachin Tendehar and so on), anything about foreign languages never fails to elicit instant attention. You won’t believe how easy it is to casually drop in a reference to the fact that I can speak a bit of Spanish. The trick is to do it with complete nonchalance.

Okay, you caught me. I did it again!

After a series of tangential digressions, I will probably come up with a tip or two for the bright-eyed, eager student of language who probably thinks she/he is going to start speaking French like a Parisian, skipping more vowels than a two year old kid. Start with Duolingo and Drops, two of the best resources that you can use for free. They have these streak metrics that tell you how long you have been hooked onto them and that will tell you how serious you are about learning a language.

I have always envied people who come from bilingual households. Imagine trying to start a sentence in Spanish and switching mid-sentence to French, without even realizing it. When popular Quoran Dushka Zapata was once asked about the language she thinks in, she couldn’t decide if it was English or Spanish. She simply couldn’t find a difference! How can you not envy that?

One may find it odd why I should endeavor to cross the seas, at least figuratively, to learn European languages while there are so many diverse and culturally rich Indian languages primed and ready to be learnt. Well, the most difficult part of learning a new language is finding a native/expert speaker. I thought it would be more challenging to start with languages whose sound waves seldom grace this great country. That said, I have already set my sights on Telugu and Malayalam.

So, okay. You have been through enough now. Llamas, EA Sports, and even hyperbolic euphoria. But why? Why should you put yourself through a series of seemingly endless and mind-numbing (literally) exercises and games that will then make you sound like a babbling toddler when you try to voice your thoughts out loud? ¿Por qué ?

The journey itself is the reward. Your mind automatically starts to make connections that never seemed possible earlier. Trust me, it also improves other faculties of the mind. I found (empirically) that I was able to write code better when I was in the middle of an intense language session with the bot on Duolingo. This is just the beginning. Why don’t you try it out and let me know?

The first level in any language can easily be conquered without classroom intervention. However, at that point, things start to get interesting. You will find yourself seeking out a fellow speaker to test out your accent or grammar. And the first time a native speaker acknowledges your sentence and nods back, you will ascend to cloud nine faster than a jet engine could without stalling. Try it out, and keep me posted!

The journey itself is the reward.


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