One day long ago, somewhere in the depth of the Andes, my English mother heard two kids quarreling in Spanish and didn’t recognise one of them. She went over to stop the fight only to find out that one of the boys was me, her son. I’d picked up Spanish on my own and Spanish remained my everyday language for the next six years. It was the only language I spoke to my sister. I’d keep up in broken English with my mother and in colourful French with my father. I’d use Spanish words mixed up into my French and my English and spoke English with a Bolivian accent and French with an English accent. I’ve got a tape from back then to testify.
Today I know six languages at various levels, including Moroccan Arabic that I”ve learnt to write in SMS mode (see the photo below). Do I consider myself gifted at learning languages? No, not at all! I was mostly lucky. Think about it. My story above explains why I have no choice but to speak French, English and Spanish. It also explains why I learnt German for 10 years in school, as that was the only remaining option back in France at the time. After that, I chose to learn beautiful-sounding Portuguese for fun one year, which is very close to Spanish as far as vocabulary is concerned (not pronunciation). Now I live in Morocco, and I’ve been here for the hell of a lot of time, so I should be fluent in Moroccan Arabic, right? I’m not. I’ve built up a list of valid excuses over the years: I work in French, my looks are those of an Englishman and Arabic pronunciation is very hard to master. I could go on.
Still, I see it as basic respect to speak to someone in his language. It doesn’t matter to me that they often think the same. So I set myself up to finding shortcuts to fluency. What’s so challenging about learning a new language? I guess it varies on an individual level, but here are the language-learning components that are central to me: understanding the underlying logic of the language, memorising new words, acquiring a sufficient pronunciation control and getting locals to maintain a discussion with you while I’m learning. Let’s get into each of these.
Understanding the underlying logic of the language is a prerequisite for me. I’m an engineer and I like to compare a language to a complex engine or to a computer program. To use it, I need to understand what the general structure and process is. At one point in my life, in Indonesia, I had the nickname Makan Makan. Makan means to eat, and in Indonesian you double the word to express plural, quantity or intensity. That’s an element of structure that’s a prerequisite to learning the language. In Moroccan Arabic, you can express intensity by pushing a syllable, often the last one. “You eat a lot” translates to “Kat akoul bazzaf”, and “You really do eat a lot” becomes “Kat akoul bazzaaaaaaf”. It’s not a written rule, but it’s everywhere in the way people talk. Morocco being a multilingual country, the same principle applies to Moroccan French. “Tu manges beaucoup” (you eat a lot) becomes “Tu manges beaauuuuucoup” to express intensity. In Morocco, but not in France. So we’re talking grammar, the main grammar principles, official or not, without however the need to understand each and every aspect of it. I often find that this general architecture of the language is hard to come accross.
Memorising new words is a common challenge. In my example above of learning Portuguese when knowing Spanish, or vice-versa, this might not be a problem. Learning Arabic or Mandarin with English as your language of reference is different. You’ll be happy to stumble over “skar” in Arabic which migrated to other languages as Sugar or Sucre, and many such others, but still for these languages the bulk of the words are unrelated to their English counterparts. My experience here is that learning the vocabulary and the writing at the same time makes it harder. Memorising “skar” is easier than memorising سكر, even if the transcription is generally only an approximation of how to correctly pronounce the word. Still, I’m in search of a good method and of good tools to accelerate this part of the learning.
Acquiring pronunciation control is, to me, a fascinating part of the process. It literally gives me a high when I’m able to say a sentence in a way that people mistake me for a local. It doesn’t matter that I’m Nordic-style tall and English-style pink, sometimes the dark-skinned brain I’m talking to will simply ignore these facts and assume I’m a local and answer to me as such. In Morocco, a small part of the population is light-skinned, very often people with strong roots in the city of Fès, and people will think OK, this guy must have really (reaaaally) deep roots in Fès. However, this said, (Moroccan) Arabic pronunciation is the hardest I’ve personally come accross. Learning Indonesian didn’t come with this challenge. Arabic includes a whole set of guttural sounds that simply do not exist in languages of European origin. I keep coming accross foreigners here that believe they’re getting it right by simply replacing all guttural sounds by the “ha” sound. It doesn’t work. And it took me years to get all sounds right, but I’m pretty sure there’s a fast-track to this.
Last but not least is getting locals to maintain a conversation with you in the language you’re beginning to learn. Why am I even bringing this up, are you thinking? For several reasons, in my experience. The first one is that many people you’ll come accross speak better English, French or Spanish than you speak the language you’re learning (say Mandarin, Arabic or Quechua). They want to help you communicate, so they’ll switch to the language in which the average of both of you is the most fluent. Or they’ll switch to your language out of respect, to help you, or not to embarrass you. I’ve stumbled accross this multiple times. Starting a conversation in Arabic with a cab driver: after a few words I don’t get, he’ll just help me out and continue in the French he knows better than the Arabic I’m learning. Or he’ll think, hey, this is my opportunity to work on my English, or my French, and that’s a competitive advantage for him. I’m still working on this challenge, on finding the right incentive for people to stick to their native language, as weird as this sounds.
Those are the basics for me on the road to fluency. Level 2 is a combination of mastering the accents (speak French with the accent from South-West France and I guarantee you many more friends), mastering non-verbal speak (how to silently express “How are you doing” in Morocco?), using the real-life street expressions (“a quarter” instead of “25 cents”) using the right speed (that delicious slower Spanish of Cuba) and fitting in the right silences when needed. I’ll elaborate on these subjects in a next post, as each of these I find passionating.