The French experiment – 3 lessons learnt while learning a new language

He who knows no foreign language knows nothing of his own – Johann Wolfgang Van Goethe

Language has fascinated me ever since I was a child and I was exposed to a multitude of languages growing up. I was born and raised in Mysore, Karnataka and belong to a Kodava family. The regional language of Karnataka is “Kannada” and Kodavas speak a dialect called “Kodava thakk“, which uses the letters of Kannada. My mom is a huge fan of Malayalam movies and my Dad of Tamil. Thanks to their choices, my brother and I had a unique experience of getting influenced by 4 languages even before we could go to school and learn English and Hindi. The choice of learning Hindi was an interesting one. I already knew much of the south Indian languages and my dad thought that if I were travelling to north India sometime in the future, then knowing Hindi would definitely help me, and I ended up choosing Hindi as my second language in school. The script of Kannada and Telugu is very similar, so I could read Telugu but not converse or understand it so well. By the time I finished school, I could comprehend 7 languages, read and write 5 languages and converse fluently in 4.

After school and before I started work, the interest in learning a foreign language waxed and waned. For a brief period of time, I was mesmerized with the Korean language. Thanks to a friend who got hooked me to Korean TV programs. I found a lot of similarities between familial values inculcated in India and Korea, but after a lot of dabbling I just could not wrap my head around it. I was trying to learn it on my own, and I did not dare ask my dad to shell out money to get me a professional tutor. Before you think that this is going to turn in to a primer on the “Art of avoiding power struggles with your parents and succeeding”, it is not. Both my dad and mom supported me in a lot of things, but I don’t think “learning Korean” was something that they would support me in. They never knew that I was trying to learn Korean in the first place.

Cut to 2017, I had the wonderful opportunity to work in Toronto, Canada for a year. Toronto is a melting pot of cultural pluralism. I lived with a very warm Italian family, Gus and Liliana, who are second generation Italian immigrants. My next door neighbor was from France, and I worked with Latin American clients. These were enough ammunition for the language gods to rekindle in me the spirit of learning a new language. Now the question was which language to pick from so many of them. I found my answer during a weekend trip to Montreal. In a café at Montreal, I was greeted to a very warm “Bonjour, Comment ca va ?” . The chatter in the café sounded musical to my ears which was enough for me to make a decision. French – The language of romance, The language of the renaissance and the language where a single word can mean a lot of different things.

Lesson 1 : Don’t pick something that does not fit your schedule

Although I fell in love with the French language, I could not dedicate enough time to learn it. I came back to Bangalore and one of the first things that I did was register for French language classes. I had to drop off mid-way due to scheduling conflicts with work and classes. I had to travel every weekday in the morning and for those of you who know Bangalore traffic at peak hour, it is next to impossible to plan your schedule around the unpredictable traffic. I was arriving late for work at least once every week and it was hard for me to just ignore and brush the situation under the carpet.

Lesson 2 : Do your research before zeroing on an institute

The fire in me to learn the language was still burning. I shifted to Mumbai sometime in July, 2018, and found an institute that fit my schedule and was surprisingly cost effective than most other institutions. The wheels of learning were set in motion again. I completed A1, which is the first level for most European languages but was dissatisfied with my proficiency and progress. Something was missing. Firstly, there were only three people, myself included who were taking the class. 8 out of 10 times, I used to be the only one in the class. You would think that this was a very favorable situation as I would get undivided attention from the teacher. Yes, the teacher was excellent and I got undivided attention but there is one thing that you need to understand about language. Language is the medium we use to communicate with fellow humans. It allows us to share our thoughts with others, and others is the key word here. You can’t speak to yourself and learn a language, you need someone with whom you can communicate, the more the merrier. It was not a complete failure but with no one to talk to, I forgot most of what I learnt in the first few weeks after classes ended.

Lesson 3: Trust the process and don’t lose hope

The hunger was more than ever now. Just when I had done my research, registered in an institute which fit my schedule, and got into a class with more than 10 learners, COVID struck. The classes got pushed by a couple of months but the institute was agile enough to completely move the offline classes to an online only mode. The online only mode made we worry of not getting to interact much with my co-learners but fortunately the group was phenomenal. We were a bunch of people who really had a passion to learn the language. In hindsight, the online classes were a blessing in disguise as it entailed saving a lot of time in travel. 

It has been 6 months now, and I have successfully completed 2 levels of the French language, A1 and A2. Thanks to my French co-worker who is kind enough to let me practice my French language skills on him. Many of our non-work conversations are in French these days. In complete transparency – Please don’t use a language you are not familiar with in your official conversations because the meaning gets lost in translation. Google translate literally translates word to word but the meaning of it will be completely different than intended. It can cost you your job.  I plan to pursue the next level, B1 in January, 2021 and I hope the next time I visit Montreal, I will be able to exchange greetings as warm as how I was greeted at the café with a “Ça va merci, Et vous ?”

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