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The joy of slow learning

Updated: Nov 2, 2020

Reflecting on the beauty of taking your time to learn a new language.

Four years ago, when I started teaching French independently, I started defining my own teaching philosophy.

While doing some research online, I quickly stumbled upon the wild world of polyglots. People recording themselves switching skillfully from a language to another. Others comparing numbers of languages they could use. Videos of the many ways you can say hello or I love you around the world. Self-proclaimed language specialists with a bit of a humbug vibe who were giving advice on how to conquer many languages in no time at all. I even bought a book meant to teach French to anyone in three months. I was so intrigued by that approach of language on the fast track. Most of the time, the method would focus on how to hack the language, and how to identify linguistic systems and shortcuts to access a language rapidly.

And then I closed the book, and I decided to go the exact opposite way with how I would approach teaching French. 

Now - I get that learning fast is fun, and I understand the immense satisfaction of making quick progress on your journey to learn another language. I am writing this article in a language I have been learning in the past twenty years, and I remember feeling so great when I could make a few sentences in English only after one lesson or two.

I also understand that sometimes in life, you do not have the choice to learn slowly, and you have to get the gist of a language in a very short time for personal and/or professional reasons. I have helped many learners acquire enough French in anticipation of a move to a Francophone country, which also compelled me to start with the systems of language that would allow them to at least be able to buy bread and cheese at their local store. 

But what I could not find in this world of quick learning, and in the semantics of conquering languages, was the importance of joy and the beauty of slowness.

And I think that is actually a very French thing to say. Living in the United States, I often notice how fast the pace of life is. Every day is segmented into tiny bits of time, and each of them is dedicated to a specific activity. Even having fun is squeezed into these boxes.

And oftentimes, I long for slowness. I miss the slow, delicious, long French Saturday afternoons spent doing pretty much nothing. I miss the absolute serenity you can find in sitting on a bench and doing some people watching. Sometimes, I even miss the grim, rather depressing French Sunday evenings, when only a few bakeries are open and when it feels like there is nothing else to do but to think about the week to come. I am not sure how much of that attraction is related to culture, but it is a fact: I live for slowness. 

And that is why I decided that learning a language could also be a long, beautiful journey. Yes, it could indeed be that race on a highway, which brings you adrenaline but leaves you very little time to see the landscapes. But I thought it could also very well be the paced trip along the tortuous roads, with many stops along the way to take a picture of a valley too lush to ignore or to absorb the crispness of the morning dew on the wild bushes. 

But enough daydreaming, Anaïs! Let's explore what this means in terms of language learning. 

You need time to taste the arc-en-ciel

One thing that is harder to do when you are trying to learn a language fast, or when you are learning several languages at the same time for the sake of completing a bucket list, is to spend time on how beautiful some words are, or how unique one syntax can be. Recently, one of my students - a man in his twenties who is infatuated with the French language and culture - learned the French word for rainbow, arc-en-ciel. And although he learned it outside of our lessons (I can't remember if it was on a podcast or a show on Netflix), he shared that discovery with me. Just because. Not only did he find himself delighted by how nice this three-part-word sounded, but he also felt like sharing this delight with me. Which I was grateful for because finding joy in learning is my very favorite part of the job. I live for these moments of awe when we stop our exercise on le passé composé just to feel the taste of a new word in our mouth. Une lubie. Un bocage. Grosso Modo.

Soon, the same student started creating lists of the new beautiful words he had learned during the week, and to systematically share it on our work document. He does it both to make sure he documents and remembers the new words, and to simply share his finds with me.

Sometimes the lists have words, and sometimes they contain whole expressions he found funny or interesting. Another time, we paused to dwell in the poetic syntax of the verb "manquer" in French, which consists of saying "You are missing from me" as opposed to "I miss you" in English.

This process - the tasting of l'arc-en-ciel - is what I mean by seeing language learning as a journey on the long roads with the necessary breaks to take it all in. It goes along with the famous idea that "c'est le voyage qui compte, pas la destination" (the journey is more important than the destination).

"We don't really say that"

Another perk of taking your time when learning a language, and - if possible - spending months or years learning it, is that it becomes easier to access the cultures associated with the said language. If you are going to learn French to move to Paris, you might want to also learn about the culture of Paris, and what to say and maybe not to say when living there. And sometimes, the decorum cannot be learned in one book on how to hack a language, nor within three months.

My own experience has brought me plenty of examples of that. In 2011, when I first moved to the United States to be a French Teaching Assistant, my English was academically strong. I knew an extended list of vocabulary, and I had mastered my irregular verbs (eat, ate, eaten/steal, stole, stolen...). Because of that, I was perfectly capable of asking where to find a grocery store, or how to connect to the Wifi on campus. However, what I didn't know was the culture attached to the language. I did not know why the (very patient) workers at Walmart did not understand what I meant by handkerchief when I was looking for tissues, and I did not know why people were taking offense when I would tell them with concern and care that they looked so tired. In France, it is a very lovely thing to say, because it shows that you are paying attention. In the USA, I found out the hard way that a lot of people would rather not have you comment on the bags under their eyes. One day, at the table, a friend kept asking me to toss the salad or to cut the cheese, laughing at my naive responses (I just - well - tossed the salad and cut the cheese).

And I have a load of these examples. Awkward moments and misunderstandings (like when I told a friend that she was clumsy - which is really okay to say in France) were a normal aspect of my life as an expat because I had spent years learning my irregular verbs, and very little time learning American slang or political correctness in the Midwest.

And that's the thing: you can't really separate a language from its culture, or from its cultures. The French language, for example, is not the same whether you travel to Sénégal, to Canada, or to Belgium. You might have to adjust some vocabulary and some pronunciation to communicate effectively in each of those places, and to avoid at least a little bit of the millions of awkward moments anyone can expect when going abroad.

Oftentimes, during that first year in the United States, an American friend of mine would repeat, her eyes rolling to the sky and with a flat tone: "We don't really say that". Today, although my English is far from being perfect, I manage to avoid most of the awkward language/culture-related misunderstandings, and I feel very thankful for people like her, who patiently guided me through the tricky process of actually using another language and to exist in a foreign space.

In for the long game

For all these reasons, I think that there are a lot of benefits to start learning a language knowing that you are in for the long game. Of course, you should memorize the mnemonics that will make your learning process easier, and you should not be afraid of taking some shortcuts, especially if you are planning to use that language abroad rather soon. There is nothing wrong with wanting to understand how a language works quickly.

But once that is done, why not get off the language highway and start exploring the small roads? And then, while you will be wandering these roads, learning your target language like you would peel an onion, slowly unraveling new complex layers, you might just become a traveler. You might decide to stay on the roads and to be a language learner forever. Maybe this new language will become a hobby, in which there is time to be fascinated by how words and sentences sound, or by the social, cultural, historical stories of the countries attached to that language.

Maybe speaking and listening to that language will become – as it has for many of my students – a part of who you are. And I think slowness – the beautiful, peaceful, and confident slowness – might be just the ingredient to make that magic happen.

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