Most people would agree that learning a language is a long-term project. In fact, I tend to think that I can never say that I’m done learning a language. Including in my native language, I come across new words, concepts, and new ways of interpreting events, images, and expressions all the time.
What keeps me going?
People sometimes ask me how I can speak several languages “so well”. Usually, they are quick to add that I must have “a talent” for it. I don’t really know what “talent” means, and if I do have it, so much the better. What I know is that having a goal helps me to plan activities in a language and to define challenges for myself from time to time. A few years ago, I decided to deliver my first teacher development workshop in French. At the time, I was comfortable reading the language, and I had the opportunity to speak it at home and with friends. Addressing a group of fifty native speakers of French in their language represented a challenge for me. I remember that I was nervous for a few days before the event. I know that they would notice every mispronounced word, every grammar mistake. At the same time, I knew they wanted to participate in a workshop, and weren’t there to correct the speaker. Not only did these teachers participate very actively, they made me feel at ease in the conversation.
After the workshop, I realized that I had never intended to learn French in a professional context. In the beginning, my initial goal had been to be able to communicate with my family in Quebec. Giving the workshop was a learning goal I had invented, and I had a sense of achievement by having completed the challenge I had created for myself.
Any achievement calls for a celebration! I was proud and wanted to share what this achievement meant to me. This sharing took place over a cup of coffee with the colleague how had invited me to give the workshop. I thanked her for giving me the opportunity and for all the support I had received from her and the institution. In my experience, these celebrations are often occasions where I create the next goal.
Going through the cycle of defining a goal, preparing for a challenge, and performing an activity, producing a result, receiving feedback from others, and celebrating achievements helps me become aware of the progress I am making in the language. My first attempts to communicate in French required a cognitive and emotional effort that often felt dazed. A family dinner where everyone shares ideas, cracks jokes, and discusses a variety of topics used to be an overwhelming experience for me. I couldn’t keep up with the pace of the conversation, I didn’t understand why people where laughing, and I wasn’t able to find appropriate moments to speak, let alone of what to say. This was fourteen year ago. Today, I enjoy these reunions and contribute ideas, jokes, and my points of view. I “instinctively know” what to say, and when. And of course, I have gotten to know and love the people I am talking to. It is good to look back and to become aware of the progress I have. And it is the perfect moment to look forward to create the next steps.