Saturday, August 17, 2013

My interest in foreign languages

I was actually interested in foreign languages from a very early age. I thought: "How cool would it be to speak another language?" I suppose that many monolingual kids fantasize about being able to speak another language, usually without the slightest clue of how hard it is to do so. But for me, the interest never waned, and the only thing limiting me was the opportunity.

Early contact with Spanish

When I moved to Yuma, Arizona at age nine, I was in a school that was perhaps half Hispanic, and so came into regular contact with Spanish (not to be confused with actual immersion). This whetted my appetite for learning Spanish, for I often wondered what they were saying. But my first contact with the basics of Spanish was in the third grade, where we learned a few basic Spanish phrases from a video aimed at children. It wasn't really much more than "Buenos días," "¿Como estás?" and things like that, but it was the first time I'd learned anything at all about how to speak Spanish.

Taking middle school Spanish class

In middle school, I was able to take a quarter-long class in Spanish from a native Spanish speaker. I don't really remember anything about her besides her Spanish surname of Núñez, but I do remember she was a good teacher. I learned a few basic things, like words for colors, and how to conjugate ser, estar, and tener. But I didn't really learn much. It did, however, whet my appetite even more for learning Spanish, and learning languages generally.

High school Spanish classes were full ...

But a surprising thing happened when I finished middle school. My family was moving to Prescott (a difficult thing for me at age fourteen), and thus I would be beginning my freshman year at Prescott High School. My dad and I went to talk to the adviser, and she told me that all the first-year Spanish classes were full. I knew that my plans for learning the language would have to wait, so I focused on fulfilling other requirements for graduation.

... so I took high school French classes instead

A year later, when it again came time to register for classes, I was thinking more about taking French instead. I thought that French was a useful language for Canada and Europe, but the main reason for taking French was a gamble: I figured that I would probably get called to serve a mission in a Spanish-speaking country, and would have the opportunity to learn the language later. Thus I decided to focus on something else now. All things considered, this may have been a mistake, but I took two years of high school French and enjoyed it greatly.

Success in high school French classes

I discovered in my first French class that I was extremely talented at languages, and I could easily get A's on tests with little or no studying. I did all my homework in class with time to spare (for socializing and other things). Lest I come across as bragging, I will be quick to mention that I did not have this glorious experience of easy A's in other classes - only foreign languages. I did have a gift for language.

Success in high school French classes (continued)

In my second year of French, I discovered that the teacher was using my 102% final exam from the year before as a key for grading her first-year students' exams. This was helpful in building my fragile ego, which was suffering from some mediocre grades in chemistry and pre-calculus. It was nice to feel like the smart one for a change.

Success in college French classes

When college came, my two years of high school French counted for one year of college French, and I took the second year at Yavapai College. This would be my final year of French, and I discovered that even in college, after a Senior year without any French classes, I had an unusual gift for languages. I understood little of what was going on for the first month, partly because of the higher level of immersion, and partly because the teacher was an immigrant from France with an authentic native accent. This was a bonus in the class, but it did take some getting used to. There was a woman with a bachelor's degree in French who joined the class to practice the language, and it was a relief to me that when I was struggling with a couple of my other classes (some bitterly painful C's), I was the only one who got a higher score than her on the exams. At least there was one subject I was doing well in.

Delays in mission plans

I was at the age when most of the men in my religion go on missions, but medical problems prevented me from going. Thus I did not get the opportunity to learn Spanish (or any other language) on a mission, in this country or any other. But I persevered through hard classes in other subjects, read the entire Book of Mormon and Pearl of Great Price in French, and ended up getting a bachelor's degree in business. Eventually, I was honorably excused from full-time missionary service for medical reasons, and the prospects for learning the language in another country seemed dim.

Taking Spanish classes after graduation

There was another problem for me when I graduated: The economy was horrible. Even my employable business degree was not helping me to get any stable full-time work. Unemployment was to be the bane of my existence for some time, and after I had been in this terrible condition for a year and a half, I decided I might as well use the available time to do something useful. Thus I decided to take Spanish classes. As a language enthusiast, this is something I would have wanted to do in any case, and seeing the large number of job descriptions mentioning that they preferred fluency in Spanish further increased my desire to do so.

Success in Spanish classes

It was with relief that I discovered that my gift for languages had not deserted me, and found that even though most of the other students had more experience with Spanish than I did, I was more than able to hold my own. I eventually earned an Outstanding Student in Languages award at the school (Yavapai College), and my record of having earned an "A" in every foreign language class I'd ever taken remained unblemished. I even finished the Book of Mormon in Spanish before the end of the year, and finished the Pearl of Great Price in Spanish just weeks later. It was also helpful that I spent some time attending church in Spanish, and this helped to build my verbal fluency in the language.

Plans for other languages at this time

I did not intend to take any more classes in French or Spanish, but hoped that one day, I would be able to take two years of college German. I still await the day when I can do this, and hope one day that I will be near a school that offers it. German and Ancient Greek are the only other languages I want to invest the time in learning, and I hope that eventually, I will be able to call myself fluent in four (or even five) languages.

So that's a little about the story of why I took French earlier than Spanish, and how I got to be fluent in these languages. I hope that this story has been of value to someone.

My experience with Spanish

My experience with French


  1. Love it! I am sure that one day you WILL be fluent in all four languages. You are pretty dang close with three already! Now if you could just pass some of your ability to me...

  2. Oh and...that was Katie, not Tim.


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