Today I’m feauturing a guest post by Dimitris Polychronopoulos, a Greek man with an interesting life story regarding languages and his experiences with learning different ones, especially with French. I must say that Dimitris’s story is quite similar to mine, though there are some differences that you may see later.
If you would like to be a guest writer on Linguablog.org, please contact me.
I’m Dimitris Polychronopoulos. I’m a citizen of both Greece and USA. My mother is a monolingual English-speaker and my father is bilingual Greek and English speaker. As a child growing up in the US, I had a basic knowledge of Greek and took Greek lessons at the Greek Orthodox church. I could read and write Greek at a basic level from an early age but I didn’t get the push to really move it along until later, even though deep inside I knew someday I would live in Greece. However it wasn’t until after my second visit to Greece in my 20’s that I became proficient in the Greek language and I became determined to live there, which I did from March 2000 until 2009. Getting better at my heritage language, Greek came as a roundabout way that I’ll explain here.
When I was a child, my favorite book was the World Atlas. I would look at the different maps and dream of traveling to the many different countries I saw as I looked through the pages. Then I started thinking about how it would be important to learn different languages in order to help communicate during the travels. I wrote a list of all the countries I wished to visit and all the languages I wanted to learn. My family thought I was crazy. That didn’t stop me from carrying out my plans though. Years have gone by and now I’ve visited more than 100 countries on all seven continents, have lived in seven different countries, have sojourned in an additional eight countries and have studied more than 15 languages — some of which I am proficient in and some of which I can survive in and some of which I’m somewhere in between.
The above example shows how at an early age, I showed curiosity and wasn’t deterred by any of the skepticism of those around me to carry through with my plans. As an adult, it happens that I took the ‘Big Five’ personality test, where I scored high on ‘Openness’, which means being intellectually curious, appreciating beauty and the arts, being in touch with ones’ feelings, and looking for adventure.
It wouldn’t surprise me if some people who do poorly at languages are dragged down by their lack of openness. The other parts of the ‘Big Five’ personality test are: agreeableness, conscientiousness, extraversion, and neuroticism.
Another factor I scored high in is conscientiousness. This seems to be an important factor as well because a person with a high level of conscientiousness will take the time to study grammar rules, focus on correct pronunciation, and build up a vocabulary.
There is more to being successful at language learning than just personality. Other things factor in as well, such as confidence, motivation, effective methods and the ability to overcome challenges.
Looking back at high school, the first two years of French were not successful. We had to take exams where we conjugated verbs and I even tried writing down verb endings on a tiny ‘cheat sheet’ for one of the exams. The teacher noticed the ‘cheat sheet’ during an exam and confiscated it.
However, by the third year of French, I was the only student in French class who could actually hold a conversation in French and the first one ever in my high school to pass the Advanced Placement French exam. What happened? Where did the change come from?
There were two things that really made a difference. First, my parents took me to French Polynesia and I was able to experience the language in a real environment rather than in just a classroom and from a text book. This visit made me interested in getting beyond the text book. Second, two French exchange students arrived at my high school and became my best friends. In both cases, getting the taste of the language as a living form rather than a classroom task really played the biggest role in changing my attitude about learning French. The language moved beyond just a text book and meant participating in real conversations about real things and events that concerned my life, with real people. That became my motivation to learn French.
Once I had motivation, my confidence was boosted from the French teachers in high school who were married to French spouses and they let me talk to their in-laws. One of the teachers even invited me several times to their house to chat in French when the family would come over from France. It was completely unique for the French teachers at my high school to see a student actually becoming conversant in French so they boosted my confidence even more by showing so extra interest in me.
They say that once you feel success learning one foreign language, you build the confidence to know you can learn a second one, then a third one, and so forth. That’s how you become a polyglot and a hyperpolyglot. It seems natural that I developed my own path to learning languages despite the fact that nobody else around me was doing so. My success in French built up my confidence and I began self-study in Italian. I noted the similar structure of the language and the cognates and learned about ‘false friends’ as well. For example, Sciare is very different from Chier. After I started to study Italian, the French joked with me about the Italian skier who was misunderstood and sent to the toilet because he used such a ‘false friend’.
Success didn’t come without sacrifices, however. I spent a lot of lunch breaks during my senior year of high school on my own studying vocabulary, grammar and reading for example. One of my favorite things was the simple versions of French literature Les Miserables that my teachers lent me.
The best news was that my friends invited me to France and that their families really appreciated my efforts in speaking French. From time to time, there were also strangers in France who also commented on it, for example one said that I spoke ‘lentement, mais correctement’. I ended up even getting a scholarship to study at the Université d’Angers for a semester. It was a great experience.
My biggest challenge in learning a language is listening. It’s my biggest weakness in all languages really. Sometimes I’m embarrassed to ask somebody to repeat something and I laugh nervously, say a non sequitur or change the subject. Sometimes I end up making a tangentially related response. I know that best thing to do is to ask the person to repeat it slowly or clearly. I have a fear that the person will switch to English or that I will lose face. This is something I always need to be aware of and need to try to improve. Self-awareness and humility are essential to overcome this problem. It is more commonly a problem around people who haven’t spent much time around me. After I get to know somebody, I’m more comfortable asking them to repeat and to let them be aware of the limitations I have in speaking their language. It’s always hardest when I’m not engaged in a one-on-one conversation with somebody. When I’m the only non-native speaker in a group of people speaking one of my target languages, the pace of speech along with any background noise can make it difficult to catch every word. In these circumstances, you just have to absorb the overall meaning and not obsess understanding with every single word or expression.
After all these years of language learning, my main advice to somebody getting started in a new language is listening to the language to learn the sound of the language. Try to determine when one word ends and another begins. Try to note different accents and tones. Get a variety of content. Sometimes you need content at your level. Go for cartoons with subtitles for example. Other times just listen to podcasts in subjects of interest to you. Check out YouTube for content.
Do not obsess about grammar. It will come through the later stages. The grammar was what was wrong with the high school French. We spent time on rote memory of conjugating verbs from the text book. Most people aren’t interested in this and they find it tedious and irrelevant. Understanding the grammar can come later. Even a little bit of exposure to the language (say 15 minutes a day) if it is done steadily, builds up and over time you make progress. For me what works best is diving right in with intensity. That’s what I did when I was first starting Mandarin as well. I was studying for four hours a day for the first four months.
Recently I’ve started a website, Yozzi.com, for advanced language learners who want to improve their writing skills. I welcome guest blogs in different languages and encourage guests not to write in their strongest language but in a different one and to also help others by posting corrections and feedback for those whose blogs are up on the site. There is also a Yozzi Language YouTube channel where I have short videos for advanced learners where I share new vocabulary words in different languages.
Wishing you the best of success with your language learning endeavours. Feel free to write comments and questions here for me to answer.
Thank you Dimitris for your time and dedication!