A lot of well-meaning American teachers and professors don’t teach foreign languages effectively, so that students feel passionate about the language, learn at a normal pace, and have good retention of everything they’re learning. I knew a lot of students who hated foreign languages and felt like they were boring and stupid. Learning a language shouldn’t be based on rote memorization.
Currently I’m refreshing my Russian and improving my Estonian, Dutch, and German with some of the (free!) courses offered by Memrise. I highly recommend them, though some of their translations and reasons for marking you wrong are a bit suspect. They teach slowly and methodically, with the analogy of planting a garden. First you plant your seeds, then you come back and water them, and finally you harvest them. Even after you’ve harvested them, you continue to water them so you retain the long-term memory of the words and phrases.
My small, pre-existing Estonian vocabulary has increased so much since I’ve started my courses, because of this style of learning. It’s sort of like Rosetta Stone, only they actually tell you what the words and phrases mean. Gradually, I figure out the patterns of things like verb conjugation, plurals, and root words used to form longer words and phrases. And they’re frequently reinforcing your prior knowledge, instead of assuming you’ve got all those words and phrases down cold after that unit. Plus, if you get an answer wrong, they come back to that word or phrase more often than the ones you passed, until you’ve internalized it and it finally clicks.
If you’re really passionate about learning a language, you’re going to be more committed and interested than if you’re being forced to take it for a grade or graduation requirement. The languages I’ve formally studied which I felt most passionate about have been Russian and Italian. I took Spanish and French because I had to. Only later on did I really come back to them with a real desire to improve my skills. So much great literature was written in Spanish and French. They’re also among the world’s most-spoken languages.
The exclusively self-study language I’m most passionate about is German. It’s such a rich, historied language, with so much great literature to its name. And since I’m planning to one day get a Ph.D. in Russian history, it’s a useful additional language to know for research purposes. Many schools require not just your primary Slavic language for the program, but also at least one other European language so you can read journals and other source materials.
I’ve been studying German on and off since late ’94, and have retained enough to be able to read at a basic level, and understand some films without always looking at the subtitles. Early in my study of German, I also acquired the habit of counting and thinking my numbers in German. There have seriously been times I’ve totally blanked on the English word for a number, or unthinkingly said a number in German.
During one of my driving lessons at age 25, I had a habit of going under the speed limit out of fear. (The first time I went on the highway, I was scared out of my mind at having to go so fast and being among so many fast cars!) One time, my dad pointed at a speed limit sign and asked how fast I was supposed to go. Without even thinking, I said, “Fünf und vierzig.” My father and brother had no idea what the hell I’d just said, of course. I just saw the number 45 and said the number the way I thought it! I couldn’t even recall the English word.
I’ve also learnt some Japanese through one of the programs on Channel 45, back in ’94. Though I’ve forgotten some of what I used to know, I do remember some words and phrases to this day. I think that was because the program was very lively, with fun examples and interesting characters, and because I was genuinely interested in the language. Plus Japanese is a cool language, with a lot of history and culture.
Over the years, I’ve also studied Hebrew, Armenian, Estonian, Hungarian, Swedish, Georgian, Polish, and Dutch. My interest in Dutch was spawned because of my interest in German, and at one point I was also interested in Afrikaans, which evolved from Dutch. Armenian was because of my Armenophilia, Hungarian and Swedish because of some of the Shoah memoirs I discovered in 1995, Estonian and Georgian because of the characters in my Russian novels, Hebrew for religious reasons, and Polish just because. I also became interested in the Scandinavian languages because I just think they look cool.
You definitely can learn two or three languages at the same time, though I tend to agree with people who caution against starting two similar languages together. You might get mixed up if you’re starting, say, Spanish and Portuguese, German and Dutch, or Russian and Polish together. I’ve had my share of using words from the wrong language in class, like saying a German word in Spanish or Russian!
If you’re going to learn two or three languages together, I’d advise making sure they’re not close together. It’s one thing to do as I did, taking Italian during my sixth year of Spanish or French during my fifth year of Spanish, but another to start two Romance languages together. You should have a base in one before studying another from the same branch. It’s better to study, say, German, French, and Swedish together. You won’t get so mixed up.
It’s also been recommended that you take one easy language and another hard. For me, currently, I’m refreshing my Russian, my easy language, along with brushing up/improving Dutch and German, also easy languages, and starting a serious study of Estonian, a hard language. Estonian isn’t even Indo-European. It’s Finno-Ugric, and closer to Finnish and Hungarian than other European languages. Persian and Hindi are closer to English than Estonian!
Learning other languages is like solving a puzzle, finding the right key for a lock. You don’t get it perfect right away, but you have to train your brain to respond in a certain way first. Once everything clicks, you start conjugating verbs and declining nouns automatically. It’s exercise for your brain, and awakens your creative and memory zones. For me, it’s no different from learning new words in English, or knowing synonyms.
Being originally from Southwestern Pennsylvania, I tend to use the words cellar and dugout more than basement, but I know all three words mean the same thing, and I try to refrain from saying “dugout” when I’m with a non-Pennsylvanian who’d have no idea what I’m referring to. I also try not to pronounce creek as “crick” if I want to be taken seriously. It’s the same way with turning different languages’ vocabulary on and off.
However, there are other Pittsburghese phrases and words I can’t shake. If you’re ever critiquing or betaing my writing, know in advance that it’s my native vernacular, not shoddy grammar, if I write something like “the place they were at” or “the plants need watered”! That’s just how my brain sees language and makes sentences.