First steps

What’s Romanian for “A mountain to climb?”

Ever since Duolingo made a big splash a few years ago by selling itself as a quick, painless way to learn languages in the supermarket queue, I’ve had a secret hankering to give it a go. A lot of my friends view me, flatteringly but misleadingly, as a linguist on the basis that I’ve had a stab at learning a couple over the course of my life. In fact I’ve only attained real fluency in one, Dutch, and that took two decades, a marriage and a move to the Netherlands. I was close to being fluent in German when I graduated, but that’s eroded with the years, and only scraps remain of my school French and the year of Italian I did at university.

Still, I was curious to see whether learning a new language in my forties would be measurably harder than in my twenties, when I learned my first Dutch words, or my teens, when I embarked on German. My observation from watching other expats is that people who start in their thirties have a much harder time than I did a decade earlier – though I had the added advantage of a good grounding in German, which gave me a head start on things like compound words and when the verb to the end of the sentence ought to be shoved. So how would I manage 20 years later? Was my mind still a sponge or had it turned to coral?

I was also interested to see how digital learning measured up against the textbook-based methods I grew up with. Could it really be easier? I longed to believe so, having spent years in school learning conjugating French verbs on my feet, listening to scripted conversations on shoebox tape recorders and poring over tables of past participles. I still have a vivid memory of going in to a boulangerie one day on holiday and being utterly wrong-footed by the assistant’s reply: “Il n’y a plus”. She spent the next five minutes gesticulating at me, increasingly expansively, with goggling eyes and a voice that rose in pitch like an air-raid siren, but was unable to impress upon me that the baguettes had run out. I must have been around 15, which meant I’d been learning French solidly for six years and passed several exams, and yet I still couldn’t pluck a phrase straight out of a second-year textbook from the lips of a native speaker.

I learned most of my German in an intense year at university from a book called German: A Structural Approach, which appealed to my reverence for grammar. It was an uncompromising flatiron of a textbook that would either drag you to the bottom of a deep lake or sear into you an indelible admiration for the clinical precision of German syntax. So I learned first the grammar, then the vocabulary. My Dutch, by contrast, was learned in a more roundabout, beachcombing manner after I started going out with a Dutch girl, starting with the subtitles on daytime TV soaps and eavesdropping at the dinner table. As I advanced I scavenged comic strips, newspapers and novels. And it really is true that proficiency in a foreign tongue is most easily attained in the bedroom. Later I formalised my knowledge with a three-week summer residency course, but true fluency only really arrived, as I said earlier, after I emigrated to the Netherlands three years ago with my by-then wife (who was by then dying, but that’s another story).

So having tried formal learning, at school, high-intensity learning at university and the freewheeling autodidactic approach in my twenties, I was keen to see what modern technology could do for me. I didn’t believe the hype about it being easy and painless, because I’ve learned enough languages to learn that the early stages are a relentless grind however you tackle it. But I was curious to see if electronic media was more effective than cramming French verb tables until my head swam.

That left two essential choices: which language to learn and which app to use. For various convoluted reasons I opted for Romanian. It’s a Romance language but has a strong Slavic influence, so it nicely blended the familiar with the alien. That put it on the fringe of my comfort zone: challenging but not dishearteningly so. I’d always felt that concentrating on two near relations of my own language made me an incestuous fraud – though neither Dutch nor German are straightforward for English speakers – but at 43 I had to accept that something as ambitious as Arabic or Thai was beyond my reach. So Romanian seemed a good compromise. Secondly, while there are sound practical reasons for choosing a widely spoken language such as Spanish, my experience with Dutch had taught me that minority languages yield a higher cultural dividend. Put simply, the best Spanish writers are more likely to be available in English because of the relative abundance of translators and an established cross-cultural publishing tradition. Minority languages rely on a smaller pool of translators and publishers with experience of their literature, which makes the neck of the bottle they have to squeeze through much narrower (Dutch authors tend to do better in Germany, where there is an established market for their work). I reckoned that Romanian, which like Dutch has a base of around 25 million native speakers, would open up the same kind of literary byways. And finally, as I’ve said, I was curious to see just just how different it would feel to start a new language two decades after my last attempt.

After perusing a few apps I settled for Mondly. First impressions are that it’s user-friendly and accessible, with a strong game element; the slogan is ‘play your way to a new language’. I’ll go into the mechanics of the app in more depth in future blogs, but first impressions are positive: I’ve picked up a first clutch of words and phrases, the game element has been a strong incentive to keep coming back and the early lessons have been quick and enjoyable. Whether it’s robust enough to deal with the heavy lifting that awaits further down the road remains to be seen.

Continue: Playing with words: The Mondly method