learning french and spanish

How I went about learning French and Spanish

I’m going to combine how I went about learning French and Spanish because they both came at me at the same time in my life and were really quite instrumental to me getting involved with language learning.

I was in Montreal in the 1950s at a time when the city was what they called the two solitudes. You had a million English-speaking people and two million French-speaking people. The workplace was English. In the stores everything was English. So as an English-speaking person growing up in Montreal it was really not very different from living in Toronto or Chicago, as far as languages were concerned. Of course we had French in school starting in grade two and we had the 16 verbs that take ‘et’. We studied it to pass the exam and I did well, even though I wasn’t very interested in the topic. Everything they did in school made it uninteresting.

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After school I went to McGill University in Montreal and had an excellent professor who made French civilization and French culture interesting. As a teacher you have only one job, to turn on the student – easier said than done. Once the student is turned on you don’t need the teacher. Whether it was that professor, the university environment or the textbook – I still remember it had these lovely pictures of paintings by Watteau and the different eras of French culture and civilization – but all of a sudden it became interesting. At the same time I became interested in the Nouvelle Vague movies.

So I didn’t only enjoy what I was studying in class. I was just fascinated by the discovery of Voltaire, Rousseau, Manon Lescaut etc. Then I started reading the local newspaper Le Devoir. In Quebec at that time there was fervor over Quebec wanting to be “maitre chez nous” because the economy was controlled by the English. Even though the Quebecois were the largest group and controlled the provincial politics, there was a lot of corruption and the church had tremendous influence. Quebec was the only province in Canada that didn’t have a provincial Ministry of Education. Instead they let the church run the education, so there were lots of notaries and priests.

This was all changed by politicians like Jean LeSage, René Levesque and, of course, Pierre Trudeau (although he ended up being more interested in federal politics). All this stuff was going on, so it was very interesting to read about it in the newspaper and go and see French theatre, even if I didn’t understand it. It was my French period, so I got totally into it. As I say, once you’re motivated it’s easy enough to learn.

I ended up going to the L’Institut d’études Politiques in Paris. I got my diploma there and had three wonderful years in France as a student. I lived in Paris. I had a bicycle. I lived on the fifth floor of a building that was built in 1789, so the toilet was on the third floor. I had a big aluminum basin I bought that I would fill with water and sit in to wash myself. It was very cold in the winter, but I had a great time living there.

That was obviously very good for learning French because everything I had to do I had to do in French. It convinced me that I could transform myself into someone that could comfortably speak another language. Part of the problem language learners have is they can’t really visualize themselves fluently speaking another language. It’s like climbing a mountain but you don’t know where the peak is and so you don’t think you can reach it. That’s a major problem that many language learners have who have never ever learned a second language. So French was a big deal for me.

I was first introduced to Spanish at McGill where I took a course in my first year. It was one of the electives I took and, fortunately, the professor got us into reading stories right away. We didn’t spend our time in class role playing, talking to each other, playing games, making slideshows and all this stuff that they seem to do now. It was “here’s a book, it has a glossary, read it.” I can’t remember the names of these stories, but they took place in places like Valencia. We read them and accumulated vocabulary. It was painstaking, but that was the course and I passed it.

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There were a lot of people living in Montreal who had fought on the republican side in the Spanish Civil War at that time. They would sit at a local cafe playing dominos and I’d wander in. I thought I was a really cool guy at 18 years old. I’d order a drink and watch all these Spanish guys play domino and hear them swearing in Spanish.

When I first arrived in France, I used to hitchhike every holiday. My favorite destination was Spain, so I’d go into what was then Francois Spain any chance I got. Spain was unbelievable in those days. People were so friendly and foreigners were a rarity. The first night I arrived in Barcelona, I was on a bus going out to the youth hostel and I started talking to people, bumbling in my Spanish. I would sit around with locals pouring wine out of this container that had a great big spout. The hitchhiking and hours and hours of sitting with truck drivers and other people who picked me up gave me lots of chances to speak Spanish.

I always think when you’re learning any language a major point is when you have read your first book. I’m not talking about reading on the computer with online dictionaries; I mean reading it. Ignoring the words you don’t know and reading it. The first book I read in Spanish was about the myths of origin of different peoples in Europe. It’s a subject that fascinates me. I believe a lot of this idea of ethnic identity is largely imaginary and elective, and you can choose to belong to whichever group you want to belong to. It was a fascinating book.

I keep emphasizing reading. Now, some people don’t like to read, they like to watch TV. Fine. You’ve got to do what you like and I always emphasize that in language learning. If you want to be successful with learning French and Spanish, you’ve got to like the language. You’ve got to like what you’re doing. You’ve got to put in the time. Reading is still the most effective way of building up your vocabulary, and then when you are confronted with the need to speak, as was the case with me in Spain, slowly, slowly, slowly the words start to come out. You hear them and you relate to what you read, so you build up your vocabulary. If you have a vocabulary, if you’re attentive to the language and try to listen to how things are pronounced, you will learn to speak.

As I’ve said many times, it’s the same with literacy in your own language. Reading is key. I look at my grandchildren and if they’re reading a lot, which they are, I’m happy. Whatever else happens in their school work, if they read well they’ll do fine and the same is true in language learning.

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