I spent four years, 9th through 12th grade, trying to learn Russian. I would sit in a classroom 4 days a week and stare at an online language learning software for 70 minutes. Usually, I ended my sessions more confused than I had started, wondering where all of the information I was supposed to have learned over the years had gone.
For the last three weeks, I’ve been in a French-speaking country. By just making an effort to speak the language as much as possible, I have learned more about linguistic concepts in 20 days than I did in 4 years of classroom education. Albeit French is much closer to English than Russian, I believe there are many other narratives similar to mine that would support this idea. It frustrates me to think that I spent 70 minutes a day, four days a week, 9 months a year, for 4 years trying to learn a language in a totally unnatural way. That’s 43,000+ minutes or roughly 720 hours of wasted time.
I can’t say anything sophisticated in French, but I can cash out at the grocery store and make baristas smile when I mispronounce something. I have made a lot more connections with people while trying to learn a language naturally than I ever imagined I could. Making an effort to speak in French has been a straightforward and considerate way to make good impressions and even gather a few friends. People generally want foreigners to try to fit in (assimilate, if you will, but that sounds a little too Manifest Destiny for this piece) and doing your best to speak their native language is a fantastic starting place. I want to encourage every linguistics student to think about their time spent in the classroom and then think about how much of that could have been used speaking languages, making real-world connections, and gathering a network of diverse, intelligent people.
Linguistics is a passion of mine so I wouldn’t put down anyone who wants to go to school for it, but I tend to think that a degree in it might be a little silly. What’s more impressive to an employer, a degree in linguistics or fluency in four languages? Which of those accomplishments is going to add more value to their business? I have always been drawn to languages, but I am only beginning to understand how difficult it is to comprehend them without being submerged in the culture they developed from.
I don’t regret my time spent learning Russian. It taught me patience, devotion, and the Cyrillic alphabet, which I probably could not have learned without a classroom. However, it also showed me that my time is something I should give out very cautiously. Those days clicking away on Rosetta Stone were not the most efficient way to learn. Language and the history of communication are so fascinating; I want to absorb as much of them as possible, which means I should be using the most effective tools possible. Language connects people and gives them a common ground. Teaching something like that in an academic setting with very little back and forth communication turns the entire class into an oxymoron.