….my office-mate asked me yesterday. In recent weeks, I have spent a good many hours on the site duolingo.com.
Unable to stir for long from my sofa, I took advantage of a University of Tennessee/Peace Corps challenge to use duolingo for free and have been working with four languages–Italian, which I once spoke fluently; German, which I never studied but had picked up a little of; Spanish, which I last studied in middle school but is very close to Italian; and Irish, which I didn’t know at all. I’m about to add Portuguese because I have Brazilian friends with whom I would like to be able to talk in their native language. As a result, I’m poised to win some kind of recognition for all those hours. It’s nice, even though the intern they had compose this gem can’t spell “Congratulations.”
Learning a language is hard, no question. This is the first time I have tried to learn a new language for decades. Here are my findings: Bottom line, it’s not as hard as I thought it would be at 61.
- The underlying patterns of grammar still make sense to me. Yay!
- It’s a little harder to reproduce the sounds than it used to be; my mouth seems stiffer or something. But basically it’s still possible.
- The best strategy I have found for remembering new vocabulary is to link it as closely as possible to something I already know. In Irish, for example, the personal pronoun “si” is pronounced “she,” and it means “she,” which is pretty cool.
- I make the most mistakes between Spanish and Italian because Italian is already so entrenched in my brain. So I try not to study those on the same days.
- Proverbs are quite difficult because I don’t always get the cultural context that produces them, so I have to stretch to “imagine” my way into comprehension.
- Repetition is key. I need to revisit Irish, for example, very often, because a) the spelling makes no sense and b) duolingo doesn’t have audio for a lot of the words in Irish, so I don’t have an auditory peg to hang the words on. I have to repeat and repeat and repeat in order to retain the words, the spellings, and the meanings.
- It is immensely gratifying to finally understand something that has puzzled you for decades. There’s one little grammar feature of German that I never understood, and now I do. That’s one off the bucket list of things to do before I die.
So anyway, this adventure in learning new languages at an advanced age has been really fun, and it has given me confidence that there are plenty of intellectual challenges still ahead rather than only behind me.
It has also refreshed my understanding of what my students are going through as they mold their minds into the form of a new language.