Today I got the chance to speak with Danielle Hayden, a writer living in Seattle, USA. She was kind enough to share her very interesting story about how she got into learning languages, starting as far back as kindergarten.
Read on to find out more about why she likes to take language classes to study foreign languages, as well as some of the inspiration she has had to keep her going along the way.
For the Love of Languages: Tell us a bit about yourself. Where do you live and what do you do for a living?
Danielle Hayden: I live in Seattle, Washington, USA. I’m a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, as well as an editor. Occasionally, I review manuscripts for a local publisher that deals primarily with works of science fiction. Recently, I have also assumed a role as a grant writer for an organization working to preserve endangered languages.
I am, obviously, interested in foreign languages, which is why you graciously have allowed me to appear on your site. But as you can see, I am interested in the beauty of the English language as well. I always surround myself with words one way or another.
FTLOL: What made you get into learning foreign languages? What made you stick with it until now? How long have you been doing it for?
DH: I started learning my first foreign language in kindergarten, so I’ve been learning languages (albeit not continuously) for 24 years.
The elementary school that my parents sent me to was a language immersion school. It was the only public school of its kind in Detroit, which is where I grew up. It was cool because we’d be learning multiplication, for example, but we’d be learning it in French. Instead of two times two, my teacher would say deux fois deux, so we were learning core subjects and language skills simultaneously.
The school offered French, Spanish, and Japanese at the time (when I got older they also added a Mandarin Chinese program). Once you picked a language, you stuck with it from kindergarten until grade 5. My parents gave me a lot of choice when I was younger, something for which I am grateful. I was allowed to pick which language I studied. Japanese seemed daunting, and Spanish was what everyone seemed to learn, and I wanted to be different and thus selected French. So at first it was just something I had to do because that’s the school I was sent to, but I found that I loved language.
After I left elementary school at 11 years old, I chose to study more things on my own and have continued that pursuit. I’ve stuck with languages because they’re just so fun to me. They open up new worlds. I love the differences in sound, in meaning and nuance, and even in perspective. There are ideas and concepts in other tongues that English doesn’t have, and vice versa.
Moreover, although I am fairly reserved in temperament, I also love being able to communicate with different people of different cultures. I also enjoy having access to written works in their purest form; professional translators are brilliant and do brilliant work, but there’s nothing like being able to read a poem as it was written originally.
I’m also a huge cinephile. I watch at least three movies per week, and I love when I’m watching a foreign film and I understand what is being said without subtitles (which are often incorrect and it frustrates me to no end!). I’ve enjoyed learning a few swear words here and there as well; profanity sounds so much prettier in Italian.
And the cultural knowledge is fascinating, especially for French and Spanish, which are so widely spoken all over the world. For instance, I made friends with this band from Benin in grad school and I spoke French with them and learned more about their country; my most recent Spanish class was taught by a Ukrainian man who had spent a great deal of time in Latin America. He would teach me Spanish and talk about growing up in the Ukraine and living in Uruguay, and then his mom helped me practice my Russian a few times.
Even when learning Italian–yeah, all my teachers were from Italy but they were all from different regions, so I learned a lot about different cultural practices (as well as dialects) even within the same country. I love all of this stuff; I live for it. Language may not be a lucrative pursuit but the rewards are great nonetheless.
FTLOL: What is your academic background? Did you study languages in university?
DH: Unlike my elementary school, my middle school was not an immersion school but they did offer French and Spanish classes. I started school late there and those were the only open electives that year so I had both classes on my schedule.
I started learning Spanish, and then during French class I would help the teacher grade papers since I was already so advanced. In high school, they offered French, Spanish, and German. I took AP French so I could get college credit but was bored the rest of the time because I wasn’t being challenged. I could have gotten better at Spanish but a couple of the Spanish teachers were mean so I stuck with French! German didn’t appeal to me.
As an undergraduate, I didn’t study any languages (which is something I strongly regret). There was a language requirement at my university but I took a placement test and was therefore exempt. I was too focused on the requirements for my major and minor.
After college though, I became a French teacher and it was great to have language in my life again. In graduate school, I studied Italian and took a very intensive course on a regular basis for several hours every week; at least 90 minutes a day. I became pretty fluent in just a few months.
I also studied some ASL (American Sign Language) because one of the professor’s assistants had majored in Deaf Education and she offered to teach anyone for free who was interested. I also purchased Rosetta Stone in Latin.
After getting my Master’s degree, I got married and moved to Seattle–a city with robust language learning opportunities, especially compared to where I grew up. I resumed Italian classes and joined a Latin meetup group. I took another Spanish class too to brush up. If I had to do it all over again though, I would have majored in Romance Languages with a minor in Latin.
FTLOL: What languages can you speak to a good conversational level, and are you studying any others at the moment?
DH: I can speak French and Italian well, and my Spanish isn’t bad. At the moment though I am still trying to get even better at Italian because it is my favorite language; I’d like to be as good in Italian as I am in English.
I have some Irish, Latin, and Catalan study materials that I dabble in as well, though I wish I had more time to set aside for these studies and it would help if I had someone to whom I could be accountable. I have not abandoned Russian either but it is much more difficult to study on my own. I plan to take another formal class again soon; I got to only an elementary level of proficiency. I’ve been going back and forth on whether to resume ASL.
FTLOL: Is there any particular method you have for learning a new language or any particular resources you like to use? For example, do you make yourself study with language books for a certain amount of time each day, take language classes, talk with native speakers, or do something else entirely?
DH: I prefer to enroll in language courses. The exercises help, as well as having people to talk to regularly and being given homework. Sometimes it’s out of my comfort zone to be in these classes because my personality is not very outgoing, as I said, but the classes are always worth it. I also find adult learners to be much more encouraging and supportive of one another. They (we) also seem to be more motivated and eager to learn which makes sense, I suppose. After all, no one is forcing us to be there. Quite the contrary–we want to be there, and in fact have paid money to be there. It creates a good milieu for absorbing the language because people are generally serious about learning.
I do try to converse with native speakers sometimes. Usually, I reserve these verbal exchanges for people I already know well (for example, one of my good friends is from El Salvador and we chat in Spanish a little; another one of my best friends is from Martinique so we chat in French), but from time to time, I feel brave enough to converse with a native speaker I’ve just met. I’m always a little nervous but it works out just fine.
I have a lot of language books I have tried, and some software, but I find it hard to motivate myself to stick with those. Despite its popularity, I don’t care for Duolingo very much so I use it sparingly. I watch YouTube language videos on occasion.
FTLOL: If you’ve ever tried to learn more than one language at once, how did you organize your time? Were you able to give equal emphasis to all of the languages?
DH: I have tried to study more than one language at once and it’s not the easiest of feats. Initially, I created a schedule where I studied different languages on different days so I could learn a little bit of a lot of languages. But I found that, although that approach had breadth, it was sorely lacking in depth, so I reduced the amount of languages I was learning at the same time so that I could go deeper.
I’ll admit that I never gave equal emphasis on the languages; Romance languages always won, as this group is my favorite but is also the most practical (aside from Catalan). Romance languages also come easier to me because of my background and due to the similarities between them. There are also more materials and classes out there to support learning French, Spanish, or Italian.
FTLOL: What have been some of the most difficult aspects for you of learning a new language? What have you found easy? Can you provide us with any examples?
DH: Learning the Cyrillic alphabet, in the case of Russian, was challenging. I’m still a very slow reader in Russian–not only are there more letters, but they’re different. Fortunately I already knew the Greek alphabet, which made it a little easier for me, but it was still not easy–even verbally.
Before learning Russian, I’d done Romance languages and some Latin, and I caught on rather quickly to those languages. But with Russian, sometimes I found it difficult to remember things or formulate my thoughts. I was so accustomed to picking up languages with relative ease; learning Russian made me feel stupid sometimes. I was embarrassed when I made mistakes. That didn’t discourage me but it was definitely uncomfortable.
American Sign Language was also hard. Memorizing the signs themselves is a challenge, but also remembering to change your facial expression. For example, when asking a yes or no question, not only do you sign the question but you must also raise your eyebrows (and often widen your eyes too) at the end of the phrasing.
When asking a who, what, where, when, why, or how question, your eyebrows should be downward, like furrowed. There’s also a slight head tilt. This was sometimes hard for me to remember at the same time as remembering the sign.
The syntax is also very unlike spoken English. I’m also just so awkward in terms of my body and physical presence (even in non-ASL situations), so I never did get fully comfortable with being so kinetic.
What comes easy to me is pronunciation. I’ve been told by native speakers that I pronounce things well. Even in the case of Russian!
FTLOL: Have there been any specific people who have influenced you in learning languages?
DH: Kinda. I feel inspired (and intimidated, and sometimes demoralized) when I read about amazing polyglots around the globe, but I wouldn’t say that anyone influenced me directly aside from one of my professors in graduate school.
He is French and also speaks German, English, and Spanish with sprinklings of other tongues. I was already learning languages but his love of language, and his belief in the importance of language, really came through in his teaching and was something that made me love learning languages even more.
He definitely influenced my involvement with reviving and preserving endangered languages, something I’d like to have a greater impact on and something with which I hope to be more directly involved in the near future.
FTLOL: When I attended elementary and high school in Vancouver, Canada, children generally took French or Spanish (and sometimes German) classes as part of the school curriculum; however, they were rarely able to speak very well even after years and years of study in the classroom. Living in a similar geographical area (i.e., Seattle) yourself, have you noticed a similar phenomenon regarding how poor student language levels generally are? Do you have any ideas for how to remedy this?
DH: I have been living in Seattle for only 4 years, and I only taught in this area for one year, so I apologize but I’m not the best person to answer this question. Even when I was teaching here, it was at a small, independent, alternative school so there was no language requirement at all.
I definitely noticed what you speak of when I was in Michigan though, where I spent my formative years. I noticed that pupils rarely retain their skills. I think that is the fault of both the students and the approach of the school system. It’s usually this rote learning with drills and endless verb conjugations.
I think young people can work harder to achieve mastery, but I also think that schools should make language learning more immersive and interactive, and with greater reinforcement. I also think framing it as an important thing to learn would go a long way. Many students have a “what’s the point?” attitude towards a lot of subject matter, so I think discussing why language is a big deal and the opportunities that can be opened might help elicit greater engagement.
But I will add that in general, the United States does a poor job anyway compared to other countries in terms of language learning. In other countries it’s so common to be conversant (and often literate) in other languages; in the United States it’s more of an anomaly.
I also see a pervasive attitude here: at best, it’s dismissive, and at worst, it’s very anglocentric and downright maligning of other linguistic pursuits. There’s definitely a strong argument for English as the lingua franca, but this whole “hierarchy of language” thing is something I dislike.
What I dislike even more (because it’s not even backed up by research) is the idea that language learning is a zero-sum game; as if learning a foreign languages will come at the expense of English skills. That belief is patently false and I wish it would die out.
For the record, I’m not trying to push language on anyone either. People should be allowed to study what interests them, and I don’t even think learning a language should be a university requirement. I just think if people realized how magical the pursuit can be that more of them (though admittedly, not all) would take on greater study of languages.
FTLOL: Do you think that it is better to go to a foreign country to learn a language, or can you achieve a similar level of fluency without leaving your home town? Have you ever lived abroad to learn a language?
DH: I have never lived abroad, and I feel so much remorse for that. I always had an excuse–mainly financial–but I should have done it when I was younger.
I would like to in the future, however. I’ve considered applying for a Fulbright scholarship to Andorra, partially to learn Catalan. Another dream destination is Italy and I’ve looked at a lot of programs there that are specifically for language study.
I think a very high level of fluency can be achieved in one’s hometown if the class is intensive and meets frequently and if the instructor is willing to talk completely or almost completely in the language, but there is nothing like going to live in a foreign country itself.
There, the menu is in your target language. The street signs, the newspaper, the subway system, the television. The other language surrounds you; it is inescapable. Even slang words–those aren’t all going to be in your textbook. You’ll hear more of them walking down the cobblestone street in a provincial town.
FTLOL: As a follow up from the last question, what countries have you travelled to, and have you found that simply travelling for a short period of time (e.g., several days to several weeks) can also improve your language skills?
DH: I am not very well traveled (due to the aforementioned financial reasons). I have been to Canada, the Bahamas, and Brazil. I grew up near downtown Detroit, which is only about 20 minutes away from the Canadian border and nearby Windsor, Ontario, so I used to go to Canada at least once every couple years. I really took it for granted because it was so close geographically.
Now that I live in Seattle, I’ve driven up to Vancouver, BC a couple times and I love it there too. I could see myself living in Canada, though I’ve never visited for longer than a weekend. I like that I get to use my French a little, mostly in reading things. My husband is a huge soccer fan so that’s why we went to Brazil for the World Cup (instead of going on a European honeymoon.) I knew it would mean a lot to him.
We were in Brazil for two weeks and I definitely noticed that my Portuguese improved, which wasn’t even intentional on my part because it’s not a language I particularly want to learn, but very few people we encountered spoke English so I had to try and get by and get around. There are a lot of Italian expatriates there though, so I used my Italian in Brazil several times, in all three cities in Brazil that we traveled to.
I’m in a position now where I can slowly start to remedy my lack of travel. I have a trip to France booked for December and will do some more overseas travel next year and the years following.
FTLOL: Do you have any advice for people who might want to learn a language but who don’t know where to start?
DH: Seek out classes in your area and/or conversation partners online. There are many opportunities to learn for fun and at your leisure. Community colleges, universities, language centers, etc. are all places to search.
There are also one-on-one language tutors, but they can be very expensive. If you’d like more independence and are more of an autodidact, then YouTube can be a great place to start, as well as a lot of free language podcasts on iTunes and lots of phone apps. The library is a great resource to check out books and learning materials in other languages too. Good luck!