A few weeks ago, a lady by the name of Claire Handscombe, a trilingual language teacher based in Brussels, asked me to review her book on learning a second language, cleverly entitled Conquering Babel. I agreed, thinking the topic was justly in line with the theme of living as an expat in a foreign country, in foreign language, which I write so much about. I had been giving some thought recently to writing a post on how difficult it was for me to learn French when I first came to Paris. I suppose now is as good a time as any.
Becoming bilingual was one of my childhood dreams and one that five years ago I would have told you, brokenhearted, was absolutely unachievable. I am happy to tell you I was dead wrong. Thank goodness!
It didn’t happen overnight, though. Learning a second language in my early thirties was equivalent to climbing Mount Everest. I have never been a great mathematician, and they say those who are good with numbers are good with languages. Supposedly, some part of the brain controls the two in a similar fashion. I know nothing about all that. But I can tell you that in my case the maxim was proven correct.
When I first arrived in Paris, it was for a five-month sabbatical to, justement, learn French. I had always wanted to be fluent in another language, thought it an invaluable gift, and being in love with France saw no other language on the horizon.
Thinking back on how confident I was when I hopped on the plane to Paris back in 2007 brings an embarrassed smile to my lips. I remember saying to myself, ‘In five months times I’m going to be on the return flight speaking fluent French with the person beside me.’ I actually laugh aloud when I think of it now. Fluent in five months. Yes. Indeed.
Five years later, I can happily acknowledge that I am fluent in French. Fluent in the sense that my life revolves around me in French on a daily basis and I am no longer petrified of the fact. Fluent in the sense that I can pick up the phone to make a doctor’s appointment and the knot that used to sink in my stomach and rise into my throat in the early years no longer threatens me. I’ve been fluent, I suppose, for a few years now, even though I wouldn’t have called it so at the time.
At many moments along the journey, I thought I was going to give up, pack it in and just live in the rather expansive Anglophone population of Paris rather than assimilating myself into the culture and the language. But something stopped me from throwing in the towel, so to speak, after I hit the first brick wall in the learning curve. I think it was my seat-rooted desire to belong, perhaps that old longing to be bilingual, and it was certainly thanks to a wish not only to live in France but to create a home here.
The latter desire became irreversibly apparent to me one evening early on in my time in Paris when I was at an expat party with several dozen, well-to-do, sophisticated couples. When two of the ladies, both fulltime residents of Paris since the 1970s, asked me to accompany them to speak with a French neighbor about some trifling problem, I was horrified to witness how appallingly they spoke French, their blatant disregard for proper vocabulary and accent, and their rudeness toward the uncomprehending French neighbor. I was humiliated and ashamed of these two ladies, my own countrywomen no less. I decided that very moment that I was going to assimilate if it was the last thing in this world that I accomplished.
Had I read Conquering Babel in those early years, my experience with learning a second language would have been much less mysterious, less stressful, less overwhelming. I had to learn the tricks and tools Ms. Handscombe offers the hard way, by trial and error.
Conquering Babel is a compact, self-help manual for those interested in learning a second language. I read it through in a few hours one afternoon and would recommend it to anyone contemplating learning a new language or who is in the process of doing so, and especially to those who are learning another language for the first time. I wish I’d had it on my shelf as a reference when my adventure here in France began. Stocked full of excellent advice and tips, profession-insider tricks and tools, Conquering Babel is worth a read by every expat and every student of language.
Written in the form of an in-depth guide, this book is easy to read, well-written and logically organized. Structured through the principle steps of learning a language – Grammar, Writing, Listening and Speaking – the book begins with the essential topic of motivation, which is of course the key to learning a new language. It is obvious to the reader from the first page that the author is an engaged teacher. She provides us with what we could call a fail-proof method of learning a new language. Sprinkled with humor, charm and anecdotal reinforcement, we feel like our big sister is imparting on us some of her seasoned and tested advice.
The glossary in the sixth chapter as well as the list of websites at the end of the book are both extremely useful guides for those who are picking up a self-learning language workbook for the first time. Her advice is simple and many of us might think, ‘Oh I know that already.’ But that is precisely the brilliance of Ms. Handscombe’s method. You might think you know it, but very few of us do it. And yet we must in order to succeed. Reading the news online each morning over your coffee in your target language (the language you want to learn), flipping through a ‘parallel text’ book or using contextual ‘pegs’ to include one’s surroundings as references to vocabulary building, even writing down the new words you learn so that your mind sees the letters in your own familiar handwriting, are all tips among dozens of others which fill the pages of Conquering Babel.
I can give this recommendation with confidence because I have been on one end of the ‘please dear Lord let me learn French’ void, and have now made the giant, if not painful, leap to the other side.
After my five months sabbatical at la Sorbonne, an excellent French language program by the way, I was still too shy or too embarrassed to speak to anyone in French. When I first moved to Paris, I couldn’t speak a sentence of coherent French to save my life. And as is only natural, the friends I made at the beginning were an international group whose dearest common thread was our mutual ability to speak English. Thus, my opportunities to practice a real conversation were quite limited. No one who can speak fluently in one language will put up with bumbling through a conversation in another for more than a few minutes. And so, regardless of my improvement in grammar, my spoken French suffered.
Language is a skill that needs to be practiced, like learning to ride a bike when you were four or five years old. You have to try, fall down, get back on again and keep going until you can pedal all the way around the block without your training wheels. Learning a new language is exactly the same. You’ll advance if you try and then you’ll inevitably hit a wall and think it’s all over and a pointless waste of time. But that’s just you falling off the bike. Get up. Wipe of your knees and get back on. It took me a year of real effort, three months of which was an intensive self-imposed immersion (even the emails to my mom had to be in French, so she was forced to by a French-English translation program) before I left I could carry on a proper conversation. And by real effort, I mean I made it my second job. All the films and television I watched were in French (with only French subtitles), all the books and magazines I read and all the conversations and telephone calls I had were in French; everything was in French. That’s immersion.
Ms. Handscombe disagrees with the bike riding analogy for learning a language, although it seems she would have agreed with me on the immersion idea. She says language is not like riding a bike because you cannot just pick a language out of the garage after seven years of non-use and ride it down the street. Rust, she says, creeps in on your linguistic bike. True. Practice at the beginning is essential, and upkeep is indispensable. But the learning part – the falling down, hitting that wall and getting back on – is still a cogent description of the process.
After my three-month immersion, I sat down with a French biography of Marie-Antoinette by Stefan Zweig. This book was relatively advanced for my level. My teachers at la Sorbonne had given me L’étranger by Camus and 50 idée reçu sur l’état du monde by Pascal Boniface; either one would have been more appropriate for my ability. But I love biographies and I love Zweig, so I thought I’d give it a go. My goal was to underline each word I didn’t understand, go back at the end of the chapter to look each up in the dictionary and then write them down with their translation in my dedicated vocabulary notebook. The day I opened the first page, I underlined seven words in the first two paragraphs. I was a little in over my head. But I was determined.
At the time, I was six weeks away from meeting my then-boyfriend’s French parents for the first time. Naturally, I wanted to give a good impression, and I knew that all the charm my boyfriend saw in me could very easily be lost on his parents if I couldn’t at least articulate my way through a decent greeting and little light dinner-party discussion.
So a good reason stood behind my desire to conquer Zweig in French. The first few days I read Marie-Antoinette, I stopped every few pages to look up words, translate them and write them down. Then I’d reread the passage to make sure I understood. Eventually, I got to the point where I looked up the words at the end of each chapter, and finally by the end of the book I no longer needed to translate at all. I was fascinated by the topic, which helps. Ms. Handscombe reiterates this point – the having fun with language idea – many times throughout her book.
As a language tutor, Ms. Handscombe recommends tutoring as one of the best ways, if not the most efficient way, to learn a new language. In a few sections, the reader might even find her tone a little commercial. Yet Ms. Handscombe’s self-interest doesn’t overshadow the truth of what she is saying. Having undertaken many forms of language learning myself and being one of those people who are not predisposed to talent in languages, I’m inclined to agree with her. Self-study and immersion are finally the two approaches, along with the courses on the basics (grammar) at the Sorbonne, which worked for me. (But remember I started with nothing, not a coherent sentence.) The courses gave me an excellent foundation, but even with that base I could not bring myself to speak. If I’d had a tutor during my self-study, however, in the privacy of one-on-one communication I would have progressed more quickly, been more organized (someone is expecting me today with my homework completed!) and would have had an encouraging tap on the back when I hit that brick wall for the first time.
Conquering Babel: A practical guide to learning a language, is just that – a no-nonsense, up-to-date manual, packed full to the brim of profession-insider tips on how to successfully learn a new language as an adult. Because you can, I’m living proof of it!