History of a Language Learner

The word "love" in several languages. Why not?

I’ve always been interested in learning other languages.  It may be the mystical properties that words have, or how words unravel the unknown. When I was quite young, my great grandmother began teaching me Czech words and phrases. She was born in northeastern Nebraska around the turn of the last century, but raised in a Czech community. I learned the very basic vocabulary: words like boy, please, city, thank you, “I like…”, Good morning, good, bad, dirty, clean, blue, green, red, mother, father and (of course) grandmother. I remember being quite young (small enough to sit on her lap, so this was literally 40+ years ago) and Grandma would sing children’s songs to me in Czech. Because of this I remember thoroughly-useless-for-21st-century-living words like “blacksmith shop” and “millpond”, and also slightly-off-color things like “put your finger in my belly-button” (I have a Spike Joneslike Czech singer called Špinavý Pepik (Dirty Joe) to thank for that one) and “take me to bed with you” Grandma had no problems singing folk songs depicting young maidens, who were about to become NOT young maidens. They were apparently fairly popular in the 1800s.

Špinavý Pepik and his outhouse polkas.

From there, I learned my first Spanish words. I lived in Pistol River, Oregon, where nobody spoke Spanish, so fluency was out of the question.

I became infatuated with Japanese language and culture when I was around 12. I still remember about half of the phonetic characters, and a couple of Kanji (Chinese) characters.

I checked out a book called “Teach Yourself Cherokee” in 8th grade.  I dropped it in the mud during a field trip, and didn’t tell the librarian. I caught hell for that, just at the tail end of when spankings were allowed in public schools. The Cherokee nation has its own system of writing, of which I remember nothing.

The cherokee syllabary (it's not strictly an alphabet). As incomprehensible to me today, as it was when I was 12.

I wanted more than anything to become an exchange student, and experience a new culture.

When I was 16, I began my first formal language learning instruction. I studied French for 2 years in high school. When I was 17-18, I finally had my opportunity to live in France and attend school for 11 1/2 months.

In France, I learned Spanish (formal instruction) for a year, because in order to pass the final exams, I needed a second foreign language. I was fine speaking English as my first “Foreign” tongue, but my Czech wasn’t good enough to pass an exam. I was quite resistant to learning Spanish. I was insolent enough to tell my teacher that I despised the language at one point, that her accent was ugly and I didn’t like being there. She took it in stride and was very kind. I passed my Spanish exam with threadbare marks, but I managed.

I tried learning Mandarin Chinese for a few months, when Judi and I befriended Annie, a young lady who barely escaped the Tiananmen Square massacre on a student visa. two of her brothers were victims. We took her to Disneyland.  Although she was probably 10 years older than us, we felt like we needed to put her on a leash. She was more exhausting than our later  Disneyland trips with 2 toddlers. Anyhow… She taught me some Chinese.  At least I got an ear for their unique tonal language and consonant blends that are completely unfamiliar to the Western ear.

I studied Hebrew for a year and a half in college–my third round of formal language instruction.

I studied ancient Greek with help of a book, and made some headway with this complex language. I’m probably as good as any first-year student.

I began learning Hindi from a set of Pimsleur tapes I checked out from the library. I remember how to say “kyaa ap…” (it’s how you start a question) and namasté (the flexible greeting), and nothing else.

Suffice it to say, learning (or starting to learn) languages is something I am very very good at.

Few people know this, but I did 18 semester units of TESL (Teaching English as a Second Language) in college, as sort of a fallback, in case I couldn’t land a job teaching Music.  Since I never pursued teaching at all, I never had to use that knowledge.

Where I spend some of my free time learning languages. I recommend it.

Today, at http://www.LiveMocha.com, I helped 30 students learn English by correcting their conversations and written lessons. Language learning has become more simple with the advent of the Internet.  I can record lessons with a microphone attached to my computer, and give near-instant feedback to students worldwide. I didn’t initially go to the site as a teacher, but this has become as big a role as learning languages.  LiveMocha has 2 payment methods: you can either (1) PAY them and learn lessons, or (2) help other students learn your mother tongue, for credits that can be exchanged for the lessons you want to learn.

I’m currently subscribed to French Level 2, and Czech. I promised Grandma that someday, I’d learn this language. I’m trying to learn Spanish again, as well, but need to strengthen my vocabulary a bit before I get to formal languages. I also promised a student I’d look into Portuguese.

So, I’m a sucker for languages. I guess I always will be.

My next question is this:  some online sites pay for English Language instruction. LiveMocha is one of them, looking for English teachers.  Do you think, given my dusty 20-year-old TESL classes, and 18 units of an Education degree, it would be worth my while trying to land a job there? I think it suits my personality, to work from home like that.

I dunno. Just something percolating at the back of my mind.

Have a great day, y’all.  Learn a new word in a different language today!


8 thoughts on “History of a Language Learner”

  1. Dobrý den, Brian! I did LIveMocha too, but eventually became a little disillusioned. I was doing the free part, not the paying part. You still get the lessons but as it turns out, the spanish I was learning from them was not the spanish others were speaking.
    You know how you write out your answer to the question and others come in and critique? They were telling me, “we wouldn’t actually say that”…it was very confusing to say the least. The examples they gave were not mentioned in the lessons I was looking at, how do you assimilate that when it’s all foreign to you? Sorry to say I gave up.
    I enjoyed your post, how awesome to know (even a little of) so many different languages! And the chance to be an exchange student in France, sweet!


    1. Hey Neeks! It’s been awhile, so it’s good to hear from you! As to LiveMocha, they’ve REALLY changed, including adding the “Active Spanish” curriculum from Macmillan, which is quite good, and won’t make you too embarrassed to speak your Spanish. Honestly, I’m there to teach more than learn, although I occasionally sit down and do a lesson in Czech, or Hebrew, or French, or Portuguese, or… You get the idea.

      Hope you’re well!

      By the way– Dobrý den?? Mluviš český?


  2. What do you have to lose? Sounds like a great idea! I love languages, too, but haven’t had the time or guts to really learn anything other than my 4 years of French in high school, and a smattering of Spanish I learned while in daycare. They’re fading fast 😉


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