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Expert Advice: James Juchau - Language Learning

Expert Advice: James Juchau - Language Learning

James Juchau is the partner to Colugo’s Community Lead, Emily Juchau. James is an investment banker by day and by night (or whenever he has free time) an avid runner, nature lover and voracious reader. On weekends, you’ll find him wearing his favorite Colugo Wild Child Carrier, taking his 11-month-old and 2.5-year-old sons on an adventure. 

Studying languages has always been a passion of mine. I took two years off undergrad to live in France where I learned to speak French and have undergrad and graduate-level degrees in Arabic. Mastering a language is incredibly hard, time-consuming, and typically results in you feeling like an idiot pretty much all the time (sort of like parenting!). Naturally, watching my two-year-old son Henry develop his language competency in English has been a fascinating exercise and helped coalesce some reflections on language learning in specific and (we’ll go there) life in general. Sure, my two-year-old’s brain is at a developmental stage where he is just naturally better at learning a language—which I am infinitely jealous of—but there are still some good lessons that can be extrapolated out.

Practice, practice, practice. Henry has been fully immersed in an English environment for the last two and a half years and as precocious of a kid he is still struggles to form sentences. And his stories are incomprehensible mishmashes of ideas that jump from his crane truck lifting things up to his stomach feeling sick to the monsters in his room. It will probably take him another few years to be consistently understood, and, if he’s anything like his father, a lifetime to figure out how to communicate without embarrassing himself (or my wife) in front of others. Hopefully this is to say that if you’re not feeling so hot about your Spanish after four years of high school classes, a study abroad in Madrid, and a few college classes, you’re in good company with Henry (though if you don’t keep up on it, he’s going to quickly pass you). Languages, and most other skills for that matter, just take lots and lots and lots of time.

Toddlers don’t use textbooks. I’ve never seen Henry touch an English language grammar book, and I’m pretty sure he couldn’t tell you the difference between subject and verbs, but he’s starting to get his past tense verbs right and even add the “s” when something is plural. His is an experience of total, practical immersion—it’s not like I’m sitting down with him every day and giving him verb conjugation drills. I’m not saying that those exercises are without merit, but if you really want to learn to communicate with someone, the best way to do it is being trapped in a house with someone that doesn’t speak your language and forced to communicate with them for basic survival, which is pretty much what happened to me in France. While it was painful (see the last paragraph), it gave me a solid core of French that I don’t think I’ll ever quite forget.

Lose your inhibitions. My friends in grad school told me that getting drunk before a big speaking test was a great way to improve your score. As a non-drinker, I never personally confirmed this, but I can confirm that Henry literally has zero inhibitions, and I have to think that it really helps his ability to learn English. Among other things, he’s always up for trying out new words, even if he repeatedly butchers them. A couple of nights ago, he heard the word “automatic” for the first time, and went from “dimick” to “damn it” to “matic” and is still obsessed with the word (see next paragraph for more on this). Plus, he just always finds ways to talk, which means lots and lots of language practice. Check out the below exchange, where he has no shame or hesitation in what he’s saying and just talks. What great language practice!

Henry: “Daddy, I have a baseball bat.”

Me: “What are you going to do with it?”
Henry: “I’m going to hit Luke [his brother] with it.”

Me: *Takes baseball bat away*

Find what fascinates you. Henry has a knack for finding things that he really likes to talk about and then will literally not shut up about them. While pretty annoying to listen to (yes, Henry, I know that that small, winged dinosaur is a Rhamphorynchus, you’ve already told me a dozen times), this is a great language-learning strategy. When I first visited Jordan, some of the younger guys in the area thought I looked like John Cena, the WWE wrestler (my wife will happily confirm the comparison). So, I became an expert at pro wrestling and tried to lead as many conversations as I could with that. This gave me lots of practice to get at least a basic fluency in a specialized topic, which made me feel comfortable approaching people and typically led to deeper conversations where I could practice other skills. Fun fact: the Arabic word for “pro wrestler” is the same as the Arabic word for “gladiator”! 

Lots of crying is involved. At the end of the day, though, not being able to fluently speak the language of those around you is really frustrating. I think I’d also burst into tears if I wasn’t able to tell people when I was hungry and when I was tired. My first six weeks in France I lived with a melancholy Frenchman who couldn’t/didn’t want to speak English, and it was probably the loneliest six weeks of my life (although it did wonders for my French). Imagine being a toddler surrounded by giants three times your size that are sometimes terrifying and have arbitrary rules and that you can’t really communicate with—no wonder they break down in tears so often (among other reasons).

So, if you’ve been studying Italian or Chinese for years and you feel like it’s just not coming, spend a few days around a toddler who’s trying to just learn their native language. First, you’ll probably have a lot more sympathy for yourself. These little people are completely immersed in the language and still take years and years to get it right. So, don’t be too hard on yourself. Learning languages is hard. Second, you’ll probably figure out some good language learning strategies for yourself, which is basically becoming a small, mildly annoying child. The best language-learners I know have basically no fear, find endless ways to practice, get obsessed with random things, and work hard. Just like toddlers.

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