It takes a big commitment. You must start with the fundamentals and be prepared to go through hours of basic repetition. You’ll have to break it down and be sure you understand all the rules. You’ll spend hours learning from the masters of it before you’ll be even close to putting it all together fluidly yourself. You can’t fake it. You can’t pretend you’re better than you really are. In a way, your current ability is the ultimate test of the focused effort and work you’ve put into it.
After our recent Christmas vacation in Montreal, I once again appreciated my persistence to learn the French language. It started in earnest while studying as an undergraduate when I spent one summer in France and another summer in Chicoutimi, Quebec as part of my studies. It demolished any anxieties I had about public speaking in English. Without it, I wouldn’t have much of a relationship with my mother-in-law, who only speaks French, or as much interaction with others from the culture of tourtière pies, fudge, poutine, the selection of choice of cheeses and wines, dramatic hand gestures, and pursed “O” shaped lips 🙂
When first dating my husband, I would struggle to follow the conversation around his family’s dinner table, and often what I thought they’d been talking about was totally wrong! Meanwhile J-F accused me of being shy around his family! I would also be exhausted from “comprehension concentration” after hour-long lab meetings in French in my Psychology lab at the University of Ottawa.
But with continued practice, I’ve come out the other side into what feels like a whole new world at times. I don’t panic when someone addresses me in French. I can catch and completely understand a passing French conversation. I can follow a lively dinner conversation, pitch in my own two cents easily, and even catch most of the jokes now. Watching television in French is relaxing and enjoyable. I can differentiate the Quebec and France accents and even some differences in the accents around Quebec. I can make myself understood easily enough in French. I am FAR from perfect but I am confident enough to call myself bilingual at this point.
As with the challenge of learning a new language, there are many parallels to striving to reach our most challenging goals as an athlete….
1. You have to be motivated and be able to answer the “WHY are you doing it question! I live in Canada, and I think it would be great if everyone could communicate in both official languages, my husband’s family is French, I want to be able to communicate with and understand, and fully experience the French side of my country. I also love the challenge of learning it! “Life is a journey, not just a destination” – Aerosmith
2. You have to be okay with stumbling and making mistakes. You can’t master a second language as an adult without being comfortable with making plenty of errors. You’ll repeat them often, learn from them, and eventually get it right. You need to spend many hours of focused concentration to comprehend the language before you can even begin to speak it and make coherent sentences. Nothing comes easily, especially at first. As in sports it takes countless hours to solidify those neuromuscular connections for the coordination needed for any given skill, as well as the time needed to build endurance, strength, speed, and power! Patience is needed for both!
3. You have to persist when it gets hard. Like physical mastery in sport, language mastery takes hours of practice, and it often gets tougher (e.g. converting all those classroom grammar lessons into conversational ability) before it becomes easier. Even at the highest level, the best athletes are always working to improve something when every edge in ability can count! And persisting at improving weaknesses is a challenging task! And if you’re getting into shape again, you may feel more sore and fatigued for a few weeks before you start to feel stronger and fitter!
4. You may never reach your ultimate goal but it doesn’t make the pursuit of it any less worthy! I have the goal of being perfectly bilingual, but my French accent will never be perfect. I will continue to make grammatical errors, and have difficulties expressing myself as well as I can in English. But its been worth it!! I have richer relationships I wouldn’t have had without it, it’s pushed me out of my comfort zones, I’ve learned about French culture from the “inside”, it has opened doors in many ways given me confidence that I can achieve things I set my mind too, even when it feels impossible at first. Similarly in sport, if we don’t win the race, make the team, or reach our highest goal our efforts are not in vain!