French was the first language I took in high school, but for various reasons I didn’t get hooked.
The teacher and materials were a tad boring, but in addition, I couldn’t understand how the writing (orthography) related to the pronunciation.
I also was confused by genders and articles.
Young and unreceptive?
Or not provided with an appropriate teaching approach?
Whatever the reasons, I switched to Japanese in my second year at high school (year 9).
Friends had told me how interesting it was, and useful (Australia trade ties with Japan, etc.). The teacher was also quite a character – totally passionate about Japan, the language, culture and people.
But switching languages was unheard of, and it took a lot of negotiation with the school to gain permission.
For 2.5 years I made average progress with my new second language, but I became disillusioned when I discovered that the French/German students were reading short stories.
In Japanese class, we were still doing very simple question & answer role-plays.
In my second last year at school (year 11) I met exchange students from Japan, and the language came alive for me.
It became “useful” and it “worked”.
These students were fun to get to know, and had a totally different life experience/outlook to me and those around me.
In my final year of high school I became obsessed with Japanese.
I found my own study materials and learnt lots of extra vocabulary, constantly putting my non-native teacher to the test. I grew to love kanji (Chinese characters), and the more obscure the better. I also fell in love with Japanese technopop in the form of YMO and related acts.
Thus when I entered university, I decided to continue Japanese studies.
Here I hit a brick wall.
The class had a number of students who had returned from one year student exchange in Japan.
Many had never studied Japanese before they went, yet they were “fluent”.
My 4 years of study at high school was no match for them.
I struggled with this for two years at university before realising that unless I went to Japan myself, I would never be able to match their fluency.
So after second year uni, I took a year off (in Australia this is permitted without paying fees), and came to Japan on a working holiday.
That is a whole story in itself, but it did the trick with my Japanese speaking capability.
Now 30 years after quitting French, I am trying again to learn it.
Actually, I have tried a few times over the years, attending night school, getting a private tutor, etc. But these efforts all ended quickly and with the same outcome as at high school, and due to exactly the same hurdles: pronunciation and grammar.
French has been a lifelong “challenge”. For some reason I can’t let it defeat me. I’ve also realised it ought to be easier to learn for an English speaker than Japanese is.
This time, by chance, I found study materials that broke the deadlock.
I came across a CD in a bookshop that boasted that there was no text book.
I couldn’t understand how this would work, but decided to give it a try.
This method (“Michel Thomas”) has other interesting teaching innovations (this biggest for me is the use of questions that force the learner to guess the answer, rather than spoon-feeding).
But the greatest achievement for me from this CD was being able to focus on pronunciation by just listening without the distraction of the spelling. Once I grew accustomed to the sounds, I started to look a written French again, and it no longer daunted me. It just “was”.
Due to my experience teaching English at junior high school in Japan, I have come to realise how inconsistent and illogical English spelling and pronunciation is, and in comparison, French is actually a piece of gâteau.
I’ve discovered how much English vocabulary is derived from French, to the extent where I am almost convinced English is just mispronounced French.
Mastering it will take a bit longer, but I feel I am on the right track now.
Meanwhile, it has unveiled new perspectives for me as I’ve come in touch with people with quite different values and a society that functions quite unlike either Australia and Japan.
New friendships, perspectives, literature, music and other experiences are why I love learning languages.