Learning languages through foreign languages

One of the great things about working as a Fulbright ETA is that I am allowed to take courses at the school free of charge.  With this in mind, I was hoping to study French or German, as to improve my skills in the two other official languages of Belgium.  I was hoping to start out with a beginners or near-beginners course.  This turned out not to be possible,  Unlike the U.S., where language classes at university almost always allow for a class for newbies, this is not the case at KU Leuven. 

English, French and German courses, languages of which (nearly) all Flemish students are required to take before going to college, start at a intermediate to advanced level at university in Belgium.  As someone who grew up in a town with a high school with ZERO foreign language classes (or native language language classes for that matter; Inupiaq instruction ended by 5th grade), this seems pretty impressive.

Since the only instruction I have ever had in French was my mom singing Frere Jacques as a kid (sp?) and mine German skills pretty much only coming from the fact that I can speak Dutch, I needed to find another option.  KU Leuven Thomas More has classes in Dutch, English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Russian, Arabic and Flemish Sign Language.  French and German were no-go’s, I can already speak English (depending on your definition of English), I’ve never had an interest in Russian, Italian is beautiful but only spoken in one country, Arabic sounds to me like having to tackle Chinese all over again (non Indo-European vocabularym foreign writing systemm etc.), and Flemish Sign Language could be interesting, but I feel like ASL would probably be a more useful endeavor. So, my remaining options: Dutch and Spanish.

I took a semester of college Spanish back in the States, which was fun but was a few years back already.  Furthermore, I had a language exchange with a girl from Barcelona when I was back in Amsterdam in preparation for a trip to Andalusia.  Because of this, I don’t have a ton of experience in Spanish grammar, but I have a little bit more experience in speaking some Spanish.  I decided to take 1st year linguistics (taalkunde) and 2nd year oral skillls (Mondelings vaardigheid),  These classes happened to fall all on the same day…for four hours….in succession.  Whoops.  In any case, the 1st year class is pretty easy, but useful for re-learning Spanish grammar, and the second year class is pretty difficult, with me feeling that I am one of the worst in the class.  This challenge, however, makes me study harder, and since I don’t get any credit for these classes, I am not so worried about looking like a fool half the time, 

The fascinating thing about Spanish linguistics, though, is that it is taught in Dutch meaning I am learning Spanish through Dutch, and not English.  Often my notes are a scribble of all three languages mixed together.  What makes it worse is that my teacher is fluent in French, and for comparison, often adds in French to the mix.  This means that within any given ten minute period, I could be having language instruction in FOUR LANGUAGES.  Needless to say, by the end of Tuesday afternoon, my head hurts. 

However, I think this is a fascinating pursuit.  Part of the reason that many Americans fail at learning foreign languages is because they don’t have a ton of opportunities to immerse themselves in the language, especially outside of big cities.  This means that when speaking the language, instead of thinking in the language, students are constantly translating from their own language to the foriegn one.  When you take a language course IN a different language, you are cutting out that link to your native tongue.  This means that you are thinking about a different language IN a different language.  This has to do great things for your language brain, and I encourage anyone studying abroad to take a foreign language in a foreign language.  I did this before when I took a Chinese class mostly taught in Dutch.  There are other Americans in Belgium taking Dutch through French or Arabic through French or French through Dutch.  I think this is such a great exercise to keep your brain working.  Your head will hurt by the end of the day,, but just like other body parts, if your brain is sore, that just means you had a good workout. 

To end this blog, I would like to say that I feel like there should be a movie about language inception.  I feel like it wouldn’t sell as well but all the linguistics nerd would enjoy it. 🙂 




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