Learn a language during the pandemic

Updated: Jul 17, 2020

By now, we've all heard that Shakespeare wrote King Lear sequestered during the plague in London and that countless artists were inspired to create masterpieces during pandemics in the Middle Ages. O.K., so we're more than 3 months into isolation and you haven't written that great novel or painted anything yet. There's still time to change your life by starting to learn a new language that will expand your horizons, exercise those dormant brain cells and lead you on a path of making new foreign friends when you're finally able to travel again.

Venice is our favorite city in the world and it's fun to practice Italian while traveling on the Grand Canal.

We both started learning Italian 11 years ago after falling in love with Italy on our first

trip there. We liked the country and culture so much that we decided to try to teach ourselves the language. Within a year we returned to visit distant cousins we had tracked down in Tuscany. They spoke no English so we were forced to communicate with our very primitive Italian. After spending an entire day with our new family, it really felt like our brains would explode from all the thinking and effort we had to make to communicate even basically. We returned the next year and found that we could actually speak with them. Through the years, we've received special treatment in Italian hotels and restaurants because people are so pleased that Americans are learning their language. We've spoken with people in villages off the beaten tourist path whom we would not have been able to communicate with in English. And we've broken the barrier to making Italian friends because people value our interest in their culture even when they are fluent English speakers. There is something much more intimate when you can speak to people in their native language even if you aren't completely fluent.

Since we had so much success with Italian, we decided to tackle French two years ago before taking a yacht cruise in French Polynesia.

The other passengers on the yacht were French speaking so we were happy chatting in our basic French.

We were pleased to have learned some basic conversation skills when we boarded the 12-passenger Dream Yacht catamaran and realized that there were no other Americans on board for the 10-day sail to Bora Bora and surrounding islands. Our shipmates were all French native speakers with the exception of a Canadian man married to a French-speaking wife. What could have been a disaster of feeling like outsiders proved to be one of the most fun adventures we've ever had. One French lady helped us patiently while we read aloud from a French mystery novel, gently correcting our terrible pronunciation and acting as if we were the most brilliant scholars she had ever encountered. Every single person was eager to teach us new words and phrases. The end result was that we really made friends on the trip and were even able to visit two of the couples last year.

We got together for ice cream in Marseille with a young French couple we had met in French Polynesia after staying with another French couple from the yacht who live in Montpellier.

We visited friends in Marseille for an afternoon and had planned on seeing another couple for dinner in Montpellier in Provence. They insisted on hosting us for three memorable days at their home. We had a great time really experiencing life in a French household. The only minor problem was that we apparently said by mistake that we love eating sea snails and oysters because they made a special trip to the sea to buy buckets and buckets of them for us. We're sure that anyone who actually loves snails and raw oysters (not us) would have been delighted with the feast they prepared for us.

Our French host insisted on driving to the shore to buy buckets and buckets of fresh seafood for us.

Our friends in Montpellier made us many memorable seafood dinners at their lovely home.

If you'd like to learn a language on your own, we found that we made a lot of progress by mixing a variety of language learning techniques. We've found that the combination of methods is key to actually learning a new language. Many people are frustrated by the promises made by advertisers who market their methods as easy and almost instantaneous. Language learning can be fun, but it really does take a while before you can start communicating. Understanding that it isn't quite as easy as you've been told will help keep you from becoming frustrated. It isn't that you aren't "good at languages." The truth is that it takes a while for anyone's brain to absorb something as complicated as an entirely new language.

Our first recommendation is to buy or borrow language CDs. They are regularly available from libraries and your local library might even offer a free online subscription to one of the more popular methods. We like Pimsleur because the listening only program worked well for us in the beginning. You listen and repeat and all of a sudden it actually starts to click and you know how to speak in simple sentences without having ever looked at how the language is written. Pimsleur is great for developing good pronunciation because your brain doesn't get confused by the way the listener is used to saying similar looking words in English. For example, "ciao" sounds a lot like "chow" in English but the way it is written could lead a new learner to read "sea-oh." Living Language is a great system when you're ready to tackle some grammar and reading. The lessons are easy to digest in 30 minute increments. Berlitz offers similar listening and reading programs as do a wide assortment of less well known publishers. Rosetta Stone is popular among people looking for an app that combines games, exercises and lots of listening. For a completely free experience, there is the Duolingo app which has tons of fill-in-the blank exercises and which can really be fun in small increments.

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