On (not) Learning Languages – my French experience in Montreal

A cool yet sunny August in east Montreal, and the street was crowded, blocked off, and alive with music. I met her, Paris-born, long black hair, eyes like discs of blue china, at the bus station. Then we went to get wine from a convenience store.
Bottle and plastic cups in hand, we found a park, sat in the shade of a giant tree, and drank. She told me that she wanted to become an actress, but she didn’t know how to get started. I told her that that’s the hardest part.

“I feel like an alien,” she said.


“Like I don’t belong. I’m thinking of a movie idea where there’s a girl, but she’s not normal. She’s an alien like me. And she has to fit in with normal earth people.” She drank. “Boring people.” Her Parisian accent became stretched, elongated. I listened with calm satisfaction.

After we finished we went, slowly, to the street with the vendors and people and music. I had traveled to Montreal to attend a language learning convention, called LangFest. I had bought the tickets months prior. I didn’t make it. And I didn’t show for the next day, or the last.
Of course, I still wanted to improve my French. I was doing that – in a way. “Trottoir,” I told her while pointing. She nodded. “Les nuages sont plein des larmes,” I said. (They weren’t; it was a clear day). She laughed.

After a few blocks I grew bored of pointing to objects and saying their French name. We ended up talking only English.

There were many problems.

First, she didn’t understand my pronunciation, though she did commend me on my accent (because it wasn’t Québécois).
Second, I didn’t understand her’s. It sounded like a completely foreign language to me, which for sure it was, but for having studied it over 1 year, it shouldn’t have.
Third, I couldn’t string together coherent sentences past the most basic ones. I was mentally blocked. Whatever genuine expression I made took minutes to do.

I started learning French in University. Some of the exercises I did are locked well in my memory, and I'm glad I learned the grammar early and in a formal setting. I do think it helps. It allows one to find meaningful patterns in initially meaningless information (though that can still happen naturally by inference). The real problem of grammar is that it can be boring. And in language learning boredom is a prime enemy, along with its temptress, distraction. 

After finishing both semesters of French, I started learning on my own for an entire summer, doing so mostly through literature (reading and listening), which did little for my speaking ability. But if I'm going to learn a language I want to do so while absorbing the culture. So, I enjoyed it regardless. 

My favourite website to read (in many languages) is LingQ. A community of users gives definition to every word in user uploaded books, articles, podcasts, courses, etc,. 
Basically, LingQ is a website where people serve the function of Google Translate. 
Every word is highlighted one specific colour. By clicking a word, a list of definitions pops up. The ones voted most accurate show up on the top, and then you can choose which definition you think is best, then the word is added to your word-bank, and as you familiarize yourself with it, you can change its colour until you fully know it. This is a great system I learned to read quickly from. 

I've tried Duolingo; it's okay but you're limited to learn only what's available on the app and its contexts. I've also tried Memrise, which is a decent way to build up vocabulary. 


              None of these applications on their own are enough. 

Barbecue smoke was hanging along the street like wooly sheets. The air of fried rice, baked breads, sweet sauce, grilled beef was mixed with the heavy scent of beer. After my date bought a set of lingerie we went searching the eatery stalls.
A stomach half-filled by cheap wine wants one thing (besides more wine): greasy, fatty food.

I was staring at a young man tonging fried noodles out of a barrel-like pot. We approached and I said, “Pour moi,” with my index waving.

“Emprunter ou ici?”

I looked into the pot. The noodles were dark yellow. Slimy.

“Emprunter ou ici?” He was fully focused on me. I shifted my gaze from the pot and to my date. She knew.

“To go,” she said.

When we left I asked her: “What did he say?”

“To go or for here.”

“What was the first word he used?”


“I would’ve said aller.” Then, “Whatever, I still wouldn’t understand it.”

“It’s okay,” she said. “You’re doing okay.”

This was the point I gave up trying to speak French (in Montreal). I was frustrated; I came with expectations and none of them were met. I felt like I wasted my time.

In language learning circles the name Stephen Krashen evokes the same prestige as Sigmund Freud does in psychology.

 Stephen Krashen's work

Krashen is a linguist and pedagogist. In the 70's he developed a theory of language learning called Input Hypothesis, which is an umbrella term for five main hypotheses on adult language acquisition. 
To be precise, there's a difference between language learning and acquisition. Children are known to acquire language. Krashen's theory focuses on adults learning language, or in other words, second-language acquisition. To Krashen, the difference between the two is that acquisition is subconscious, while learning is conscious. And for him, adults also can acquire language, not just learn it.  
Input Hypothesis first states that language input and competency are in a linear relationship. The more one is exposed, the more one will understand. But it's not that simple: the input has to be at first comprehensible (easy) enough for progress to be made.
Think of it as levels. A learner progresses through the levels, going from easy to hard, and their competency adjusts accordingly. 

Another hypothesis states negative emotions interfere with acquisition. So, for example, my frustrations in Montreal acted as blinders: from what I couldn't see, I couldn't act on, couldn't acquire. A comfortable, stress-free state is a prerequisite for all this process to happen. 

Now, I wonder how my parents, both immigrants, learned English. They didn't take classes; didn't expose themselves to increasing levels of difficulty; in many cases they were stressed and overwhelmed. Yes, they may not have the best grasp of it, but they can speak, read and write. And yes, their current competency might've taken them a few years (and stopped after a point), but in less than a year they were communicating with a proficiency I have not yet attained with over two years of focused effort. How?

For sure, they learned (or acquired) through necessity; their focus was on without their effort having to be. The subconscious engine of their mind was labouring day and night, and gradually, through employment interviews, lineups, TV, street conversations, advertisements, rental agreements, etc., they got it.

A day later we went to an art museum.
I was by myself and one of the guides noticed me. He walked up smiling and eager. He began talking about the virtual reality exhibition. He must’ve been going on for two minutes. I was nodding, picking up some, but mostly lost in parsing an amalgam of flowing sound.
Then I failed to notice that he was asking me a question. His eyes grew saucer-like. Did he feel betrayed?

Soon she found me alone and contemplative, staring at a talking animation on a TV. I kept replaying the conversation in my head; replaying the moment I stabbed him in the back with my incompetence.

Recently, I've been learning Spanish, listening to the Michel Thomas Method. They're casual recordings of Michel teaching two students, a male and female. He says words and phrases and then asks for the Spanish equivalent. The conversations progress in complexity and become more in Spanish. As he instructs, enough time is given for the listener to formulate their responses; so, you become the third student. 


Of course, Michel emphasizes reference-free translations. Spanish should evoke a meaning on its own without you having to refer to English. This is a tricky ideal to reach. At first a learner will be bound to their native language to provide meaning. Through consistent time and effort the binding breaks. No one who's proficient in a second-language relies on their first to make sense of it (bilinguals will know this intuitively). 
I really enjoy these recordings. It feels like learning from a Spanish speaker without all the demands that the teacher-student relation entails. Michel even places the onus of learning solely on the teacher, making the experience as care-free as possible. 


I've also used the Pimsleur method, but for Vietnamese. It works off the same premise as Michel, though it's much more formal, and therefore "colder". The two students are replaced with two native speakers. Though, the students make mistakes you'd make, and so you learn from them, and they're fun to listen to, especially when you're all progressing as a group. Pimsleur is still good but Michel sticks in your head more, which may be counterintuitive because a structured, "professional" method may seem to do that better; but that's just a prejudice. 

For thousands of years language learning did not happen through a curriculum. It was a chaotic, organic, imperfect process. It still is.

Then we walked in Old Montréal, a classically designed section near the St. Lawrence River, reminiscent of Europe. Cobbled streets, colonial architecture with the emerald spires, an earth of pillars and stone.

“My uncle lives in Mexico,” I said. “And he speaks Spanish like a local.”

“That’s natural,” she said; her gaze out to the glassy river.

“His wife is Mexican, so, he picked it up with a passion.”

We stopped to sit on a bench. The waters ebbed slowly and its colour seamed with the sky in a whitish blue. Above us a few long strips of cloud like cascading beams.

“That is how you learn a language,” she said. “Live in the country and fall in love.”

Learning in the traditional sense has some large obstacles. 
First, one has to depend on their motivation. 
Second, it's too restricted to a specific environment (mental and physical). 

The most vital requirement of language learning is that you need to work and be exposed in the language for a long and stable time. And that consistency requires motivation, or the right environment. 

My motivation came from culture. Besides speaking the language, I wanted to know the language; the ideas in it, the wisdom, idioms, moods, worldview. I focused on the dimension easiest for that, for me: reading. Speaking was left in the dark, and given some light, it became clear there wasn't much there. I needed to move my motivation elsewhere. But it was hard to pick up without having people around me. 
My uncle didn't care for motivation. He was living the language. I, however, was stuck on my laptop or in books.

At night we went to her apartment. It was overlooking an expansive park where the curving trails were lined by lamplights that shone yellow orbs on ponds now looking like dark pools of metal among the dense green.
Her kitchen was small and tidy and on a table was a box of chocolate filled croissants. I looked at them for a while.

“Have some,” she said. I sat down. She played French music on her laptop.

“Serge, please,” I said. Then she played “Couleur Café” by Serge Gainsbourg, 1964.

She sung in her Parisian way, dancing across the living room. My mouth was stuffed by buttery croissant; my eyes fixed on her; my head to the rhythm. Serge’s lyrics were so idiosyncratic that even she couldn’t understand them. But neither of us cared about understanding then.

Two years after my trip now and I wouldn’t consider myself as of yet to have learned French, but I’m not worried. I’m familiar with it.
Language learning is a lifetime process; not something you do for a few months, then drop, expecting it to last you a lifetime. The language is built around you and your unique experiences. Have fun and enjoy.
The main cause of why people abandon this endeavour is due to the expectations they put on themselves. Goals are important, but each one has an opinion. They’ll tell you about your failures; what you could’ve been; what more you still need to do. They can, if you allow them, inspire disappointment, and then disillusionment. Don’t take them too seriously. This is a process that doesn’t conform to their rules.


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How Traveling Restarted My Life – my trip to Vietnam

For background, I’ve been a homebody for most of my life. Right now I’m 25. In 2019 I traveled for the first time (outside of family vacations at resorts) and doing so has marked a transition point in my life; so much so that I make sense of my personal history as two periods: The pre-travel me and the post-travel me.

Before traveling I was disillusioned with my university studies. The reasons I had for going (to study topics that fascinated me, work on interesting problems, contribute to science) seemed to be based on a faulty and idealistic understanding of how the university system works. It was restrictive on my interests, beset by intellectual dogmas, and I felt like I was merely continuing on a workplace tradition.
By losing the worthiness of a goal I was working towards for three years I became aimless. Existence was dull and too often I was miserable and apathetic. I confided in literature and art because it gave me meaning and a repository of wisdom. But these weren’t enough. I was deficient. Books could not give me what experience could. In many ways Academia showed me that.

Traveling had seemed a way for me to restart my engagement with life.

So, two years ago, in May (the rainy season), I went to Vietnam. I first landed in Hanoi and then made my way South. I visited Sa Pa, Da Nang, Hội An, Hạ Long Bay, Huế, and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon).

Ho Chi Minh City (South) and Sa Pa (Upper North).
Ho Chi Minh had an atmosphere of “this is where things are happening”. I went to a restaurant called Noir; food was served in complete darkness by visually impaired waiters. The nightlife was livelier than any other place. The street food was unreal. Unfortunately I only spent three days.
Sa Pa was an aesthetic haven situated in the mountains; also, where I rode a motorbike for the first time. I drove in the villages, through thick, wet mud, and got lost for a while. Thought I had engine trouble and asked a farmer for help; there was no trouble. Then in the streets I was almost hit by a bus.

When arriving in Hanoi the time was about 3 am. It was quiet and hot. The airport was small, minimalist and empty. I had come off a 20+ hour plane ride so my senses were dulled. I needed to call an Uber, a taxi, or whatever transport. I had read stories and seen videos of people getting scammed by taxi drivers so I made it a priority to avoid them. But I had no data and Uber doesn’t work in Vietnam (they have their own version called Grab).
As soon as I went outside a man waved at me. His hands clutching at the air as if he was reeling me with rope. I knew I had to be firm, make no eye contact and most importantly make it look like it wasn’t my first time. I walked away, head low to the ground, and he followed. Then I did it. I made eye contact. His eyes widened, his head shaking yes, yes. I asked how much (I learned from YouTube videos that that’s the most important question). He said “400”, which is around $15 US. And without even thinking I nod, and we get to his shuttle-bus.
Inside were two others. A woman in the front and a man in back. I climbed in the back and said “Hello.” The man asked me where I’m from (the universal question). I said, “Canada. And you?”


“What about you?” I asked the woman.

She turned briefly to say, “I’m from Lebanon.”

Then – silence.

I looked out the window thoughtlessly and felt the sensation of “Where am I?” There were long and curving trees and garbage lining the highway sides, piled under dense shrubs and shoddy houses with corrugated roofs and wide unmarked roads with traffic lights dangling from bundled wires. Some motor-bikers skirted past with no helmets, their shirts flailing fast and long like capes.
Our driver was manic behind the wheel. The Russian looked at me and shook his head smirking. I had a feeling of being somewhere dangerous, an emotion like “no turning back”.

“Did you just arrive?” I asked the Russian.

“Yeah.” He was wearing a black shirt and shorts, black wristwatch. On his back a black backpack.

“How long are you staying?” I asked.

“Not long. But I don’t know. I’ll get a motorbike in Hanoi and go south.”

After a few minutes he asked, “How long are you?”

“Two weeks.”

“Two weeks? No, no, no.”


“Not enough,” he said; the Lebanese woman looked over her shoulder. “I’ve been on my journey three months and it is not enough.”

Going inside the city the roads narrowed into cramped strips of pavement. On the sides were stores displaying multi-colours, signs of a language riddled with accents, merchandise on merchandise – clothes, jewelry, electronics, car parts – all dark and shapeless. Few locals lounged on the curb, on concrete steps, on tiny plastic chairs, smoking from large wooden pipes, eating and watching this shuttle-bus zooming through their streets. An old woman sitting on a stool brandished a wide-open smile. My disorientation intensified. I was no longer tired.

I didn’t have much experience with the world at this point. My dealings with people were largely formal and superficial. Naturally I was nervous, which I hated about myself. Which was another reason why I wanted so badly to expose myself to people, the world – to kill off the boogeyman my parents and others built up. One of my mom’s friends said that I shouldn’t go to Vietnam because “bad things happen there.” That’s nonsense. And it’s the worst type – coming from fear and inexperience.

One thing I’ve learned: Don’t take people’s advice so seriously, especially and more so if it’s something they don’t have a direct connection to.

I was impressed by the Russian and had a desire for the adventure he was on even if I didn’t know exactly what it consisted. And even though I was nervous about it. When the two got off I wanted to ask them for their contacts but I was shy – something that would change drastically throughout the trip.
In the tourist district things were quiet, the street lamps lit the surrounding a pale yellow. Some workers were conversing outside the glass double-doors of a hostel and the driver pulled up alongside them. I grabbed my two bags (a large hiking backpack and a string bag) and slid open the door. A warm and heavy air hit me but what was more impactful was the scent. Rich with spices and smog, gas fumes and oil. Hanoi is known for being dense with pollution. Later on at times I’ve felt light-headed from simply walking.
The driver asked for 500k VND. As with anyone inexperienced I was agreeable. This was a characteristic that defined my entire bartering career in Vietnam, or lack thereof. And I could never justify bartering for prices that were already so cheap.

The driver sped away, past the yellow-lit concrete, into an arched gate of stone, a dark portal. One youth from the group stood up and pointed to the hostel. I said, “Yes”. We went to the front desk. The place was narrow yet tall, the same temperature as outside and decorated in a safari-theme and smelt a little like used towels. He took my passport and stored it in a drawer and I quickly thought that he doesn’t work at the hostel. He must be a local thug trying to take my passport? “Every hostel must hold the passports. It’s a standard rule,” he told me while I was staring at the drawer.

Before going on the plane my father instructed me to “leave your bags behind. Someone’ll plant drugs in them and snitch you to the police for a reward.” Good advice, right?

The worker gave me a card for the room and then let me go. But before that I tried out my Vietnamese. I said “cam on”, which is thank you. My pronunciation was as expected. Another worker sitting in the front desk shouted “oh!” then guided me on how to say it. He was drunk and excited. I said it half-heartedly and then went upstairs. I get into my room, find my locker, though I put nothing in it. I get into a top bunk with all my stuff which I lay at my feet. I slide the thick side-curtains to fully shield myself and then lay tired yet not sleepy, thinking “Where am I? What am I going to do?”

Next day I awoke with vibrant colour and activity and heat. In the lobby what was empty and dark was now abundant with people and light. After being formally welcomed I sat on a booth-seat, watched groups of tourists pass and waited for a tour guide provided by a local University. The hostel staff were ahead of me, on computers or standing, at times glancing at me and smiling. Again I had no thoughts, I was all feeling. Soon my tour guide, a young girl, was at the doors.
Stepping out, the sun pressed on my skin with a burn. Shops had unraveled and spilled over the curbs and motorbikes were overflowing the street and weaving around people like schooling fish, some stopping so sudden the drivers were almost jostled out of their seats. And I do mean overflowing. You have to be careful where you’re walking or else you might touch an exhaust.
There were eateries between the stores which were all arranged like rows of boxcars stretching across the street. White steam spewed out the open kitchens and the sizzling meat was loud and mixing with noise of honking and conversation. And the smell – tremendous. Lime, beef broth, mint, lemongrass. Fish sauce. I love Asian food, so I was welcoming. We found a place to eat and I ate a simple chicken and rice meal while my guide watched on probably surprised I was wearing jeans and a buttoned long-sleeve shirt. I was like an ice sculpture in the tiny dining room.

We visited Hoàn Kiếm Lake, St. Joesph’s Cathedral, Thăng Long Imperial Citadel, and a lush park and garden called Quoc Tu Giam. She told me about history and best places for food. But I was most interested to hear about her life. If she enjoyed being in Vietnam, where’d she like to go, how her schooling was going, etc.
Overall I spent nearly seven hours with her – unusual since most tours last two-three. And we had a great time. We ate phở in a popular restaurant and then drank egg coffee in a semi-hidden café overlooking the lake. The interior was cool from the dark concrete walls and had a trapped aroma of roasted coffee and fruit. Short wooden tables and chairs were set in rows along the bare plank-floor and from the wooden blinds a cooler evening air came and the sunlight peeking out the slits was enough to light the place.
After my guide left me at the hostel I went straight to bed. The short time before sleeping I only felt satisfaction and gratefulness for having been there. What surprised me was that I didn’t get a sense of culture shock – as the days progressed I felt more at home than I did back home. The people I met (what I cherish most) were varied, caring and interesting. Everyone had their own stories, passions, failings, and I was eager to listen. I also met some scammers (I lost $190 but my home-stay host got most of it back). None of that mattered though.
On the fifth day in Hanoi I changed my flight in order to stay one month. Vietnam showed me life in the highest resolution. How could I downgrade?

Traveling revealed to me an important aspect of my psychology: Playfulness.
Every situation, person, location was an opportunity to play and discover.
I was as a child in a playground of my own design kept secret from everyone else.
Any discomfort, frustration, delay was inconsequential, akin to falling off on both knees – take a few deep breaths, wipe off the dirt and get back on.
I realized the potential life has to be infinitely worthwhile and fascinating. And my own potential on who I could be, what more, or less, I could make myself. There are so many possibilities, so much life one can explore just in themselves.

Now I know not everyone has my peculiar dispositions. So, what can I generalize out of my own experiences in order to give to others?

Well, if you take two people and set them out on the same journey, you’re going to get different experiences. One may come back with many stories to tell on who they met; the other may detail all the places they saw. One will say a place is a must-see; another that the same place is rubbish.
Ultimately their experiences depend on how they’re engaged.

I know this is a cliché but there are two types of people in the world:

There are those who expect value to be given to them. They are takers. They interact with the world as if reality owes them value. And sometimes they get it but too often they’re disappointed.
Others give value onto experience. In them is the power of creation. They are givers, and they, even without knowing, are the source of value; and truthfully that’s the only tenable source there can be.

I’ve realized that what made Vietnam valuable was not Vietnam. It was my engagement with it – Vietnam mattered because my experiences mattered. My first day was me wrestling with the engagement others (and myself) had made. Then the morning brought clarity, victory, and I was free to engage in the way I genuinely knew how. And that’s when the country opened for me.

Excuse the philosophy but there is no value inherently in the world. That may be shocking to read; it may seem nihilistic. But it’s not. Relying on the world to give you value is exactly what presupposes nihilism. We are in a feedback loop with our reality and it starts and has always started with us.

Maybe I was aware of all this at one time, maybe I forgot that life is ultimately our own playground.
Vietnam helped me to remember and I’m grateful for it.


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