Living Abroad · Musings

The hard truth about your third language

Maybe it’s just me and Polish, but…

…it sucks.

When you already speak a second language, like I do, and you’ve spoken it for a long-ass time, like I have, you forget how difficult it is to learn a new language. Every language has it’s weird grammar and quirks and impossible pronunciations. As you start a new language, you think, Hmmm, well, this is difficult, but once I get the hang of the basic rules it won’t be so bad.

Then you’re at the gym, or the supermarket, or the train station, and you try to say something only to realize there are a million little words you don’t remember (or don’t know), and even if you kinda remember the rules for conjugating verbs, it does you no good because the key word in this sentence is ‘already’, and you don’t know how to say ‘already’. Or what is the proper preposition for “to”? How do you say ‘very’ again? And how do you say ‘again’?

Even at the beginning of college, when my Spanish grammar was terrible, I still had the advantage of 15 years of vocabulary already tucked away in my mind. People would ask what a word meant and 60% of the time I just knew, without even thinking. In Polish, there are so many words I just don’t know, or can’t pronounce. So putting aside my terrible grammar, I still can’t communicate what I want to say.

Luckily in Poland, most people are happy that you’re even trying to learn Polish, because they know it’s not the most useful language in the world. The only people who’ll give you shit for it are probably PiS (far-right political party) supporters who usually only express outrage if you’re a non-white immigrant, and of course this one lady at the immigration office who asked my boss, “Why did you hire them if they can’t even speak Polish?” (yeah, she said it in Polish, but I understood) to which my boss replies, “Because I run an English school…?” So yeah, except for that salty lady works at the immigration office and doesn’t speak any languages other than Polish so maybe she should shut the hell up, everyone is pretty nice and patient when trying to talk to me.

But that’s the way it is, isn’t it? Xenophobes who only speak one language are usually the ones complaining about immigrants not speaking their language the loudest. People who’ve never  lived in a country where they don’t speak the language think that you can easily acquire fluency by taking 3 hours of class a week. Hahaha, if only. Especially in the US, white Americans look down on immigrants (especially poor immigrants) and complain that they aren’t even trying to learn English, as though this is proof of their inherent worthlessness as human beings. As though they actually have any fucking clue what is going on in these people’s lives, or in their heads. Because it’s hard to learn a new language with resources and time, much less without resources or time.

So my point is not that you should feel sorry for me, here in Poland with my terrible Slavic skills. My point is that you should think about the people you meet, and how when you hear their accents, that means they’ve learned another language, and that’s something that’s very difficult to do. And if they can’t speak English, or whatever the language of your native country is, remember how it’s easy to pontificate about what people should do when you don’t have to do it yourself.

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19 thoughts on “The hard truth about your third language

  1. Well said. I enjoyed this piece very much. I was reminded of this quote. “Never make fun of someone if they mispronounce a word. It means they learned it by reading.”
    Looking down on people who are trying to learn a new language when you have known only one your entire level is very snobbish. And cruel.And pathetic…

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That’s so true. And someone not knowing every word you know should not be how you judge their worth or intelligence. People like that need to learn empathy, but like I said, they’ve probably never been in a situation where they are in an unfamiliar environment so they don’t realize how hard it is.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Agreed! That immigration officer was incredibly rude at you :O I know what you mean by learning a new language when you’re an adult! Some people just don’t know any better and think that learning a new language must be so easy. My Finnish sucked in Finland when I was living there for over two years: my main reason was that I was never motivated enough to learn Finnish and on top of that Finnish is a very difficult language.
    I don’t recall any such bad experiences here in Poland regarding Polish but then I picked Polish very fast because of my boyfriend, and started using it everywhere.. The people at shops, market etc seemed always delighted to converse in Polish with an obvious foreigner like me and usually it extended to where I’m from, what brought me to Poland etc. With experiences in learning Polish and Finnish, I’ve realized that in my case, I just cannot learn a new language from a textbook or language class: it has to be by listening and practicing everyday through the people I hang out with, the surroundings etc in a very practical manner. The reason why I failed at Finnish but didn’t at Polish.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I tried French quite a while ago, expecting it to come as fluently to me as English…. nope. Didn’t work out! But then, I seriously didn’t like my teacher (was in school) so ended up aborting 😛 Takes real perseverance to learn something new.

    Like

  4. yes, it’s such a struggle jamming all these different languages into our mind. I’m also on the journey of learning my third language (english, spanish, and now italian). Luckily Italian and Spanish are not too far apart but it does suck when people point out your flaws in speaking too especially when they don’t know what it’s like!
    http://www.lacasabloga.com

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I think there was a radio ad where they asked if you would rather speak four languages fluently or play awesome guitar solos. I think the four languages would be cool. I personally would pick English, Chinese, Spanish, and French.

    Like

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