Learning a foreign language from scratch, especially if you are an adult, can make you have your work cut out. But have you tried learning a foreign language through another foreign language? Let me tell you, it’s not fun at all. When we dive into this process, we usually rely on our mother tongue to guide us throughout it so we can more easily understand the features of the new language: sentence structure, verb conjugation, figurative expressions, vocabulary, punctuation and so on.
In my case unfortunately, I didn’t benefit from this help, at least not directly. As a foreign student in Romania, I expected that I had to learn Romanian (which I did quite quickly considering that I already had a little knowledge of it), so I enrolled in a preparatory year before starting my studies. What I didn’t expect, however, was the enormous amount of work I had to put in once I started my BA where I decided to specialize in English and German.
Suffice to say, this whole situation was a double-edged sword. There are both pros and cons of studying two foreign languages in a non-native one. Here is how my experience went.
People were often surprised that I kept going strong with my studies. They were surprised that I managed to have good grades. What they couldn’t see was the fact that this experience is a two-way street. What I mean by this is that I simultaneously improved my Romanian as well. On one hand, by constantly listening to my professors explaining certain English and German rules in their native language, I was not only learning these two languages, but was also enriching my Romanian vocabulary.
As a result, I was able to express myself more fluently. Translation exercises helped me tremendously. At first, I was terrified. How could I possibly execute a translation from a non-native to a non-native language? However, with time it became easier and didn’t even realize the number of Romanian expressions I learned because of these translations. Idiomatic expressions, typical phrases, archaic words and slang language cannot always be found in a grammar book. Practical application is a key figure that will bring you to proficiency in any language.
On the other hand, constant switching between languages is exhausting. For instance, whenever we would bump into a more complex German or English grammatical rule, the professor would explain it more thoroughly in Romanian. For me to understand it, I had to quickly find the equivalent for that rule in my native language so I can understand that same grammatical structure in Romanian (if I didn’t know it before) and only then was I able to comprehend the German grammar. It really made me break a sweat.
In addition, I translated pretty much everything in my head before saying it. I had to learn how to organize the different languages within my mind and make a plan on when to use them. I would classify this point as an advantage too as it shows that our brains are without a doubt the smartest machines ever created.
Knowing a foreign language or two can most definitely give you a head start in life. My way of learning one is for sure not the most conventional. I am sure many think to themselves ‘what was she even thinking, making it harder deliberately’? When I think about it, I wouldn’t have it any other way. This experience was such a unique and unpredictable journey that taught me so much more than I could ever imagine.