Think Before You Speak: Learning And Living A Language

By Sam Cassidy, GA Writer

“Think before you speak.” I’m sure we’ve all lost count of the number of times we heard that phrase growing up. Along with “Don’t talk back!” and “Chew with your mouth closed,” those were the most common words out of my mother’s mouth. (She did say “I love you” quite often as well). I swear I tried to obey that rule, but my words always seemed to have a mind of their own, running out of my mouth while my brain tried to catch up. I’ve always loved conversation, debates, and telling stories. I’m often known to let my words take on a life of their own and turn an average account into a fantastical narrative. Some people call that exaggeration, but I like to call it engaged storytelling. So it should come as no surprise that I’ve found my passion in the study of language, in particular with foreign languages.

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My love for the French language brought me overseas for a semester during my junior year of college. It’s hard to find many opportunities to practice French down in Alabama where I attended school, so a semester abroad was nonnegotiable in my book. When I first arrived in Paris back in the spring of 2016, I was anxious for the chance to actually speak French! But once the jet lag cleared enough for me to attempt communication, I was in for a surprise.

I had assumed that 6 years of French classes would be enough for me to jump right into conversation with the locals. Not so. I quickly came to realize there is a huge difference between having knowledge of something and putting it into practice. I expected that just being in France would somehow activate all the conjugation charts, agreement rules, and vocabulary lists lounging around inside my brain, untangle them, and spit them out in perfectly eloquent French dialogue. But I found that simply existing in a place is not enough. Language learning is an active, not passive process. Il faut “faire un effort,” as my phonetics professor used to shout at our class. It’s not like the sleeping-with-a-dictionary-under-your-pillow-to-make-yourself-smarter thing. Unfortunately, language acquisition doesn’t work like that. But has anyone ever tried that? Asking for a friend…  

My point is, it’s not sufficient to just exist in a situation. You must be a participant. Learning a language is kind of like falling in love, you have to be willing to look and feel stupid. You need to put yourself out there. Take risks. You’ll make mistakes and people will definitely laugh at, and/or with you. But it is so worth every fumbled and mumbled exchange.

It may not seem like you are making progress. Some days you’ll feel so frustrated when you just want to ask if you can sit outside at the café but cannot remember the word for outdoors. Luckily that’s what hand gestures are for. I usually recite what I’m going to say in my head before I say it aloud, though it often still doesn’t come out exactly as I intended. I honestly never had to think before speaking until learning a foreign language. It can be exhausting, constantly reflecting on each though, sentence, or phrase before speaking them aloud. Being taken out of your natural language habitat is a humbling experience. But don’t give up. Because one day you’ll discover that you can carry on a conversation with your taxi driver for fifteen whole minutes. And while may not be completely grammatically correct, it counts for something. We take for granted how easy it is to articulate ourselves in our own language. So when you can finally make yourself understood in a foreign language, it is a feat worth celebrating. With champagne and chocolate croissants.

Needless to say, I’m finally heeding Mom’s advice to “think before you speak!” (At least with French). It will take time, but actively practicing the language will pay off. Whether it’s on the metro, at the market, or in class, every day abroad brings opportunities to listen, think, speak, and even dream in your new language. I would encourage everyone to spend time living in another country. For foreign language acquisition, there really is no substitute for time spent abroad. It will change everything. And one day, you’ll be able to speak before you think.