It will take you one year of study to understand this sentence. Edward Cai/ The Medium

Language is a harsh mistress. She totes a bullwhip, handcuffs, and a gimp mask, and has no safety word. We spend all our infant years learning how to use our native language, and trying to cram a new one into your brain can be as painful as trying to jam a fifth edition Integrated Chinese textbook up your nose. Don’t try that, by the way (even one page at a time).

I’ve studied two languages during my time at UTM. I had no experience with either before my first day of class. For me, the first one ended up being an exercise in masochism—hence my “harsh mistress” comment. The second was a lot more fun, and I got a lot more out of it, partly because of my experiences nearly failing my first one.

Looking back, I realized some important points to keep in mind when trying to learn a new language in university, and these thoughts helped me adjust my expectations, or at the very least not fail my courses. Here are four things I wish I knew before starting my first language classes:

It’s hard

No doubt about it. Unless you’re some linguistically gifted freak, a 100-level intro course is going to feel like your brain is getting ripped apart. If I remember correctly from my linguistics classes, the grammar parts of the brain slow down after the age of 14. If you’re 18 when you start university, you’re trying to use a part of your brain that hasn’t worked for at least four years. That’s like trying to do the splits after spending a lifetime with your feet tied together. And that’s just the grammar. There are new vocabularies to memorize as well as phrases and idioms to understand. For every hour you spend in class you’ll need to spend at least three practising. It won’t help to just do your homework, either.

You’ll need to go out of your way and practise just for the sake of practising. Do you think all that work will get boring? Well…

Change your study routine to keep it from getting boring

Obviously something about learning a new language excites you. That’s the reason you’re taking it—barring parental interference, the shame of monolingualism, or some bizarre involvement from a mafia extorting you to learn a foreign tongue. But, just like working out, once you nail the fundamentals of a language you can vary your approaches to keep your new vocabularies memorable. Try drawing comics, writing poetry, or going to Wikipedia to read up on their profanity. Anything that breaks the monotony of rote memorization will help keep you motivated.

You probably don’t understand English… this is a problem

Quick, spot every attributive verb in this article. If you can’t do it in English—understandable, by the way—then how the hell can you expect to do it in a language you’ve been learning for less than a month?  Textbooks on foreign languages can only explain their grammatical structures using terms from our own grammar. Not knowing how adjectives really work in English can hurt you when you have to learn how they work in, say, Italian. We obey English grammar naturally, and since many of us ignored the one week of grammar class back in high school English, you’ll need to brush up on your subject-verb-object to help solidify your understanding.

Nobody becomes fluent at university alone

After my courses, I’ve learned some basic phrases and sentence structures; I can even write a limited amount of exposition. But when the imam is speaking Arabic at the pulpit on Fridays, I’m not getting anything out of it, and when the Chinese waitresses at Pheonix restaurant talk over my head in Mandarin, I’m not sure if they’re talking about the weather or making insulting remarks about my haircut. But that’s okay. I’m going to keep trying, and I’m going to enjoy the process. Fluency, or even a working knowledge, is a long road—but worth it.

This list may seem like a bit of a downer, but it really isn’t as bad as you think. Languages are fascinating, and with hard work you’ll hopefully learn enough to use your favourite one. I’m working toward that goal right now. Hopefully this list will be practical to you as well, and make Lady Language’s riding crop a little less painful.

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