Hanging up my Dictionaries

DictionaryI had first encountered foreign languages as a preschooler, watching TV, I guess. In retrospect, I don’t really know why it is that I “knew” English when I started learning it at school at 9 years of age: it was just kind of there…I have fond memories of my English teacher, though, and I still remember some of the lessons like they were yesterday: “I’m Bill. This is Jill. We’re friends. Hello, Jill!”, “It’s raining cats and dogs!” …and so on.

Still, because I had somehow gotten a grasp on English informally, effortlessly and without really noticing, it didn’t (and still doesn’t) fit very well into the usual categories: I consider it neither a foreign, nor a native language, but something in-between.

Now German – that’s a foreign language! I started learning a bit of German at the age of 10. I remember that I liked the smell and the green tones of the book’s pages…I remember the classroom in the north-western corner of my primary school in which I attended the lectures, where I had learned my first nouns and articles. But then the war started and it was no longer safe for me to travel to the other side of town to school, so I switched schools and lost the opportunity to continue learning German. A few years later, I was an eight-grader and it was time for the traditional class excursion. I didn’t like my class very much, though, and I had suggested to my mother to use the money to pay for a year of German classes instead. And so it was, and it was fun: the school, the language, the people, the teacher, the commute to the city centre…everything.

But it only lasted a year. A demanding grammar school and an equally challenging university later took their toll: there was simply not enough time for luxuries like foreign languages. However, by my third year at the university, I noticed that I more or less had my exams under control and that I could indulge in activities I liked more. It was Fall 2001 and I was starting to feel like my own man, living without family in another city, making a bit of my own money etc, when I decided the time was ripe to wipe the dust off of my dictionaries and give German a third go.

The first year was excellent, the second good, but the third year – with the new teacher – was abysmal. It doesn’t matter if the other students are motivated, disciplined and interesting (some were, some weren’t, of course), it doesn’t matter how much effort you put into it (could have given it a bit more, of course…) – none of that really matters when your sixth-semester teacher consistently arrives 10 minutes late, wraps up 5 minutes ahead of time and spends half an hour in between chatting about this and that in Croatian, rather than German. The group had 11 students at the beginning of the fifth semester and only 3 of us were stubborn enough to give her a second shot, but it was mostly a colossal waste of time.

So, after 3 years, the result was that 3 times I attempted to learn German and 3 times fell short of the mark. But something else also happened: my interest in languages was rekindled and would not let itself be ignored. After the last fiasco, I wouldn’t touch German for a while, so I considered the alternatives. Italian seemed to be an interesting choice: on the Adriatic coast (where I come from), Italian had a lot of influence, both in language and culture in general, it sounds nice, has a reputation for being relatively easy to learn and so on. So Italian it was.

Milana, the Italian teacher that would take me through all 7 semesters of Italian is as good a teacher, as she is an interesting person, but she was very inexperienced when she started. She enforced discipline which was great, but she would confuse attitudes appropriate for students with those for primary school pupils…causing situations the absurdity of which is a bit hard to describe. But very quickly she became a very good teacher and Italian turned out to be a lot of the things I had hoped it would be: interesting, a pleasure to hear, read and talk, a gateway into a country and a culture, it even shifted my world view bit. It was relatively easy to pick up, possibly because I grew up on the coast, but once one wants to speak it properly, it quickly picks up complexity and there’s a lot to master. The seventh semester was the last one available at the school and instead of being able to automatically sign up for the next semester, I was faced with another choice of what to do next.

I didn’t care at all for Spanish before, mostly because of the strong association with the shallow, never-ending TV soap operas that one could not hide from at the time. I wanted to learn Portuguese because it sounds beautiful, or Russian, because it’s the largest Slavic language and I’m curious about the culture and literature. I decided against those because the school only offered a few semesters of each, which was far from sufficient, yet I didn’t want to spend twice as much money in a different school. So I talked my self into getting over what was “pure prejudice” (easier said than done…) and decided to see how Spanish suits me.

Spanish is a wonderful language. Half a billion people speak it around the world, it is a native language in Europe and the Americas and like Italian (but even more so!), it is a pleasure to speak, read and listen to. It was basically impossible at first, trying to draw a clear line between it and Italian: I would get puzzled looks from my group after blurting out something in some mixture of the two languages…I still sometimes have to stop mid-sentence and think about a word to check on which of the two peninsulas it is used. That said, knowledge of Italian is a great way to immediately understand or intuit the meanings of a great many Spanish words, which is of significant help. I have had 3 very good teachers, Vesna, Martina and Kristina, I was a part of a fun group in which I made friends and I got a sense of the richness of this huge complex of American and European cultures, tied together with the Spanish language. And after 8 semesters, it was suddenly over – the school would not teach higher levels than that.

At that time, I felt my Spanish was great, my Italian was OK, but my German was awful. Rather than indulge in something new, I decided on giving German one more shot. After 3 effectively failed attempts, after not having used it much for 9 years, I decided to pick up the pieces and see how far I could push it. I was entitled to start at level 7, as I had graduated from level 6. I felt like it would be wonderful if I could keep up with level 4 lessons. I started at level 5, in part because I had a friend in the group, in part because everyone was saying the teacher leading the group – Ivana – was superb. They were right and I was lucky to have chosen her group.

After 9 years of neglect, the first semester was like trying to run with a foot fallen asleep: I had to put in a lot of effort just to be able to keep up with the lessons, but it paid off. There were still moments of frustration with a touch of despair – I’ve had those with Italian and Spanish, too: every time I was painfully reminded how deformed, irregular, needlessly complex and senseless natural languages are – but I mostly had it under control. For all those who have struggled with German, this is as good a moment to say it as any: it is difficult. Any spoken language is difficult, but a German sentence offers so many places to get something wrong in so many ways that anything other than simply moving to Germany to study the language sometimes seems hopeless. Anyway, by level 8, I had felt I wasn’t progressing very much, mostly because I was no longer putting in the necessary time to learn, but I also felt that I had a much more robust command of the language. That was also the point at which the already small group fell apart…and the school kind of wasn’t sure if it would open it doors in autumn…and I felt it was time to move on.


It would be interesting to learn Chinese because the culture is so different from my own and because of the rising importance of the country in the world. I would like to learn Japanese for many of the same reasons. Arabic sounds very interesting, as well. French seems to have horrible/intricate spelling rules, but it sounds beautiful and might come in handy with work…but after 13 years of studying languages without interruption, after getting to know 3 languages and their related cultures, after having decided to push on 3 times, after spending more money on languages than on my postgraduate studies tuition, I feel too stretched and am now hanging up my dictionaries. I had met some 50-100 people, some of them very interesting, fun, smart, nice and thought provoking. It was a wonderful ride.

There is a proverb: “The more languages you know, the more people you are worth.” It’s not true, but (depending on the languages one chooses) one is definitely enriched by the experience. There is another proverb: “Each subsequent language comes easier.” This one is true, but it’s misleading because not much about learning languages is easy. Reading El País or La Repubblica each day, seeing that people elsewhere have similar dreams, goals and problems we do in our little corner of the world, watching “Hanna Aredt” or “Oh Boy!” in German without translation, finishing reading my first novel in Spanish – these are hard earned, but wonderful experiences. I heartily recommend the same to anyone.


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