When Foreign Becomes Natural

I’ve noticed something that has happened with my language learning, and I’m wondering if it’s happened to any other learners:

I’ve been learning German much, much longer than French. That being the case, I know a great deal more of German. The language has become increasingly transparent to me, and most of what I work on now is listening skills and vocabulary acquisition. In the case of many of the words I learn, I have a good idea of what they mean before I look them up, quite often due to them being related to words I already know. In other words, the more German I’ve learned, the less exotic it’s become.

French, on the other hand, while I’m becoming increasingly more familiar with it via Assimil, is still quite exotic. There’s so much about the grammar that I don’t know; there’s so many basic words I don’t know. I’ve definitely left the shore, but I’ve not yet explored much of the ocean, so to say. I’m not implying that I’ve explored all of the German ocean – that would be absurd – but I’ve charted a great deal of it. With the “French ocean”, I’ve explored very little, relatively speaking.

The result of this is that I find myself clamoring to spend more time in the French ocean than in the German. I like to devote a bit of time each day to both languages, but I get more of a thrill (for lack of a better word) during my French studies. My German studies have become mundane, in a way; not boring, by any means, but different than they used to be. For example, reading a German news article, while such an act used to feel like “language learning”, now generally feels like I’m just reading the news. I note the words I don’t know and look them up, but other than that, I don’t even really have to think about it. I read the news in German like I would in English.

Has anyone else experienced this? Have you had a language lose a bit of its initial charms after having learned a lot of it?

By |2008-08-21T07:39:13+00:00August 21st, 2008|All Entries, Language Learning|14 Comments


  1. Ayumu August 21, 2008 at 8:35 am - Reply

    Yes, I experienced it learning English (I’m Italian). Now I can read almost everything in English without using a dictionary. The language is completely transparent to me now and, even if my writing skills (production in general) and listening skills are not so good, reading is now much like reading Italian.

    What I consider wonderful is the fact I’m not good at translating English in Italian. I understand perfectly what is written in English but I’m in trouble when I should choose the Italian wording. I suppose that’s because far ago I quit using the bilingual dictionary, so now I understand the meaning of words like a native would.

    The reason my listening isn’t good is I never listened much (native level) English. I learned English just reading it, guessing the meaning of words because I was lazy, doing really little effort in learning grammar the traditional way.

    I can’t wait to see this phenomenon happen to my Japanese. This time I’m doing much more listening…

  2. Joshua J. Slone August 21, 2008 at 9:38 am - Reply

    I can’t say it’s happened with languages, but I think this “knowledge wanderlust” could apply to a lot of other things. Learning something all-new can be quite more appealing than squeezing out that last 20% of the previous thing.

  3. Ramses August 21, 2008 at 10:17 am - Reply

    At first, yes. I was able to understand almost everything in Spanish and it didn’t sound foreign to me. At that point, I wanted to study something else, something new. But instead, I kept doing Spanish all the time, whole day long. Not a single day without a massive amount of Spanish (let’s day more Spanish than Dutch and English together per day).

    At this moment I regained the thrill when I hear Spanish, read Spanish, speak Spanish. Why? Because I’ve become close to fluency, and I want to push through to fluency. But to see what I’ve achieved so far really gives a great thrill. My tip for you: hang in there, both with French AND German. But give the special attention to German like you were used to. In the end you’ll look back, see what you’ve achieved, and feel a great thrill.

  4. Trym August 21, 2008 at 10:56 am - Reply

    Just the same happened with me and english (I am Norwegian) and I hope that the same will happend to my japanese some day, so I can start taking on even another language.

  5. Camilla August 21, 2008 at 6:11 pm - Reply

    I share this completely! I am struggling with this in my Russian studies at the moment. The first stages of learning Russian were so fantastically exciting, because in just two days i knew a completely different alphabet and could decipher these alien symbols. In a few more days i knew some basic sentences and could construct rudimentary grammar. And from there on, things start to just be expansion, rather than unique discovery.
    I re-excite myself by checking way way forward in my Russian book and looking through the pages and pages of words that i will soon be able to translate. So far that is getting me through my current plateau, and i can certainly not at the hardest stage where you currently are!

    I don’t know about you though, but i always find that i need something to be very challenging for it to get my attention. If something doesn’t push me, it doesn’t interest me. So the difficult stages where a language is completely alien are the ones that appeal to me. But like Ramses, i think i will get a great thrill from approaching fluency, and hopefully i can use that incentive to keep me going. Hope you can too!

    Also true what Ramses said about a language no longer sounding foreign and unique once you’ve become comfortable with it. The thing that attracts me about communicating using unfamiliar methods is that it just sounds SO AWESOME! Some of that may be lost as i learn, but despite my increased comfort with basic (and still very simplistic and limited) Norwegian conversion i still love the sound of it and love using it. So i hope that as i learn to fluency with these languages, i’ll learn new ways to enjoy them and spur myself on.

    Excellent topic, very glad to hear others experiencing the same difficulties with motivation! 🙂

  6. Justin August 21, 2008 at 8:43 pm - Reply

    I think there is definitely an inverse relationship of some sort between percent understood with a low cognitive load AND perception of the language being exotic. If I /read/ for a few hours in Chinese I can get lost in the story and forget that the characters I’m reading /stain/ everything with a Chinese flavor. It’s a wonderful feeling—cause I think every native of his own tongue has the perception that his own language is THE ‘neutral’ way of saying things which has no foreign flavor, and any other language he hasn’t absolutely mastered has a distinctive exotic/foreign flavor. The problem now is listening—if I watch say a US movie dubbed with Chinese audio, I can’t help but feel totally distracted and annoyed like “these are American characters, how can they have a Chinese flavor to their speech, it’s so weird!”. Actually the exact opposite—Chinese movie English dubbed—wouldn’t give me that feel, so I believe this just means my Chinese listening has a long way to go.

  7. Hans Henrik Juhl August 24, 2008 at 12:21 am - Reply

    I code-switch between Danish and English without noticing and written English is almost more natural to me than written Danish in some contexts. It’s been many years since I stopped considering myself an English-learner or perhaps even an EFL-speaker. I my daily life, I use English almost as much as (and on some days even more than) Danish. I know a lot of people who feel the same way about English as I do – it’s especially pronounced with the people I study with. We’re almost exclusively taught in English and textbooks in Danish on linguistics are quite rare. For that reason, there are a lot of native Danish speakers, who wouldn’t be comfortable writing an academic paper in any other language but English.
    I read German fluently aswell, though that sometimes requires an effort on my behalf.

  8. GeoffB August 24, 2008 at 1:57 am - Reply

    After grad school, I pretty much gave up on studying French. I’ve been listening to FrenchPod lately, but it’s the first time I’ve studied French in years. Mostly I speak and read it when the occasion arises, but every book or CD to study I’ve bought in recent memory has just gathered dust – it’s silly to study a language I know, or at least know well enough for what I use it for.

    For a long time, French was just a language I happened to know – pretty funny considering that I spent four years of high school, four years of college and five years of grad school into it – but I’ve gotten back into it because it’s the “home language” for most of my Assimil books. Perhaps it’s time for you to get Französich ohne MĂĽhe or Französich in der Praxis. When you stop studying a language and start using it to study other languages, you very quickly get an idea where you’ve got some gaps to work on as well as getting a clearer picture of what it really means to think in your second language!

  9. Jessica Sztaimberg August 25, 2008 at 2:33 pm - Reply

    This is quite an interesting topic. I agree with you in that after awhile reading in your target language does almost become second nature, with a few words here and there that you don’t know offhand, but which you can make a guess as to what they mean (which I also circle, and come back to later).

    However, I find this to be the one of the most exciting parts of my language learning. I actually enjoy breezing through paragraphs of Spanish, without stopping word after word. Once I got through my first Spanish reader I was very happy with myself, and it enticed me to keep reading in Spanish. I took a break (a few months) from practicing, and I can tell you that I have lost a good amount of the vocabulary that was fresh in my head from all my studying.

    I recommend continuing on, more and more with your German studying, so that you can reach an outstanding level of German. It’s great that you have no problem understanding what you are reading, but if you aren’t enjoying it, maybe you can find a different way to study.

    Good luck! 🙂

  10. Judy Jenner September 5, 2008 at 1:16 am - Reply

    I think this is a very interesting subject. I am never quite sure where my language learning begins and ends. As a native speaker of the (complex) German language, I am quite impressed that you are getting so comfortable in the language so quickly!

    Even though I have been in the United States for 13 years, I try to learn a new word or a new expression every day, especially idioms, which for me (along with humor) are a sort of “last frontier” of the language. It’s quite fascinating to me, and it keeps my language ocean full of fresh fish to catch, so to say.

    I really like your blog, congrats on making it onto the Top 100 Language Blogs. Alles Gute!

  11. Emily Speed November 4, 2008 at 3:19 am - Reply

    I know exactly what you’re talking about! I learned French for about 5 years before I started learning Spanish, and learning French became more mundane after picking up some Spanish. Spanish is much more exotic to me because it’s much less familiar than French. But I think it was easier for me to learn Spanish after learning French then for you to learn French after German. Luckily, French and Spanish are pretty similar being romantic languages and such, but on the other hand it’s easy to confuse the two languages because they’re so strikingly similar.

    Good luck with learning French, I need to start learning German!

  12. Yunus November 17, 2008 at 6:29 am - Reply

    I think in this case you might try to read German Classics. Now it is the time to shift your objective from learning German to have some journey in German Literature. I think sometimes we forget why we learn foreign languages. Once you heve learned it you should get deeper to feel it just like a native speaker feels. Can you live in a German world? I mean try not to use your native language and try to understand the world with German Language’s limits. Can you do that?
    You dont know what German ocean is you just made a small journey to pass the ocean.

  13. Akpierce September 6, 2010 at 6:10 am - Reply

    I am bored to tears with Chinese!!!! Just around the bend is an advanced Chinese proficiency exam …..I should be studying. I should be preparing. The problem? My current Chinese level is completely sufficient to live in the city i live in….. it regularly conjure looks of admiration and respect from my students and colleagues. I rattle off Chinese sentences with such ease that on occasion people will sincerely question whether I am a foreigner or a Chinese ethnic mintority (despite my blonde hair and blue eyes and obvious german/irish features). But…. my level is not up to the chinese proficiency exam level… and …. I am bored to tears with it. I have moved on to French recently which I explore like a wide-eyed child, clinging to each new meager acheivement in the langauge with joy…. new words are dangling ornaments hung on my quest to master French tree…. while …. a new chinese word… it gets stuffed into the old truck that moths fly out of when opened.

    The thing is,… this is not new. I have felt this way for half a year at least, maybe more. I only recently started french though. Does anyone on here besides me reach a level and then find further progression mind-numbingly boring? I prefer to get an old toothbrush and scrub the grout in my bathroom tiles with bleach than open a chinese instructional book. What gives?

    • Josh September 6, 2010 at 8:59 am - Reply

      Hi Akpierce,

      Here’s a snippet from one of my other posts which I think might relate to what you’re saying:

      If you think of learning a language as building a mountain, it’s easy to see how things change as you go along. Once the mountain is a hundred feet or a thousand feet in the air, adding a few more pebbles feels almost pointless; you want to be able to add another hundred feet, and you want to do it fast. Similarly, when you’ve learned 10,000 words, adding another 10 seems almost futile; it doesn’t give quite the same feeling as learning your first 10 words in the language.

      I’ve had very similar experiences to you, every time I’ve added another language to my list in fact. New languages are completely new, and spending so much as a few minutes studying will often yield all sorts of surprises; 15 or 30 minutes, and you can feel like you’ve learned a lot. Working on a language you’ve been learning for some time can be different, in that you can spend 15 or 30 minutes on it and end up only picking up a few new words, or a rather rare grammar point.

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