Things I discovered while learning a second language (that no one had warned me about)

I began using English on a daily basis around 7 years ago, when I moved to the UK to do my PhD. Before then, my written English was passable but my oral skills were quite basic. Living and working in London has definitely been the best way to improve, but I wouldn’t call it a smooth or pain-free experience.

In this post I want to share the learnings I drew from it: for people who never learned a second language, so they know what it is like, and for people who have, whose experience I am sure is similar but not 100% the same. It’s a very personal journey after all.

  1. At first, it’s demoralising. The sophistication I had finally achieved in my mother tongue (and that I was so proud of) was suddenly useless. I was back to square one, a mostly mute child in a world full of fluent and witty grownups.
  2. Losing the ability to use humour is particularly painful. I have never been a big talker, even in Italian, but I had always felt that my sense of humour was there to compensate – and to make me an interesting person despite my few words. All of it was lost when English became my day-to-day language. My conciseness was no longer witty, just rudimentary.
  3. Things obviously get better with time, although not all in the same way. While your listening keeps improving virtually forever, your speaking skills (especially pronunciation) quickly reach a plateau. After that, improving is still possible but requires an effort that I am rarely willing to make (especially because I’m fluent enough to make myself understood most of the time). But it is frustrating. There are sounds in the English language that I have given up trying to reproduce, and expressions that I “know” but that always escape me when I speak.
  4. You can’t hear your accent. It’s not like I hear a British accent when I hear myself speaking English. But somehow I hear a plain sound, with no distinctive feature. The same thing happens when I listen to other Italians speaking English. Everyone else is immediately able to tell they’re Italians, I am not. There is always a surprising asymmetry between the image you have of yourself and the image others have of you: speaking a second language reveals how deep this difference can be.
  5. Your mother tongue is soaked with an emotional legacy that goes back to your childhood, in a way that a second language isn’t. Being praised in your mother tongue is more pleasant, and being insulted is more offensive. The second language has a more objective, almost technical vibe – after all, you learned it as an emotionally balanced adult trying to convey practical information. The downside is it can feel colder. The upside, however, more than compensates the downside: your second language is a land of new opportunities, of new emotional meanings that you can freely decide to associate to words and expressions, in a way that your mother tongue will never let you.
  6. This is not to say that English doesn’t already evoke memories to me. But they are of a very different quality from my mother tongue’s. What I found is that you’ll often remember words along with the context in which you learned them for the first time. Those initial, “eureka” moments. When I say “wobbly“, I remember a bar in Boston where I asked my friend John what word he would use to describe our unsteady table; I learned the meaning of “belly” reading a book on Greek mythology, on a flight back from Crete (Zeus was releasing his siblings from Cronus’ belly); I looked up the expression “but then again” while watching “Kill Bill”, when Budd tells his brother they deserve to die. I’ll take those images with me forever. The examples are countless.
  7. In mildly noisy places your ability to listen drops to zero very quickly, no matter how familiar you are with the language. You would expect to go through a grey area first, where you can understand 50% of what people are telling you, but that’s not the case. You simply lack the ability that native speakers have of reconstructing the meaning of a sentence from few sounds. It looks like each sound is crucial to reconstruct a sentence in which no piece can be taken for granted.
  8. You’ll forever lose some phrases in your mother tongue that have no equivalent in the second language. The sooner you get over it and find some kind of surrogate, the better. To me, such Italian phrases include “Buon lavoro”, “Boh”, “magari“.
  9. On the other hand, you gain some handy, short expressions that your mother tongue doesn’t have. Some of them are so convenient that I often find myself trying to use them in Italian, with comical effects.
  10. At the end of the day, learning a new language is a humbling experience that makes you a better person. Personally, the frustration of the first years taught me to take myself less seriously and worry less about what other people think. I am definitely more confident and less shy than I would be if I had never seriously learnt a second language. Being forced to go back to square one, a mute child in a world of witty grownups, is painful but refreshing.

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