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How Learning a Language Taught Me Valuable Life Lessons

The initial idea-or rather, revelation surrounding this blog post came before I ever lived abroad. Being an On-Site Ambassador here in Paris definitely helped strengthen these ideas, but ultimately, I believe everyone has had a few of these thoughts while learning a language, regardless if they've lived abroad or not. Learning a language has taught me much more than just, well, learning a language. Living abroad can teach you a lot about yourself, but you might also find these equally prolific understandings by simply studying a language.

1. Active Listening

One of the hardest things about my language proficiency is the fact that I'm much better at listening than I am with actually speaking. And because of this, I've realized that when speaking English, I have a tendency to be more focused on my point and my argument than really listening to the other person's statements before interjecting my own. Not only that, but in a world with so many visual distractions, we don't always give someone our full attention; when our visual perception becomes absorbed, our auditory functions tend to fall short, that's just basic human nature.

But with language learning, it's important to actively listen to someone when they're speaking so as to fully understand what they're saying. This also means that all distractions and random side thoughts are put on the back burner while the other person is speaking.

Listen with the intent to understand, rather than reply.

 A boat tour on the Seine reveals one of the most photographed monuments in the world: The Eiffel Tower

2. Know when to ask for help

This is likely a no-brainer for most. You have a problem, you ask for help - we all learned this is elementary school. But for someone who is in their early twenties, fiercely stubborn and of Irish decent, I can't ask for help. I just can't.

But when learning a language, this concept is so important because you will have questions and you will need help. Learning a new language has taught me that asking for help is not a bad thing. In fact, it shows that you're committed to learning the idiosyncrasies of the language; knowing if your pronunciation is correct, if the statement you're trying to say makes sense or even just repeating back what someone said to you to make you fully understood. These are all ways to show you're an engaged learner.

3. When all else fails, laugh it off

When you know a group of Francophones are talking about you and your friends but you don't quite know what they're saying. When you're trying to pronounce a word, but say a completely different, incredibly vulgar word instead. When you've forgotten you had to present in front of your entire French class and thus, have to make up an entire presentation off the top of your head en francais. Learn from it, laugh it off, and move one.

 A street-side vendor carefully cooks a paper-thin crepe, with Nutella of course!

4. Be comfortable with being uncomfortable

This relates back to asking for help. If you want to continue to grow, you need to take risks and ultimately, make mistakes. For the first few years of learning French, I often didn't speak because I wasn't confident enough in my ability to be wrong. I'm the type of person who needs to be right all the time (thanks again, Irish heritage), so I would often keep my mouth shut as opposed to potentially saying something that might be wrong, but also might be right.

Even after learning French for four years and living in France twice, I still know that I might be making a few mistakes here and there. But at least I'm trying.

The more you push your boundaries, the more confident you'll become.

5. Walking away is not the same as quitting

During my senior year of college, I was in a 400-level French gramma r course and was failing miserably at it. Evidently, I had to drop the class, meaning I would receive a "W" (Withdrawal) on my college transcript. I felt like a failure. I remember thinking, "How can I love something so much but be so bad at it?" It didn't make sense.

I still continued to keep up with my French even after dropping the class, and through that process, realized that just because I decided to walk away from the class doesn't necessarily mean I had failed. I just needed to look at the situation in a new light. I love listening to French music and watching French cinema, but maybe French in an academic setting just wasn't for me, and that's totally fine.

It's not a failure if you still continue to try.

Amy Johnson is a CEA Paris alumna (Spring ’14), recent grad from The University of Arizona (Spring'15), and is currently a CEA Alumni On-Site Ambassador in Paris, France.

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