Difficulties learning a new language? C’est la vie (That is life)

Dear friends,

It’s been a crazy couple of weeks filled with excitement and anxiety so I’m sorry for not keeping in touch. Not only is it my first time in France, but it is also my first time ever outside of the States! Expecting a huge culture shock upon my arrival, I was surprised when I realized that this would not be the case.

Au contraire, my immersion into the French culture and language has been relatively smooth. While I cannot say that French has become “très bien,” I did pick up some simple greetings. However, it does not help that most of the friends that I’ve made here also speak Dutch, so I probably learned more Dutch than French.

I made a couple Belgian friends who have been kindly teaching me French (actually Dutch).

I made a couple Belgian friends who have been kindly teaching me French Dutch.

Just the other day, we attended the Belgium vs. France soccer game. While it was such a great experience, I had no idea what was going on half of the time because I couldn’t understand the language! Fans screamed “Allez les Bleus!” or “Waar is da feestj?” while I confusedly looked around until joined in on the indistinct chanting.

Dressing up for the festivities!

On our way to the stadium via RER B!

I knew picking up a new language would be difficult, but I thought that it would be a bit easier than it truly is because of the complete immersion factor.

Map of Stade de France

Map of Stade de France

Despite my constant pestering and asking of “what are they saying” or “how do I say this in French, I find it difficult to remember words or even make the correct sounds. For example, “Stade de France,” or the French Stadium,” is pronounced “stad du frans,” but I find myself struggling to make the “du” sound; I have to actively think about the pronunciation of each word and constantly break down each syllable to even hope that I say anything correctly.

Opening ceremony for the friendly game between Belgium and France

Opening ceremony for the friendly game between Belgium and France

Not surprisingly, the scientific literature behind my need to consciously think about what to say and my failure to quickly become proficient in this second language continuously grows. A recent study even found that specific areas of the brain activate in direct correlation to the amount of fluency in a second language (Shimada et al., 2015)! This study comprised of thirty Japanese-speaking adults with varying levels of spoken English proficiency. The researchers evaluated each individual’s proficiency level using the Versant English test, a short examination on language production and comprehension. The test contained simple tasks such as reading a sentence out loud or listening to a short story. During this examination, the participants laid inside an fMRI machine to determine their brain activation through measurements of blood flow.

Shimada et al. discovered that with higher fluency in this second language, activation of the left dorsal inferior frontal gyrus (dIFG) decreased and activation of the left posterior superior temporal gyrus (pSTF) increased. They also concluded that the decreased dIFG activity reflected the decreased need to consciously think about how to create grammatically correct sentences, and the increased pSTF activity reflected the increased ability to quickly process and understand spoken words. (If you got lost reading the extremely long names of those brain structures, I labeled the dIFG red and the pSTF orange!)

Dorsal inferior frontal gyrus (red) and posterior superior temporal gyrus (orange)

Dorsal inferior frontal gyrus (red) and posterior superior temporal gyrus (orange)

With this information, I am now wondering if it might be possible to induce those activation patterns in my brain to quickly become proficient in French! Maybe I should suggest this idea to the researchers for their next experiment! However, I feel as though I might be too scared to be a participant in such a novel study. Therefore, I am content with my traditional, but painstakingly slow, approach to learning French… for now.

Au revoir!
Phi

(P.S. I still cannot pronounce “au revoir” correctly…)

 

References

Shimada K, Hirotani M, Yokokawa H, Yoshida H, Makita K, Yamazaki-Murase
M, Tanabe HC, Sadato N (2015) Fluency-dependent cortical activation associated with speech production and comprehension in second language learners. Neuroscience.

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