Happy the man who, like Ulysses,
Has made a fine voyage,
Or has won the Golden Fleece,
And then returns, experienced and knowledgeable,
To spend the rest of his life among his family!
– Joachim du Bellay (1522-1560), French poet
Language learning is a form of travel, a journey of discovery. I started traveling when I was very young and have always found travel stimulating. A true linguist needs to be adventurous and to overcome the fear of the unknown. To illustrate this, let me tell you my story.
I was born in Sweden in 1945 and emigrated to Montreal, Canada as a five year old with my parents and older brother Tom. My memories begin in Canada. I have no recollection of having spoken any language other than English as a child, although I know that I spoke Swedish first. It is possible that having to learn a second language as a child helped me to become a better language learner as an adult. However, I know other people who emigrated
to Canada as children and did not become linguists. I also know people who were born in Canada and grew up only in English but have become excellent linguists. I attribute my success in language learning to a spirit of adventure and a willingness to study with a great deal of intensity. I believe others can do the same if they are prepared to embark on the exciting journey of language discovery.
One of my earliest memories of Montreal is an incident in 1952. A group of us six-year-olds had a favorite hiding place for our baseball bat. After school we always retrieved the bat and played baseball. One day the bat was gone. Immediately we deduced that it was the new boy from Estonia who had stolen the bat. It was obvious to us that it was him. He did not speak English well. He was the outsider. The only problem was that he had not taken the bat. He probably did not even know what a baseball bat was used for. In the end it was all settled amicably. I guess that I, after one year in Canada, was already accepted into the in group. Thereafter the boy from Estonia was too. This incident has always remained with me as an example of how people can unthinkingly stick together and resist the participation of an outsider.
But acceptance is a two way street. Insiders may initially resist a newcomer, but it is also up to the outsider to be adventurous and make the effort to be accepted. In most cases, when I have overcome my apprehensions and made the effort to be accepted by a different language group, the response has been more welcoming than I could have imagined. I think there are far more examples of newcomers hesitating or not making the effort to join and thereby losing opportunities, than of newcomers being rejected. A language learner is by definition an outsider, coming from a different language group. You must take risks in order to be accepted. This is a major principle of language learning: be adventurous. It worked for me, and French was my first language adventure.