To celebrate our recent launch, we spoke to five college students from Montreal, Canada to tell us their stories in learning a second or third language.

Ange speaks English, French, and Mandarin

What is the story of your journey learning French?

When I was little, my parents were always quite busy working. Since I was born in Montreal and went to French school, I picked up French more easily than I did Mandarin, which, of course, put me and my parents in a strange situation; their French was bad, my Mandarin was bad, and we couldn’t quite communicate in a straightforward manner. That’s why they sent me to English camp for four summers in a row, during which I slowly (and painfully) learned English. My father had once been an English to Mandarin translator and had also gotten a Master’s at a Hawaiian University. My mother also spoke English better than she did French. From that point on, I was able to speak with my parents with more clarity.

What was your biggest hurdle?

The beginning was hard, really hard. I didn’t know what the words “forward”, “left” or “right” meant. All the other camp kids were exasperated with me. Somehow I got through that and went on to excel in my English classes as a teen, earning a few prizes here and there for my linguistic skills. It was really just a matter of time, and once I  got into an English-speaking environment where I was forced to adopt the language, the learning process really accelerated itself.

Why do you think speaking a second language is important? How is it significant to you?

I mean, I could be biased because I’ve always loved languages and literature, and one of my dreams is to be a full-on polyglot (French, English, Spanish, Mandarin). There’s a certain pleasure that comes from being able to switch so smoothly from one language to the next, and to notice the little intricacies and peculiarities that each of them possess. In the context of literature, reading an author in two languages and seeing the difference in style and grammar gives a whole other dimension to the book. Even when I talk, it seems like my personality changes from one language to the next. Speaking a second, third or even fourth language is important because it reminds you of how small you are in this big bright world filled with people you’ve yet to meet. It humbles you, and it mystifies and delights you in so many ways that, ironically, I can’t quite put it into words. Maybe if you ask me in French, I’d have a totally different answer.

Maria speaks both English and Spanish

Why did you make the decision to learn a foreign language?

I learned a foreign language to be able to communicate more freely with others, and to be able to understand other people’s cultures, their experiences, where they come from, and just to be able to connect with other humans.

What has been your biggest hurdle in learning Spanish?

The biggest hurdle in learning it was avoiding using my own language to communicate with others when I was speaking or reverting back to words that I knew from my own language to express myself. Another hurdle was the grammar and writing of the language, all the rules attached to a language, the frustrations also in speaking, and not being able to articulate what you want to say to someone, or your words being misconstrued. Misunderstanding the language barriers or just not being able to articulate fully what you mean to say when it’s not in your native tongue, even though these things are thrown at you. Communicate more, even though it’s a slow process and at first it can be really difficult to be able to say what you want to say.

Why do you think speaking a second language is important? How is it significant to you?

Speaking a second language is extremely important, to me at least, because it helps me communicate with others, it helps me understand more people and help more people, even in communication sometimes we can’t understand each other at times. It changes your perspective. So once you speak a second language or are learning more than two languages, you start to understand the process of what it means to learn and how difficult and slow a process it can be. You start to realize what you can do to help people in situations where they’re trying to learn, whether they’re speaking slowly or speaking with a certain articulation to help them or using certain words that are similar to their native tongue. For me it was my personal heritage, my Hispanic heritage, and it makes me really proud of who I am in the culture, every time I speak language I feel connected and related to my heritage and who I am.

Jules speaks French, English, and Korean

How did you start learning Korean? What got you interested?

I took an interest to Korean culture after watching a handful of Korean movies that had done well in the festival circuit a couple years ago. I started reading more about the country and eventually when I decided that I wanted to take a trip there, learning the language ahead of my trip felt like a necessity to me and so I did. Through my studying of the language I then got to learn more about the culture itself, so that when I finally got to Korea two years later (and again the next year), I felt like I could connect with locals more easily and experience their culture in a more intimate way, which ultimately enriched my journey significantly. As an outsider to that culture, I feel like learning Korean ultimately brought me closer to the people that I met during my journey as opposed to if I didn’t know the language, and I was able to strike lasting friendships and mentorship relationships.

What was your biggest hurdle?

Personally, I realized that I can only make so much progress in a language that I’m learning unless I’m immersed in an environment where that language is commonly used. Considering that I only visited Korea two years after I first took to learning the language, it wasn’t until I actually got there that I was able to attain some degree of fluency. The lack of practice opportunities beforehand definitely slowed me down in the learning process and my ability to speak Korean has decreased in the last two years, for I haven’t been able to visit again since.

Why do you think speaking a second language is important? How is it significant to you?

Through language one gains access to a culture and to its social system. In the case of Korean language, for instance, the many different levels of speech reflect the highly hierarchical aspect of traditional Korean culture. In English, a sentence spoken to a child will barely change when spoken to an elderly person. In Korean, however, they will be almost unrecognizable as the same to a first timer. To learn a language always amount to getting one step closer to a new culture, not only because it grants communication abilities but foremost because it provides insight into the psyche of a people and gives considerable hint as to how a given culture approaches different aspects of life. If anything, learning a new language, especially one that’s culturally far from one’s mother tongue, broadens the mind and offers new ways of thinking about the world. To learn a language always amounts to getting one step closer to a new culture; it broadens the mind and offers new ways of thinking about the world.

Maria speaks English, French, and Spanish

When did you start to learn French?

I learned French when I immigrated to Canada 12 years ago. I had a few lessons back in Colombia, but barely enough to introduce myself and say that my favorite color was “bleu”.

What was your biggest hurdle?

I got bullied as a kid because I didn’t speak the language, so I learned really fast. It took a couple of years before I stopped getting laughed at for my pronunciation. Now I still catch myself mispronouncing words in  English (or in Spanish, ironically).

Why do you think speaking a second language is important? How is it significant to you?

I got to discover a whole new world and understand another perspective through my second language. It also opened the door to so many opportunities.

Varun speaks Hindi, English, and French

What has been your biggest hurdle in learning the three languages you speak?

Let’s say that the biggest hurdle was being consistent in my practice and finding the right balance between acquiring new material and mastering what you already know.

Why do you think speaking a second language is important? How is it significant to you?

Learning a second language is vital, not only does it connect you with another culture but it offers a new vocabulary by which to perceive and understand the world around you.

📸 All of the headshots on this page were taken by Conor Nickerson, a photographer from Montréal, Canada.