As the final bell rings at schools across the country, the mythic summer break begins. For many students, summer is simply a long vacation- a moment to take it easy and relax. For others, summer is a chance to get involved in activities which rigorous school schedules make impossible during the academic year, be that a summer job, travel, or a non-traditional class. Experiences lived out during the summer months can be catalytic, causing dramatic changes between the final bell of the year and the first one of the next. For the enthusiastic, the summer is an empty glass just waiting to be filled. Perhaps one of the most life-changing, yet relatively simple, experiences which we can have is to learn a new language over the summer months.
The excess of free time and relatively reduced amount of stress which characterize a typical summer break are the ideal conditions for learning a new language. A completely wide-open schedule permits participation in intensive full-immersion language programs which are more satisfying and exotic than any tropical vacation. In full-immersion, students enter into complete contact with the language of their choosing and discover its particular personality.
Language learning can also happen in situations where available time is not all day, every day. Even just a few hours a week of language study can make a difference. Learning Chinese is a process which can last years, but a modest introduction to the language opens students ears to new sounds and plants a seed which will eventually grow if given the proper care. When studied with curiosity, languages enter into our sub-conscious where a little bit of constant nurturing and encouragement will cause them to develop into strong, autonomous thought-processes.
There is an interesting paradox that goes along with learning a language: The more you learn, the more you can learn. In practical terms this means that when I have zero knowledge of a foreign language its sounds bounce right off of my ears and its words appear to my eyes like abstract art, and so in a way I am ignorant of the language’s very existence. Once I have even a minimum knowledge of the language, certain sounds and printed words register in my brain, and I become aware of the vast number of other sounds and words that I am unable to decipher. Once I have my foot in the door the world of a language begins to open before me- even if in the meantime my mind goes about other business. This process of learning never really ends, as those who have studied a foreign language for many years will attest- every new piece of knowledge is really just a bridge to many other new unexplored territories which previously were not even known to exist.
As the Chinese proverb says- the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Take the time this summer to make that important crucial first step with Chinese, or Russian, or French, or Arabic or any of the hundreds of languages which are out there waiting to be explored. You’ll be amazed at how the rest of the journey will unfold.