One Word at a Time: Lessons from My Multilingual Adventures

By Emily Apuzzo Hopkins | 25 October 2023

Whether we fully realize it or not, we are ALL language learners. From birth, we are taking in our surroundings through visual and aural contexts – not yet able to express ourselves through much more than coos and cries.

Month by month, those sweet – and sometimes not-so-sweet sounds! – transition into syllables and eventually real words that hold understandable meaning. The years go on and we become full-fledged speakers and readers of our native language.

There are a few lucky souls who are exposed to multiple languages simultaneously from the beginning and for people like me learning new languages later in life, your experience is enviable!

My journey to learning a new language is certainly not unique. As a youngster, I shared my intent to study abroad in Italy – learning more about the heritage and culture of my paternal ancestors. I knew this was what I wanted to do and I knew one thing that would help me achieve this experience was to study the language. However, I ran into a small problem in my school system – Italian was not available. But, I started where I could.

In 8th grade, the only language available was French. And I thought, “Great! A romance language… this will bring me one step closer!”

In high school, the choices expanded – French, German, Latin, and Spanish were now on the menu. I completed 3 years of Spanish and was pleased to create a firmer foundation in another romance language. My high school later went on to offer Italian, but unfortunately, I never got to study it there.

Fast forward to college and even more options began to present themselves. Once I got settled into my major and other coursework, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that as a voice major and singer of opera, I was required to immerse myself in the language course offerings! I went on to take two semesters in German and one in French, and finally, I threw myself into the Italian language I had been longing for.

During my Italian classes, I definitely had a handful of Spanish vocabulary words slip into the mix and for some reason, German as well. I always joked that my brain had two modes – 1) English and 2) all of the other languages I have ever studied.

It did not take long for me to realize that I wanted way more than the 2 required semesters of Italian – I wanted to take every course I could possibly take! Ahead of my study abroad experience in Firenze, I had 4 semesters of Italian under my belt and was well on my way to earning a minor.

Arriving in Italy was a dream come true and within days, I was stepping into the Istituto Lorenzo de’​ Medici to test for my Italian course placement. While not fluent, I managed to get placed into the Advanced course.

On the way to my new home, I was on cloud nine as I thought about all of the language learning I had done over the years to get there. And almost immediately, I was putting my “advanced” Italian into practice when a restaurateur stopped me for a quick conversation. I held my own, and continued to hold my own throughout the semester I spent there.

My Advanced Italian class was, in fact, advanced… imagine that! We spoke only in Italian during the lessons and even had to read a novel in Italian and deliver a fully written report and oral presentation about the books to close out the course. It was intense. But like a baby learning a language for the first time, I was immersed and surrounded by people willing to throw a lifeline my way when they were able.

Nearly 20 years after this experience, I find myself doing what I can to keep up with the language via Italian TV, podcasts, and games. I have also refreshed some of my Spanish vocabulary and grammar to communicate with our Spanish teachers in Colombia and even added some key Mandarin phrases to my repertoire to connect with our Chinese teammates. French and German still wiggle their way back into my world – having just visited friends in Montréal and now studying the score of Mozart’s “Die Zauberflöte”.

My life in languages continues and every day I am reminded of why I love language.

In my conversations with partner schools, they know how important language learning is as well. As we prepare students for their futures, we are equipping them for journeys much like my own and beyond. We are piquing their curiosity to learn a language and all of the cultures associated with it – opening a number of doorways and windows for them to fly through.

Multilingualism is a superpower in the 21st-century business world and a meaningful way to connect with people. Everyone’s language-learning journey will be unique to them and make for interesting conversations out in the world!

So now, it’s your turn – here are my tips on how to get started on YOUR language learning journey.

  • Be Curious – For me, it all started because of a personal connection to the Italian culture, but it doesn’t have to look like that. It can be for any reason at all that you choose to learn a new language. Allowing space for curiosity will help you get started.
  • Accept the Stumbles – Just like when you were little, you probably pronounced a few words funny and had some very inventive spellings every now and again. That is okay for any new languages you pick up as well. It is expected. And as a recovering perfectionist, I get it – we have high expectations for ourselves. But some of the best learning comes from our stumbles. Let it happen and you will refine your language skills along the way.
  • Advocate for the Cause – Whether you are an educator, student, or parent, ask around to see how you can support world language learning at your school or in your community. Mountains of research show the benefits of language learning. Shout it from the rooftops so people in power see the interest and make it accessible.

Do you have your own language-learning stories to tell? We’re all ears!

Emily is the Client Solutions Manager for Meg’s US and UK markets and is based in Nashville, TN. Prior to moving into the world of EdTech, Emily spent 11 years in the classroom, teaching both music and Social Studies. Her experience ranges from early childhood education to adult professional learning. An eternal learner herself, Emily enjoys making connections through education in an effort to better understand others and the world we live in. Connect with her on LinkedIn or Twitter: @fromstagetosage.

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