Foreign language progress: French, German, Spanish

Paris, Gare du Nord, June 2017. I miss crowded places.

To take my mind off the news, I’ve been delving back into learning new languages and brushing up on old ones. Below, I run through a brief history of the various languages I’ve studied to date.

Native languages

English is my first language. I also have bilingual fluency in Mandarin Chinese and can read and speak like a native, but my writing ability is a bit weaker. I can compose a blog post in Chinese about what it’s like to live in Geneva, but I wouldn’t be able to write, say, a college paper on international development without relying heavily on a dictionary.


I began studying Spanish in middle school and continued until my freshman year of college. We had the option to choose between Spanish or French, and I’m very glad I chose Spanish because it’s been immensely useful to me both personally and professionally. I did my master’s thesis on Colombia and was able to travel there for a week of research, which was absolutely amazing. And at my previous job working in civil society, I was able to interface with a lot of indigenous leaders from Latin America and also picked up a lot of unique vocabulary words related to our niche field of work.

However! My Spanish abilities have deteriorated drastically in the last year due to lack of use. Today I took an online placement test and was surprised/disappointed to learn that I was just shy of B1; I’d thought I’d be at B2!

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I think I probably was at B2, back when I peaked in college, but it’s clear I’ve since forgotten how to conjugate a lot of the irregular verbs. Spanish verbs are a torment.

I’ve found an online language tutor — from Colombia, because to my ears they have the clearest accent — to practice speaking with me once a week. My goal is to be able to get up to near C1 by the end of this year. And then I would like to go to Spain and do some real-life practice, whenever it reopens to tourists.


I taught myself Cantonese in college through watching movies and YouTube videos. When I went to Hong Kong in 2014, I was able to have everyday conversations without needing to switch back to English or Mandarin. Cantonese is relatively easy for Mandarin speakers to learn because the grammar is largely identical, it’s really just that most of the words are pronounced differently, and once you get a sense of the basic rules, you’ve pretty much got most of the language figured out. Colloquialisms, of course, are a whole other thing. I would say that I can only speak and understand professional, “newscaster” Cantonese, so in that sense I would not classify myself as an advanced speaker.


I studied Arabic for a year in college when I was going through my “I want to major in Middle Eastern studies” phase. My first professor was German (??) and then my second was from Morocco. In Arabic classes they usually teach you what is known as Fus’Ha, or Modern Standard Arabic. Whenever I asked people whether Fus’Ha is actually used and understood in the Arabic-speaking world, I’d get varying answers from “yes, it’s the common tongue” to “no, people will think you’re a freak and laugh at your alien words”. (For the record, when I went to Palestine last year and spoke in Fus’Ha, people understood it just fine!) We were also taught a little bit of Egyptian Arabic, which used to be considered “the” preferred Arabic dialect because of Egypt’s cultural dominance and political standing.

Unfortunately I haven’t kept up my Arabic studies, as it’s a super difficult language and requires serious time and dedication. I can still read the alphabet, because they take a solid month at the beginning of the first semester to drill that into your brain permanently. And then I can form simple sentences at the level of a three-year-old, but that’s it. I would love to return to visit the Middle East in the near future, so hopefully I’ll be able to keep gaining new vocabulary and making small progress.


I took Korean classes at the Korean Embassy in Washington DC during the latter half of 2018. I had been watching a lot of Korean dramas and was planning a trip to Seoul, so I decided to enroll in a formal course. The cool thing about learning Korean as someone who speaks both English and Cantonese is that I have the dual advantage of already knowing, like, half of the words in the Korean language, because so much of the language is constructed from loan words. You can walk into a cafe and say, “Lajeu-sizeu kopi juseyo,” or please give me a large-sized coffee. And then there are words like hakyo (school) and haksaeng (student) and doseogwan (library), which are nearly identical to the corresponding Cantonese words of hokhauhoksang and toksyugwan.

When I did go to Seoul after 3 months of weekly Korean instruction, I found it relatively easy to get around by asking questions like “Is this the palace?” and “Where is the cat cafe?”. I could also read simple signs because, like Arabic, they drill the Korean alphabet into your brain at the beginning. Unfortunately I haven’t kept up my Korean studies either, but I still watch the occasional drama. I also have a Korean-French friend who lives in the UK, and we sometimes practice Korean, French and English all in one Skype session.


I never thought I would actually buckle down and learn French, because it’s always seemed like an insanely difficult language, but life is full of surprises. I arrived in Geneva last year knowing basically zero French and immediately enrolled in an intensive A1 French course that included two two-and-a-half hour group classes per week. The first class was a massive struggle, and I cried afterwards because I couldn’t understand the teacher at all, even though the Swiss are already known for speaking slowly and clearly. (I later learned that some of the other students in the class had been living in Geneva for up to 10 years at that point, which made me feel a little better.) The classes have allowed me to gain a new level of appreciation for David Sedaris’s essay, “Me Talk Pretty One Day“.

I kept going to class, right up until the school was forced to close due to COVID. For nearly two months, I worked from home, listless and depressed; studying French was the last thing on my mind. A few weeks ago, my mind began to re-balance, and I began doing small bursts of French self-study on Duolingo again. That led to me searching for a virtual language tutor online, and I found D., a friendly Swiss national who lives in South America. We now do weekly conversation classes; last week, we role-played me going to the hairdresser and the post office, and she took notes on a Google Doc in real time to correct my grammar.

I’m almost mad at myself that I didn’t start doing this sooner. The classes are super affordable, and my speaking confidence has improved immensely. Today I took the same aforementioned placement test for French, and voilà ! I think I might be ready for B1. My goal is to reach B2 by the end of the summer.

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OK, this one is kind of a joke, but I figured I’m already living in der Schweiz, so why not. I’m fully aware that Swiss German (Schweizerdeutsch) is a whole other beast compared to regular old German (Hochdeutsch); according to my German coworker, when she goes to the German-speaking areas of Switzerland, they can understand her, but she can’t understand them. Still, German is a useful language to know when living in Europe, and the pronunciation and grammar are much easier for English speakers to grasp compared to French. I’ve just been doing Duolingo for this. Maybe I’ll sign up for conversation classes in German once I’ve reached B2 in French?

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