New Project: Learning My Wife’s Native Language

Recently, I wrote about why now was the time to take on an ultralearning project. I figured I should probably follow my own advice!

My new project is to learn Macedonian, employing a modified version of the No English Rule, Vat and I used several years ago during our language learning trip.

Why Learn Macedonian?

My wife, Zorica, was born in what is now North Macedonia (formerly, The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, even more formerly, Yugoslavia). She moved to Canada when she was 14. Although we met in our freshman year of college, we didn’t start dating until after having known each other for over eight years.

When we did start dating, I had just finished a year learning languages, so I was interested in learning Macedonian too. However, my wife is perfectly bilingual, and we already had nearly a decade of speaking to each other in English. So, while I learned a bit here and there, I never got to the stage where having a conversation was possible. Just random phrases here and there.

Like most couples, we continue to talk in the language we’re most familiar, in our case English.

Why Learn Macedonian Now?

I have two motivations that make this project particularly timely.

The first is that my son is now nearly three months old. Raising bilingual children is difficult — even families with two native speakers often have children who aren’t in fluent command of the language. But, if there’s any chance for our son to partake in his linguistic heritage, I’ll need to be able to speak in Macedonian too.

The second reason is that the current worldwide state of self-isolation offers a unique opportunity for immersion at home. Normally, a major problem of doing partial immersion is that if the surrounding environment doesn’t speak the language you want to learn, you’re constantly pushed out of the language you want to learn.

Our friends, for instance, don’t speak Macedonian. Therefore, if my wife and I are with anyone other than her family members, the conversation will need to be in English. It’s not an insurmountable obstacle, but it does make it harder to approach things the way one would do when traveling to the country that speaks it.

Now, however, these social complexities are sharply reduced. Maintaining an in-house No English Rule will be a lot easier to maintain.

How Do I Plan to Learn?

Macedonian also offers a unique challenge because it’s a language without much supporting material. For comparison, Chinese may be hard but it has so many learner resources you’re practically drowning in them.

My approach to learning Macedonian, therefore, is relatively simple:

  • Near daily iTalki.com tutoring. There are a few tutors for Macedonian, so my hope is to have at least an hour per day talking with someone who is dedicated to helping me out.
  • Textbook practice. I managed to get a Macedonian textbook a couple years ago in my earlier phase of dabbling with learning it. An hour or so per day of this is my goal, but I may scale it back for more tutoring if I don’t find it helps much.
  • Flashcard practice. I plan to use Anki to master all the words that come up in my conversations and textbook practice. This should make the vocabulary acquisition process a bit smoother.
  • Talking with my wife! Of course, the main way I’m hoping to learn is simply by having the No English Rule at home to get more comfortable with daily communication.

I’m going to modify the No English Rule from our trip in the interest of my sanity. Rather than the absolute, strictest form that Vat and I adhered to for most of our voyage, I want to include a few caveats that should make life easier without jeopardizing the overall aims of the project:

  • Calls outside the house are still okay. While I did maintain calls with my parents in English while I traveled during my yearlong project, I heavily curtailed other calls. I won’t be doing this here, since doing so would needlessly interfere with my work.
  • Emergency “Time Out” allowed. Switching to an unfamiliar language can put strains on any relationship. It certainly did with Vat and I, and our roommate status was far less intimate. While I want to keep the low stakes conversations within Macedonian, I’m going to be more permissive with emergency time outs to deal with matters of importance, especially those that have to do with our child.

How Far Do I Hope to Get?

In general, I prefer to focus on the effort invested, rather than reaching a specific outcome. The project is only a month long, and my level of immersion is decidedly less than what I had in Spain or China, so realistically I should moderate my expectations.

That said, I have learned some Macedonian before, during my dabbling in the previous five years. I even spent two weeks in North Macedonia visiting my wife’s relatives over a year ago. The result of which is that although I’m far from conversational, I’m also enough above zero that transitioning to full immersion should hopefully be a tad easier.

I would be exceedingly happy if I can get through longer conversations without undue hesitation and dictionary use. However, this description still contains a wide range of underlying abilities, so I would hope to be in the lower intermediate range, even if I can’t quite get to the fluency I had at the end of my time in Spain.

Do Any Couples (or Roommates) Want to Join Us?

When I spoke about this with Zorica, she pointed out how many couples we know where one partner has expressed an interest in learning the language of the other. It’s something that looks easy to the outside (“You spend so much time together, it must be easy to learn the language!”) yet there’s often a lot of resistance.

If anyone here would like to use this opportunity as a push to do a similar project, we’d love to have the company. I’ll try to post weekly updates to the project, although I’ll probably just include them as links in the weekly newsletter to avoid disrupting my normal content.Is there a language you’ve been meaning to learn, but haven’t had the opportunity? Share your story in the comments!

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Author of WSJ best selling book: Ultralearning www.scotthyoung.com | Twitter: @scotthyoung

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