When traveling or moving between countries we are exposed to different languages. And if we decide to stay longer, we should show respect to locals and make an effort to learn their language. Learning it doesn’t just allow us to understand their words but it also says a lot about their culture and way of thinking. For example, every language expresses politeness and opinions in different ways, which can tell us a lot about a people’s mentality. Language is crucial to adjust to local ways of life.
Each time I move to a new country – so far it’s been 7 countries and 4 languages – I am reminded of the sacrifices one has to make during the first six months. It is tough to go through the pain of culture shock and having to start from zero, but it is a very rewarding experience. I enjoy learning about new cultures and I believe that these changes force the brain to make new connections, which surely helps to keep us young!
Learning languages is fun for some people and a burden for others. A lot of people think certain persons are gifted or have a talent to learn foreign languages.
I understand the affinity to learn new languages might depend on which country you are originally from and what is your mother tongue. Smaller countries like the Netherlands or Scandinavian countries are much more aware of the necessity to learn English and their school systems offer great opportunities from a young age. Often movies are shown in the original version. However most English-speaking countries are not forced to adapt that way.
In my experience successful learning is mostly down to personal motivation (how will I personally use it?) and learning techniques.
The first foreign language is usually the hardest because you have to learn vocabulary and grammar by heart. The logic comes much later when applying studied grammar rules or with the second or third language when you will be able to draw parallels.
It’s hard work and discipline! I am now working on improving my Spanish to a fluent level as my 3rd foreign language. Speaking German, English and French fluently I was quickly able to read and understand Spanish. But since I speak English, it is so much harder to start speaking a new language – locals want to talk back in English to practice themselves! You really have to insist.
Having started learning Spanish after the age of 30 the learning process feels difficult in different ways: I have less patience with myself. The older I get, the tougher it is not to be able to express myself. At times it feels like I am a child talking back with limited vocabulary. Sometimes it can even make me feel disrespected or humiliated:
Imagine you are about to present a great new idea at a work meeting. Most colleagues who have never lived in foreign countries won’t have the patience to listen and don’t understand the effort it costs to speak a foreign language. They won’t give full attention to a foreigner stuttering, searching for words while making several grammatical mistakes in one phrase…. They might even ignore you or get angry. Believe me, saying it in a language you are comfortable with, will get you such a different reaction! This pretty much applies to most situations in daily life. It’s so hard feeling like a child without much credibility. It probably didn’t bother me too much until my late 20’s. Now it demands so much more effort to overcome my pride.
Here is another interesting fact: when bilingual kids learn languages, both are stored in the same area of the brain. Whereas when we learn languages in later life with our brain set in its way, it uses different areas. This is why it seems so much harder for us. Neuroscientists have discovered that this effort is highly beneficial for engaging brain activity in later life. Learning a new language – even at the age of 70 – exercises different sectors of your brain and helps to delay dementia or Alzheimer.
Here are 8 tips and tricks to help you learn a new language:
- Work on your motivation: visualize what you will be able to do with the new language such as new opportunities and how you will apply it. It won’t help focussing on negative reasons you didn’t choose.
- Read and watch movies, especially before going to sleep. Your brain will work on it over night.
- If you don’t understand, ask people to speak slowly and to explain certain keywords. If they repeat the same words, ask them to rephrase using different words.
- Be creative in describing words you don’t know and in relating new learned words to something that will help you to remember them.
- Ask native friends to correct your pronunciation.
- Watch locals how they intervene and react during conversations and try to copy them. Imitate the melody of the language.
- Prepare vocabulary for doctor’s appointments, presentations etc. in advance, so you won’t have to search for words.
- Take misunderstandings with humour. Sometimes locals might laugh about what you just said which might make you feel embarrassed. It often helps to clear the situation by asking them what you just said. Lots of words have double meanings or we confuse them with similar sounding words: At a pic-nic I once meant to say in French “there is an ant on my plate”. I didn’t know the word for ant at the time and I used “animal” which cracked up the couple I was staying with. To them it was just cute – like a little child would have said. I felt stupid until they explained it to me.
- Be aware that people who have never lived in foreign countries won’t be able to understand what it takes to speak another language. If they keep speaking quickly, use the most complicated words or talk to you like a deaf old person – don’t take it personally.
Please share your tips and tricks below.