The Travelettes Guide to Learning Languages
You may or may not know it, but us Travelettes are a budding group of linguists, in fact English is only a native language for three of us and don’t for a second think that those non-English speakers have just one extra language hiding in their brains, because many of the Travelettes have conquered multiple languages. The most incredible thing is that I know we’re not alone; most of our readers are bilingual, trilingual or have at least a small collection of other languages they are familiar with. Go girls! (And guys, you rock too.)
I’ve been thinking a lot about language learning as I recently started to learn Dutch now that I’m staying in Amsterdam for at least another six months. For many – including my Dutch friends – there’s often a little confusion when I explain I’m learning their language when 90% of Dutch people speak English, and in Amsterdam particularly, it’s a language heard and almost as frequently as Dutch. The best way I can describe this is by saying “It’s the right thing to do.” I feel like I should speak the language of the country I’m living in out of politeness as much as practicality. But more than that I know from previous experience that understanding the language of the country I’m travelling or living in is a gateway to learning more about that country’s personality, people and peculiarities.
On the first day of my Dutch lessons – I began with a five day intensive course at the School of Dutch – my teacher Wessel explained that the most important thing about language learning is to not be afraid of making mistakes. In that way we must become more like children for children don’t overthink what they say like adults do. If I spend every waking moment fearing that what I say is wrong, then I will never say anything! (This is as much true in life as it is language learning, perhaps!) After that first week of lessons, in which I learned the present, future and one past tense, I realised very quickly that speaking Dutch outside of the classroom is still scary. But as hard as it is, I can’t help but agree 100% with what Wessel said, especially because it is so easy (and tempting!) to just default back to English in Amsterdam. Of course, it’s hard and when you do make mistakes – I really, really struggle with the “g” sound in Dutch! – you do feel a little down, but then I think about what I didn’t know before my intensive lessons and I realise how far I’ve come.
Here are the other things that really enhanced and improved my language learning experience at the School of Dutch:
* Each language has its own rhythm and learning the language’s rhythm before you even learn any vocabulary will help you with pronunciation. At the School for Dutch we tap out the rhythm of the words as we speak to help us familiarise ourselves with the way Dutch people talk.
* Say everything out loud - even when you’re on your own doing your homework or just reading a newspaper. When you say a word out loud your muscles get used to the new sounds and movements you have to make to make them.
* Take it slow. It took you over five years to learn your own language as a child so why should it take you any longer now you’re an adult!
* Read things that interest you. In school I was taught foreign languages by reading about what was in my pencil case or what colour my clothes were; this didn’t interest me so I found the vocabulary hard to remember. However, I can now navigate my way through a Dutch fashion or travel magazine with great ease – and not just looking at the pretty pictures! – because it’s a subject matter I have knowledge of and an interest in.
* Be proud. You’re doing something not everybody has the guts to do. Be proud of any and every effort you make to learn and speak a foreign language.
So they’re my top tips for language learning, but what about the other Travelettes?
Our editor is not only fluent in English and French (as well as her native German of course) but she has become proficient in Spanish and Italian, essentially by teaching herself the language. Here are her experience and advice tips.
“I learned French and English in school so by the time I moved to live in the US, England and France I had a great base from which I could ease myself into the language and improve my knowledge. With Spanish, however, I had no skills from school and in my first month of living in Barcelona I thought I’d never learn the language, particularly because Barcelona is in Catalonia and this is often the dominant language. As it happened, I ended up having a Uruguayan roommate who spoke no English so we had to communicate with just gestures and a dictionary. She then taught me the basics simply by talking to me every day and once you know the basics, its like a foundation to a house; the rest comes easily! I remember one occasion when I went to a party and I really thought I was still very much a beginner in Spanish, but about an hour after getting to this party I realised I’d been chatting the whole time in Spanish and I hadn’t even noticed. This is when I decided that my fear of speaking the language was more in the way of my progress than my actual skill level. In my experience the best way to learn a language is therefore to speak as much as possible, regardless of how little you think you know. In terms of learning more, I always purchase a dictionary and a work book with exercises which I can work through on trains, buses and in cafes. This is how I solidified my beginner’s Italian.”
English Alex has a very different experience as she has taught English as a foreign language to Chinese and Japanese summer school students so she knows a thing or two about learning (and teaching!) languages. She also offers advice I think most people will find really useful to those who may not want to learn the language completely but just want to have enough knowledge to get by and of course, say thank you!
“When I was 13 I had had English lessons in school for two years. I only got a C+ and my Dad decided that wasn’t good enough. To “punish” me he sent me and my best friend to Malta for 3 weeks for classes during the summer holidays. We had classes by the pool each day so it really wasn’t bad at all! In hindsight the classes weren’t chosen well because we were the youngest students by a long way so the material we would cover was very advanced – even in German, I would have found some of the materials hard to read! However, being young and perhaps a little naive, we didn’t really think too much about it and we just spoke and spoke, using what we did know. In those 3 weeks I completely lost the fear of making mistakes, a fear that I find stops many people from just talking. So my best advice for anyone wanting to learn a language is to practise every day, anywhere, don’t be a afraid to make mistakes. Oh and alcohol helps too! Actually my Dad also has some other interesting ideas about learning languages – he says that the best way to learn a new language is to fall in love with a native speaker!”
Having lived in New York City, it’s hard to tell that Cordula is not a native English speaker (she’s German too!). Here’s her story about why learning away from school can be most beneficial. I also love what she recommends when it comes to expanding your vocabulary.
“The best advice is to speak as much as you can. When I first “travelled” to the US, I was only three years old and so obviously didn’t really understand a word until we studied the language in school. Visiting the country again with this terribly stiff school English was actually a horrible experience to me. In school they teach you how to read literature and discuss books and news stories at length, but when you actually get to an English speaking country you don’t even know what you’re looking for in the supermarket. I tried to overcome this language barrier by carefully crafting my sentences before saying a word, always double-checking the vocabulary with a dictionary. It was a bit of a pain, took super long and had me panic as soon as I was required to reply immediately. But, there were some benefits! It was the most amazing thing to realize that this “other language” actually worked, that people would respond to it and encourage me to speak more. So I just jumped right in and was finally able to let go of the fear of making mistakes. Another great tip I’d like to share is that watching TV shows in English really helped a great deal to expand my vocabulary beyond the usual school topics (with One Tree Hill being my favorite guilty pleasure back then!)
“What I find works best, if you can do it, is to take intensive classes for a brief period of time in the country where the language is spoken. That’s what I did with Spanish, and after a week of complete despair in Madrid I suddenly started being able to sort of have myself understood, and after 3 weeks… I could speak! Later volunteering in Costa Rica helped me a lot as well, as I was taking care of a bunch of kids — which really developed my knowledge of the imperative verbs («Don’t put that in your mouth!», «Don’t spit in your friend’s eye!», etc.) Speaking in a foreign language seems scary, but the thing is nobody is actually judging you: people are generally so stoked that you are making the effort to speak their language that they will be appreciative, not making fun of you. Plus they have a tendency to find your accent/mistakes cute! Oh, and getting a local boyfriend really is the fastest way to learn.
If you’re learning from home, the way to get better fast is to take a «language bath» everyday: it doesn’t have to be a 3-hour class, it can be just reading a newspaper article, listening to a podcast or watching a movie in the language — just make sure you’re in contact with it every day. Also… having the dedication to learn by yourself is really hard, so if you can’t afford classes try to meet up regularly with a language group in your city, which will force you to practise! As with any kind of learning, language learning progresses in plateaus — which means you’ll feel like you are doing really well, and then you’ll hit a wall. This is absolutely normal; just keep working, and you’ll start getting better again at one point!
Also, learning a language can — weirdly — have you develop other skills, as you absorb a lot of cultural behaviours in the process. For example, I’ve always been quite introverted, up till I moved to Australia and started speaking lots of English. Because English-speaking people practise small talk a lot, and are very comfortable with socialising with anyone that’s around (be it a stranger at the bus stop or someone they don’t know at a party), I started unconsciously mimicking these behaviours, and am now proud to say I can stand a conversation with any random, even in my native language.”
Now, over to you! Which foreign languages do you speak? And what tips and advice would you offer to me as I keep going on my language learning journey?