The best way to learn a language
Learning the local language
by Viktoria Undesser
The best way to learn a language
There's no "How to make the best of your travels" Guide out there that doesn't mention learning at least a few words of the local language. It allows for a much deeper connection with the people there, it's an immediate conversation starter and almost everywhere people will be happy that you're appreciating their culture and trying to learn their language. But what is the best way to learn a language? As Roosevelt stated, nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty. Learning a new language is no different.
When I first came to Perú for my study abroad, I barely spoke a word of Spanish. I was the girl who could maybe ask for directions but I wouldn't really understand the answer. I was the girl who could kinda order food at a restaurant but as soon as they asked me a question, I was doomed. I was the girl who constantly asked: "Could you say that again slower, please?". Needless to say, that all my classes being Spanish wasn't exactly a piece of cake, either. Readings that at home I would read once, here I had to read not twice, but three times. The first time I was just marking the words I didn't understand. The second time I was translating all the words I didn't understand. The third time I finally understood what it was that I had been reading! Without a friend I made early who had experience working with internationals and who helped me through our group work, translating the decisions made and my tasks for me, I probably wouldn't have made it through those first few classes.
When you learn a language there's bound to be some "language learning failures" every time you interact with locals. You mispronounce a word, changing its meaning entirely, you misuse a word or you misinterpret what has been said to you, leading to lots of awkward situations with locals.
I faced my probably worst language learning failure at a family barbecue at my newly made Peruvian friends' house. He had left me alone for a few minutes to help his mum with the barbecue, leaving me to make conversation with his grandma. While at first, it went well, I did end up telling her that I was "excitada" to try the food. I mean, it sounds like excited, right? It's a reasonable assumption that it also means that, right? Right? Turns out, not so much. What I should've said was that I was "emocionada" to try the food, as "excitada" doesn't mean excited, but horny. Well, ups. Sorry, grandma! My friend who had come back just in time to hear me was rolling on the floor laughing. He was kind enough to explain my mistake after he had cooled down as I had no idea what I'd done wrong and why his grandma looked at me with that weird look!
While this sounds absolutely horrifying (and in the moment, it absolutely was), I'm not the first one and most likely won't be the last one things like this happen to. And you know what? Today, I'm laughing about it! It's a great story to tell and you'll realize how many people have gone through something similar once you open up! Learning a new language, you will say silly things. People want to help and I've never heard of anyone actually holding that against someone. The important part is really to stick with it and not let yourself be discouraged by moments like these. If you're struggling with learning a language, here are my best tips on how to improve:
1. Don't give up.
Whatever happens. Stick with it. I know it sucks and it's hard and you'll never be as good as the locals. You know what? Who cares! You're doing something amazing! You're learning an entirely new language that won't just enable to express yourself differently, but it'll also give you new ways of looking at life, new and different viewpoints, increase your problem-solving skills and so much more! How awesome is that? So focus on the positives every time you feel like it gets too hard and try a little harder.
2. Don't be shy Talk, talk, talk!
As you learn a language you'll stumble through hundreds of awkward, confusing conversations with people who know the language better than you and to me, there's no better way of learning a language. Make sure they know you're learning and fine with being corrected and nothing can go wrong anymore. Learning this way means you're not just "studying" vocabulary, but you're actually implementing it and processing it by associating it with an actual conversation and it's meaning rather than just ist notation.
3. Practice, Practice, Practice!
Read books, listen to music, watch movies and videos in the language you're learning. It doesn't have to be world-renowned literature. It doesn't even have to be a new book, you haven't read before. Consciously reading and listening to music in the language you're learning won't just teach you lots of new vocabulary, it's a form of immersing yourself into the language that'll "normalize" the language in your daily life.
4. How do I say ... ?
Learn "How do I say X?" as early as possible. It will be the single most valuable phrase in the language you're learning.
5. Celebrate little wins.
You successfully ordered food without having to ask the cashier to repeat herself? That's awesome!! You read a short text and understood everything? YOU GO, GIRL! The positive enforcement will keep you motivated and in high spirits.
6. You'll go through phases.
This is not actually a tip, but it helps to know where you are in the process: You'll start out with speaking very little and understanding barely anything. Then you'll understand waaay more than you can speak. Then you'll become conversational, but it requires conscious effort to speak and hold the conversation. All of a sudden it'll become automatic - you're able to speak without even thinking about it, heck, you'll even think in the language you're learning! The last step is following a conversation between a large group of natives - even four years after living in Peru, this last part still melts my brain a little every time it happens, and that's okay.
7. Consistency is key.
Find an app or program that works for YOU and practice at least a little every day.
8. Have fun with it!
Everything we do in life is so much harder if we're not enjoying it! Find a purpose for learning the language, make friends that are native in the language, join clubs or associations that host events and gatherings focusing on practising the language, whatever works for you! It'll be so much easier if you love what you're doing :)
What are your best language learning tips? Which language have you struggled to learn and which just came to you automatically? Share with us in comments!
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