I am not a linguist, so when people find out that I am conversant in five foreign languages (French, Estonian, Czech, Russian, and Spanish) – most of which I’ve picked up on the fly instead of through formal study – they often ask me how I do it.
I don’t have a “get rich quick” secret for learning how to speak a new language. It can be challenging, humbling, and frustrating. So why do it?
For me, learning a foreign language is a gateway, an enabler to communication, connection and learning. Speaking someone’s language establishes rapport and it often opens surprise doors of experience. And for travelers, speaking a foreign language serves a practical purpose: it can ease finding the right bus or the nearest bathroom, and it can get you out of sticky situations.
For those of you who’ve asked how I pick up languages, here’s how.
1) Take some lessons
This may sound contradictory considering I just told you that I’ve acquired most of my language skills from in-the-trenches use instead of formal study. However, having a basic appreciation of the structure, grammar, verbs and pronunciation rules of a language helps build a foundation.
If you are looking for language schools, search for a program that focuses on the practical with an emphasis on conversation. If possible, choose a school with a host family program and be clear that you would like a host family interested in actively speaking with its guests (this is not always the case).
Alternatively, download a few podcasts or audio programs so that your ear becomes attuned to hearing the language. This way, the language doesn’t sound so foreign once you hit the ground.
In any case, be disciplined about your language study. Take your classes seriously, do your homework and try to use your new language skills outside the classroom as much as possible.
My experience: Dan and I took only two weeks of Spanish lessons in Xela, Guatemala. Although we wish we had taken more classes, our instruction provided us with a base from which we could expand our skills by speaking with people on the street. Throughout our travels in Latin America, people we spoke to were often shocked to find out how little formal training we had.
2) Seek out destinations and locations where no one speaks your language
Necessity, they say, is the mother of invention. And when it comes to foreign languages, necessity must be the single greatest motivator for learning how to communicate.
We’ve met many people who have come away from language classes disappointed with their abilities; they blame it on the fact that they are “bad at languages.” True, some people do have an easier time at languages, but often the real reason is that the person has only exercised their skills in the classroom.
Perhaps this is obvious, but hostels where everyone speaks your language are not foreign language learning environments. Head out and buy your lunch at the market where there is no English menu, scope out transport tickets at the bus station instead of buying them through an English-speaking travel agent, spend time in small towns or rural areas where you have no other choice but to speak the language.
The more you do this, the more you’ll surprise yourself with your own abilities.
My experience: When considering study abroad programs in France, I deliberately chose to study outside of Paris and to stay with a host family. While it’s obviously possible to learn French in Paris, I also appreciated that the temptation to speak English there would be much greater than in a smaller city. So I chose Toulouse and stayed with an incredible family who didn’t speak any English with me (I only found out 6 weeks in that my host sister understood some English). I came away fluent after four months.
As for my friends who chose to study in Paris, they enjoyed it, but they found a lot of foreigners and many gave into the temptation of speaking English. As a result, they didn’t fare so well on the foreign language acquisition front.
3) Listen actively and mimic
Active listening is hard work; it requires concentration. Sustained listening for long periods of time can leave you absolutely drained.
However, I believe active listening is essential to learning a foreign language. When you listen closely, you begin to notice bits of vocabulary, phrases and repeated patterns. Once you recognize familiar words, you can try them out for yourself. (Having a dictionary handy to consult and confirm what you believe you are hearing also helps.)
One technique I employ, without even thinking about it, is mimicry or reflection of what I’ve heard. Aside from providing mental reinforcement for various phrases, it also helps to communicate that I’ve heard — and hopefully understood — what the other person said.
My experience: It was 2 AM in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan. I was stuck in the back seat of a shared taxi with a Russian-speaking Kyrgyz man who was very excited to share with me the virtues of the kalpak, the Kyrgyz national hat (this was a welcome change from the previous discussion of Russian vs. American capitalism). As you might imagine, my Russian hat vocabulary wasn’t stellar, so I repeated back to him some of the key words he was using to both fix them in my head and to let him know I was listening. I’m not sure that I agree that the kalpak is the most perfectly designed hat in the world, but I did pick up some new vocabulary that night.
Dinner with the driver and fellow passengers before the car broke down in the Kyrgyz mountains at 2 AM.
4) Get out there, with humility and inhibition in equal doses
Childrens’ brains are wired to rapidly acquire languages. Unfortunately, we adults can do little to recapture that facet of our youth.
Until their minds become polluted with adult inhibitions, children also have few qualms about exposing what they don’t know. In this way, they are relatively uninhibited, unafraid to put themselves out there and make mistakes. On the other hand, we adults often mask our weaknesses and imperfections by not even trying.
Behavior – that’s something we can change.
If my experience is any measure, you will never learn a language by trying to perfect it first in the comfort of your home. You must go out, use it, make mistakes, learn from it all, then try again. Mistakes will slowly yield to understanding, and understanding will itself yield confidence.
My experience: When I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Estonia, none of my office-mates spoke English. Twice a day, everyone gathered together for coffee and chatted. At first, I would sit and drink my coffee in silence, self-conscious of my poor Estonian skills. But that was no fun. So I began inserting myself whenever I figured out the context or recognized a word or two. Over time, the topics on which I could comment expanded considerably to the point of fluency. I’m sure my colleagues still laugh at some of the silly things I said in those early days.
I gave them good laughs, but they gave me Estonian.
5) Learn to speak simply, like a child
As adults, we are accustomed to having an arsenal of vocabulary to express ourselves articulately. In contrast, when learning a new language, you only have a limited amount of constructs, vocabulary and verbs to get your point across.
Channel your inner child and speak and ask questions with as few, simple words as possible. Get your mind out of the dozens-of-verb-tenses mindset. Be careful of slang. Remember: the goal is to communicate. There’s something weirdly refreshing about speaking simply. Over time, your language skills will play tricks on you and the childlike words you began with will be balanced by the more sophisticated ideas you were hoping to communicate all along.
A Cambodian girl at Siem Reap counts to ten…in six different languages.
My experience: At a Prague farmer’s market the other day, my Czech escaped me and only Spanish words came to mind when I tried to communicate with a flower vendor. I couldn’t remember the Czech word for “closed,” but I did remember the word for “open.” So I explained that I wanted flowers “more not open.” The vendor shot me some odd looks, but then she nodded and smiled — and I got the kind of “not open” flowers I wanted. Of course, walking away I finally remembered the Czech word for “closed.”
6) Even if your native language is spoken, resist using it
You’ve landed in a heavily touristed area where travel agents, hotel owners and wait staff speak English. Although this may sound great, resist the urge to speak English. You may be surprised by how many people actually hang with you if you persist.
My experience: A tour operator in Cusco, Peru almost jumped over her desk and gave us a hug when we asked her questions in Spanish and told her we’d like to continue our transaction in Spanish. In addition to providing tour information, she gave us recommendations for markets, restaurants and villages to visit nearby. Our transaction turned to regular conversation, and more importantly, we were no longer walking dollar bills.
Note: If you are conducting a transaction in a foreign language and are confused about the terms, switch to your own language to confirm the details.
Also, sometimes locals want to speak your language because they are interested in improving their own language skills. In these situations, propose a language exchange or 50-50 compromise so both parties can benefit.
7) Have a drink
I don’t wish to promote the consumption of alcohol here and I’m certainly not going to advocate getting sloshed. But, if your inhibitions are getting the better of you, consider going out and having a glass of wine or beer in a local joint. After all, alcohol is a social lubricant. It may make you less self-conscious of your mistakes and more outgoing in approaching other people for conversation.
Dan drinks with the police in Ushguli, Svaneti (Republic of Georgia) for good measure.
If you don’t drink alcohol, find something to relax and seek out locals at a café or teahouse.
My experience: During our hike across the Svaneti region in the high Caucasus mountain range in the Republic of Georgia, our evenings were filled with non-stop eating and drinking. With the help of local moonshine, conversation flowed from topic to topic. Although my Russian skills were quite limited in those early days, I still managed to communicate in Russian for hours and hours on end.
What are your tips for learning foreign languages, either at home or on the road?