7 Tricks to Pick Up the Local Tongue

Necessity is the mother of invention – and what better what to invent your second language than by making it an absolute necessity to live. We’ve all heard that the best way to learn a language is to spend time in a country that speaks it, after all.

And yet, I’ve met plenty of people who’ve done just that and come back with barely enough to get them into a taxi or through a supermarket checkout. Who’ve lived in a foreign country for years – even married a native speaker – and still failed to pick the local tongue.

Just because you’re surrounded by a different language doesn’t mean you will automatically learn through osmosis. Working at an international company or living with other foreigners, you might find yourself speaking your mother tongue more often than you would like.

Proactive steps are still necessary in order to learn. Studying theory and memorizing vocabulary are powerful tools, but it’s easy to rely on them and ignore the crucial (and daunting) part – getting out there and communicating. People learn languages without ever opening a textbook, after all.

Here, from my experiences as both an English teacher and a student of two languages, are the most important things to keep in mind when it comes to mastering a language through immersion in-country.

1. Sounds, not Concepts

Languages are taught in classrooms, so it’s easy to mistake them for academic subjects, requiring the same skills to succeed as for, say, solving mathematical problems or composing essays.

But you weren’t handed an English textbook at birth, were you? You spent all day trying to copy the strange sounds you heard, eventually figuring out their significance.

Speaking a language is more like a fast-paced, social sport than an academic subject. Mouth-muscle training is more important than a perfect knowledge of vocabulary. Reflexive call-and-response action is more helpful than impeccable grammar. After all, when someone asks us ‘howyagoin?’ We don’t stop to break down the phrase into individual words and analyse their meanings before determining our own meaningful response. We just say ‘goodthanksnyaself?’ and get on with it.

I teach students with excellent knowledge who regardless struggle to speak because their mouth is simply not accustomed to handling strings of unfamiliar sounds without stumbling. Parrot everything you overhear, even if you don’t understand. Work hard to perfect the accent and intonation – if your mouth is sore by the end of the day, you’ll know you’ve done a good job.

2. Communicate Your Standard

Most of the time, we’re interacting with strangers on auto-pilot, mumbling slang that’s barely comprehensible even to a native speaker. Even if we are speaking to someone whose first language is not English, we still assume we are understood – it’s just what we do when we communicate.

This is far from helpful if you are trying to learn. And yet, the people we talk to everyday can be our best resources when it comes to learning, if only we knew how to properly utilize them.

It’s important to find ways to communicate your language level as well as your intention to learn, so that the people you meet are given the opportunity to assist you properly. Many people will speak slower, more clearly and with simpler vocabulary as soon as they understand your situation.

Phrases I found to be useful include “I am just learning [the language], but…” at the start of an interaction and “is it correct?” at the end of your utterances. Taking your time to pause and obviously think through your responses – even if you trial and discard several different phrases out-loud while someone watches on – is another good way to make languages coaches out of complete strangers.

3. The Art of the Pause

In attempting #2, you will quickly encounter a problem. In our native tongue, we respond rapidly, without needing to think. This reflex kicks in whenever someone says something to you, and, frustrated by your inability to communicate, you will find blurting out ‘do you speak English?’ before you have time to think.

Anticipate this and be ready to pause when someone speaks to you. If you respond immediately, you will probably default to English. The best thing to when someone says something you don’t understand is..

Wait.

Take a second to repeat the sounds, out-loud if necessary. Think it through. Then respond – expressing your ignorance in the target language at best, or in English as a last resort.

4. Play the Fool

This advice is easier said than done, it’s true.  This is because so much of our identity is based in how we communicate. Faced with the prospect of appearing stupid or helpless, we might prefer to silently feign understanding, bluffing our way through situations that might otherwise be valuable learning opportunities.

The only way around this discomfort is straight through it. Prepare for embarrassment, even humiliation. Recognize that you will be revealing your total ignorance to people on a daily basis. This is a vulnerable, potentially uncomfortable thing to do. But if you push yourself, you will soon become comfortable playing the fool – don’t worry, you won’t have to do it for long.

Because making mistakes is one of the most memorable things we do. Those agonizing seconds of confused blank stares when you mix up your words are uncomfortable, but they will shape your language better than an hour of repetition. Dive headfirst into the ocean of error and incomprehension – because when the only risk is momentary perceived social embarrassment, sink or swim becomes your best friend.

5. Find Good Mentors

Of course, making mistakes can be more or less painful depending on who you do it in front of. Finding people with the patience, compassion and knowledge to effectively assist you will do wonders for your progress.

Language learning is a social activity, after all, so the quality of the relationships you are fostering with it will directly impact your ability to learn. Think about the people who first taught you English – your parents. They loved you, spent lots of time with you, and were genuinely interested in seeing you learn and grow.

6. Make it your World

As stated, even living in a foreign country, it’s still possibly to surround yourself in a bubble of your own language. Examine all the ways that your first language comes into your life and consider switching it out. Change the language of your phone and laptop, take an interest in local music, start trying to write notes to yourself as early as possibly in the target language.

Rather than trying to memorise vocabulary lists from a textbook, focus on the vocabulary of your interests. Things you are already passionate about or that are directly necessary for your day-to-day life are the most memorable places to start – think about how quickly you learn your new mobile phone number.

7. Congratulate Yourself!

It’s important to accept two undeniable realities of language learning:

It’s hard.

It takes a long time.

Wading through incomprehension and ignorance for long stretches at a time can be disheartening, so it’s important to celebrate the little victories along the way. Every interaction where you tried to speak a foreign language is a success, even if it felt like banging your head against a wall.

No matter how stupid you might feel, with sustained application, you will improve. It’s impossible not to.

Being able to truly converse with someone in their own language is one of the most satisfying feelings I’ve experienced. That it came after much hard work, frustration and doubt only made it feel like more of an achievement. Have faith in your progress, don’t give up, and you’ll be speaking in tongues sooner than you think.

Suerte! İyi şanslar!

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