Picking Up a Foreign Language in Another Country

July 18, 2011

As someone who is a bit of a specialist in languages, I find it intriguing and charming to travel to places where the people speak a language that I did not previously know. I consider it a challenge, and somewhat of a game, to see how quickly I can reach a conversational level. I thought that it might make a good post today, to offer some basic advice about how to begin to learn another language in another country, for the traveler. The following are simply a few, basic principles that, you will find, offer great aid.


1. Read about the language before you leave. You need not study the grammar intensely. Simply read things about the language. For example, which language family is it a part of? Who speaks it, and where? How old is it? Is there writing, and if so, what does it look like? Find someone speaking it o YouTube: what does it sound like? All of these things will train your brain to be more prepared to pick up the language.


2. Learn some basic phrases. Learn how to say: Hello, Goodbye, How are you?, I am good, thanks, Where is the ______ please, Please, Thank you, etc. This goes a long way, trust me.


3. Do not demand that everyone speak English. This is a big complaint about American travelers: they believe that the entire world revolves around them. It is also very annoying, and will likely cause you to have a very bad experience, and assume that “the people in Country X are rude,” etc.


4. Listen. No matter where you are or what you are doing, make an effort to try to listen. Your brain will eventually associate certain sounds with certain contexts.


5. Try to speak the language. Obviously you do not know the grammar and will make any mistakes, but there is an enormous advantage to actively trying, rather than simply passively absorbing. Your brain will quickly detect mistakes and learn subconsciously. Also, natives will correct you, and this is like a free language class.


6. Pick out some simple words or phrases, and write them down. Writing is also an active process, and will help you to remember words and phrases.


7. Participate in everything you can. If someone invites you to their home, go. Eat at local restaurants. Walk the streets. The more contexts that your brain hears the language in, the more it can narrow down context, to meaning.


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