26 April 2013

How to REALLY Learn a Foreign Language

You take the classes and do all your homework. You might even be able to have real conversations now. Où sont les toilettes ? Me gusta bailar. Je voudrais 4 large Nutella & Banana crepes (don't judge). Congratulations. 

But to get past that intermediate level, and really own a language, you're going to have to dive a little deeper. The experience will be so rewarding - I promise! You will look at the world differently and find new ways of expressing yourself that just aren't possible when you're limited to one language.

Languages are so beautiful, and they all have words/expressions that lose a lot of meaning when translated. For example, in French you don't say "I miss you," you say "You are missing from me" Tu me manques. It's almost as if telling the person that they are a part of you. When they leave, a part of you does too. You see how much more romantic that is?




1. Fake it until you make. 

Yep, you read that right. Get right in there, and try to contribute to a conversation. Even if you just nod your head at first and grunt occasionally, the only way to learn to speak like a native is to really listen to them speaking! You'd be surprised at how many "conversations" I've had in French, where I didn't understand a single word of what the other person was saying.

2. Accept that sometimes you will sound like an idiot.

If you ever really want to become fluent in another language, you're going to need to get over that fear of looking silly. Because no matter what you do, you're going to look ridiculous sometimes, even if you decide to say nothing at all. Who looks more stupid? The tourist who asks you "Where the bathrooms are?", or the tourist who looks slightly pained and acts out with their hands the fact that they need to go?

3. Forgive yourself for your mistakes & learn from them.

When I first started learning French I kept pronouncing the last letter of every word. I knew you weren't technically supposed to. But I was in the habit and figured people could understand me anyway. Why change?

Then one day during my study abroad, while I was visiting a friend at the dorms, she left to go get something from the communal kitchen. I shut the door behind her, and accidentally smashed my fingers really hard. A nearby by friend of ours (a French guy) came running when he heard me yell. "Ça va?" Are you okay? I tried to tell him that it was no big deal. That I'd just hurt my fingers...

A little background - In French, the word for finger is "Doigt." How would you pronounce that? Apparently, it's "Dwah."  I pronounced that final t in the word "doigt," which turned it into the verb for finger.  Do you see where this is going?

I had looked that boy straight in the eyes, and told him that I'd hurt myself while fingering myself (that's the nicest way I can put that). I thought his eyes were going to pop out of his head. Luckily, he noticed me cradling my hand and realized I'd made a mistake. He busted up laughing and told me that it was super vulgar. Oops. Needless to say, he teased me mercilessly until the end of the semester.

As much as that made me blush, I did eventually get over it and continued on to make many more embarrassing mistakes (like cursing at the sweet old ladies from my church).

4. Don't Skip the Basics

If you going to spend hours studying and memorizing, this is where your efforts will be best spent. For example, I had a teacher once who said that learning the French alphabet was a waste of time. We sang it once, and then moved on to more "important" things. On my first day in France, when I started filling out paperwork, guess what they asked me? How do you spell your last name? It didn't really matter now that I knew how to give them my opinion on global warming. I was in a lot of trouble.

5. Do what you love to do in that language.

This is probably one of the most helpful ways to learn a language.


Like reading? Start reading books at your level in that language.

Love foreign films? Watch them in another language.

Like cooking? Look up recipes in your target language on Google. 

Like Twitter? Start following a few people who tweet in the other language. Maybe you'll even make some international friends!

Love TV? Find some shows that you love (I chose Friends) and watch them in your target language. Keep in mind that subtitles are like training wheels. They help you get the feel of things in the beginning, but you'll have to take them off eventually if you really want to get good.


6. Get swept off your feet & fall in love with a handsome stranger who doesn't speak English. 

Maybe that's just me. But to be honest, this is the one that really helped me the most. Talk about motivation! How on Earth was I supposed to hit on him if I couldn't even tell him how cute he was? ;)


What do you think is the hardest part about learning a foreign language? Do you have any embarrassing stories like mine?

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