How many people say, “I have some high school Spanish” but can’t say much more than hola and tequila? While some of us polyglots were exposed to a foreign language at home or in early childhood others learned later in life. Whether on study abroad in college or working on a contract overseas there are five keys to acquiring a new language
1. Don’t be embarrassed to make a mistake
As an educated English speaker you may cringe when people abuse verb and subject agreement but you have to throw that out the window when you start learning a new language. In the beginning what is important is building your confidence in this new communication skill. I promise you the woman selling fruit will not care if you make a mistake. In fact many people find it endearing when you as a foreigner at least make the effort to speak their language. When someone corrects you don’t take it negatively thank them.
2. Stop try to translate everything from English into the other language
One of the biggest problems people face when speaking another language is literally translating everything they want to say word for word from English. Not only is this time-consuming but it also leads to grammatical errors and prevents you from fully participating a conversation. Open your mind and try to think in your new language and soon you will find you may have dreams which alternate between two or more languages.
3. Make friends with people who only speak a little English
At Internationality we are all about living not just vacationing. This means submerging yourself in the culture and meeting people who are not from your home country. When I first arrived in Brazil, I spoke three phrases of Portuguese – Can you watch my stuff? Where is the bus station? and Do I have to pay for toilet paper? I went to visit my friend’s boyfriend who worked at a waterspouts rental place in Itapão. He didn’t speak any English and my friend didn’t tell me he spoke Spanish. Everyday for a week I went back, through hand gestures, drawing in the sand, and pointing I learned basic conversational Brazilian Portuguese. It wasn’t perfect but it was enough for me to start dating, the finest man I’ve ever met—he didn’t speak a word of English. Dating him over the next three months gave me a firm foundation and when I returned to college in DC I took a placement test gaining credit for Portuguese I and II .
4. Try a local tutor or language school
Recently a friend who is working in Abidjan told me he was downloading a language education software to learn French. I gave him a crazy look, then remembered that he couldn’t see me. I took this personally since I learned to navigate in French as a 13-year old exchange student in the same city. I couldn’t understand why someone living a forgone language would ignore the greatest asset—people. In many emerging markets hiring a personal tutor is affordable with rates as low as $5/hour for a college student. Barring individual lessons, my next recommendation is a language school. When I was living in Lima my father and his then girlfriend came to visit. She wanted to learn Spanish so she stayed on longer to attend El Sol School. Soon this, woman who was over 60 was conversing with my housekeeper and friends.
5. Forget about writing (for now)
I you think about it, babies learn to talk several years before they learn to read and write. Toddlers are able to express themselves. I remember being in French V as a freshman in college. There was a Haitian girl in my class, the rest of the people were French majors yet she and I were the only people who could carry on a conversation. Our classmates had spent upwards of three years studying the literature and grammar of French but when asked to speak they were paralyzed. For the purposes of exploring a new environment conversational skills will serve you better than written skills. Once you have a feeling for the language then you can work on your written skills—at least so you can text.