Speaking In Tongues

Many in Australia seem to view language learning as a daunting and even unconquerable task. This is more than understandable given our location and a culture that has welcomed migration waves yet unintentionally suppressed their languages. Speaking “the” world language, along with a combination of other factors, particularly lack of exposure, creates a national cultural insularity of sorts where language learning seems limited to the classroom, unless you have compelling reasons such as heritage.

All this doesn’t mean that speaking that foreign language you’ve always dreamed of is unattainable. First, a note on that dream. It’s important to know why you want to learn it. If there’s one fact about language acquisition it’s that it requires at least a few hours of effort each week, maintained over a long time period. Time is the key. This also means that without sufficient motivation your project isn’t likely to be very successful. A reason like “French sounds cool” is much weaker than “I want to be able to function as a tourist without people switching to English” or even “I want to read Don Quixote in its original form”. Define your motivation.

Many conventional courses fail in a fundamental way. Primarily at beginner level little of the content relates to how you use your own language in your daily life. This can make what you have learned seem almost unusable with native speakers.

Try and observe your day to day interactions. Think about what dominates your thoughts and conversations and learn how to express it in your target language. Learn the vocabulary you’ll need to talk about your interests and introduce yourself beyond the rigid and sterile feeling textbook dialogues.

In addition to this, phrases like “how do you say?” and “can you repeat?” are very useful. Its unrealistic to be able to understand everything within a couple of months but very realistic to be able to maintain control of a conversation. Scripted conversations like those assigned in some classes don’t teach this and learning how to interject, ask questions and generally slow the inevitable feeling of inundation helps get you speaking quickly.

For major languages like Spanish and French it’s easy to find articles with lists of linking words, interjections and colloquialisms that will make your speech flow much more naturally. How many of your lecturers have taught you to say “dude” or the basic swear words? Learning this stuff and colloquial greetings goes a long way to making you more relatable.

It might be hard to do when you’re first starting out in a language but enjoyment in a second language also makes fitting study into your day really easy. Basically just find ways to do whatever you like doing in your own language in the language you’re learning. TV and YouTube videos are great because they expose you to a more colloquial register of the language.

This works best when you can understand enough to get benefit out of watching whatever you’re watching with subtitles in that language. You can still absorb a fair bit with subtitles in your own language but often word orders are completely different. Often this can impede your ability to understand rather than help because it’s very difficult to interpret an idea through dual input with opposing constructions.

In Croatia last year I heard a store attendant shouting, “Who wants a big, fat, juicy waffle?!” in an accent that would make anyone think he was from the states. It turned out this wasn’t the case, but that he’d been motivated to learn English through a love for shows like Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead.

A language is primarily a means of communication. Mistakes are not important as long as you get your point across, at least in the beginning. Language learning isn’t something that can only be done successfully by people with an aptitude for it, it simply needs long term commitment and a good, rewarding reason.