Learning languages in the country where you happen to be based can be the difference between just existing there (for the duration) or fully enjoying a rich life abroad. Admittedly languages are easy for some, while for others learning can be a struggle. Communication in a new country comes with challenges and cultural do’s and don’ts. Learning the local language does make life that much easier — don’t you agree?
Languages: International Communication
The GOODista follows on previous posts on Communication and How Home is Everywhere and Nowhere with this great guest article from Sharon Lee Cowan, Communication Officer with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) – who through her international career has experienced the delights and struggles with learning new languages.
Sharon Lee gives us top tips on how to learn languages by choosing multiple simultaneous strategies. The point is to do as many things as possible, according to what you enjoy, what you can afford, and what fits your schedule and other commitments.
We look forward to your comments, and by the way: How many languages do you speak?
Combien de Langues Parlez-Vous? by Sharon Lee Cowan
An international career means learning, and sometimes struggling with, foreign languages. What’s the best approach?
Dealing with multiple languages on a daily basis is a common denominator among those of us who travel or live abroad for work reasons.
Sometimes it’s possible to scrape by without learning the language of the country where you are posted. If you live in a capital city and know English or another popular language, you can usually make yourself understood to shopkeepers and waiters, who are only too happy to do business with you.
But is that really living abroad? Or are you just using the country as a hotel?
Languages When Working and Living Away
If you work in a humanitarian or development organization, chances are you are surrounded by the sounds of foreign tongues every day – in meetings, in the corridors, in the field. How do you feel about that? Do the French speakers seem “cliquey” to you? Do you sometimes miss crucial information because you don’t speak Spanish, or Chinese, or whatever the prevailing language is?
It’s safe to say that there is a strong correlation between foreign language mastery and success in an international career. Why? Obviously there are practical advantages to being able to absorb information and communicate in more than one language. But there are social and psychological benefits, too.
Languages: Why Learn?
Understanding and speaking a second, or third, language expands and ventilates the mind. Deepens and enriches the personality. Keeps your brain cells firing efficiently.
It also produces feelings of sympathy and closeness towards countries where the language is spoken, and of course with the people. Personally, I have had a soft spot for Russia and Russians ever since I was 12 years old – which is when I began to study Russian language in school.
Coming back to daily life in your host country: pointing and grunting, or speaking loudly in your own language, is certainly one way of buying fruit and vegetables on Saturday morning. And we’ve all used the supermarket tactic – an anonymous walk-through culminating with a credit card payment – to avoid any human interaction at all.
But how much better to learn the names of our favourite foods, and exchange a few pleasantries with the shop owner! In other words, if we want a full and rich life abroad, mindful of and interacting with the world around us, coming to grips with foreign languages is essential.
Languages: 8 Top Tips How To Learn A Language
OK, so now you’re becoming convinced. You’ve chosen a language and you’re nearly ready to get started. What’s the best method? Here are some of the strategies I’ve tried.
1. Buy a book
PRO: Language learning books abound, often packaged with audio CDs or DVDs. Some people do well with books, and appreciate being able to put their hands on something physical.
CON: When you open a language study book, you are confronted with the entirety of the task ahead. Coupled with low interactivity, this can be overwhelming – or sleep-inducing.
2. Take a class
PRO: You will interact with a native speaker, someone trained to teach the language. Having a scheduled class – daily, or two or three times a week – imposes structure and discipline. In addition to classes, you might also be assigned homework.
CON: If you’re working full-time, getting to classes regularly could be an issue. So could homework. Much depends on your fellow students: if they learn faster than you – or more slowly – it may have a negative impact on your progress.
3. Hire a personal tutor
PRO: A tutor can schedule sessions that fit around your work and personal commitments. She may come to your office, during lunch break or after hours, or to your home in the evening or on weekends. You will have her full attention, lessons tailored to you and your needs, and immediate feedback.
CON: This option can be pricey. Being the only student “in class” can be stressful at times. When scheduling is flexible, you might get fewer sessions than you really need to make progress.
4. Subscribe to an online service
PRO: A surprising number of web-based courses have popped up, some of them quite well designed and effective. As with a book, you study whenever you have free time – in the middle of the night if you want! Moderately interactive. Affordable if amortized over a year or more. Some courses are even free, like this one: Learn Languages: Rosetta Stone.
CON: This approach takes discipline. If you don’t make it a daily habit to log in and work through the lessons, progress will be slow. The interactivity is programmed and robotic – more personalised feedback may be available for a premium.
5. Do conversation exchange with a local colleague
PRO: You learn from a native speaker, in a relaxed, one-on-one situation where both parties benefit. It’s free.
CON: Conversation is not really feasible until you’ve amassed a few hundred words of vocabulary and some basic grammar. Since conversation exchange means that you not only learn but also teach, this approach can be time-consuming.
6. Hook up with a native speaker romantically
PRO: Non-stop chatter (also known as “pillow talk”) in the target language, in an environment where inhibitions are low and teacher is keen to please. Practical vocabulary is reinforced as you hang out, shop, prepare meals, walk about town, visit cultural attractions.
CON: A person can be irresistibly attractive in the early days when communication is based mainly on pheromones. But as you gain competence in his or her language, you may discover incompatibilities that were not obvious before. Not recommended if you are married or in a committed relationship.
7. Watch TV, listen to radio, go to the cinema, read newspapers
PRO: If you’re dedicated to this approach, it can be a powerful cocktail for the language region of the brain. One medium reinforces the other. Watch the morning news on television, for example, and some of the meaning will already be clear by the time you read about it in a newspaper or online later in the day. This is a very low-cost approach.
CON: As a beginner, when you consume media in the target language only, your knowledge of current events may lag, or be inaccurate. In many workplaces, this can be a liability. Interactivity is low.
8. Full immersion
PRO: No question about it: diving into the target language without a life jacket, living with native speakers, using the language 24/7, sink or swim: there’s no better method for learning the essentials fast.
CON: For many people, immersion learning can be terrifying, not to mention exhausting and headache-inducing. Even if you’re brave enough, can you afford the time away from work and family that an immersion experience requires?
Languages: What Will Work For You?
I have used all of these methods – with different languages and at different times in my life. What I can say is that any one of them is a valid choice and will work to some extent.
Judging purely on the basis of effectiveness and speed, I would have to vote for 8. Full immersion. As an approach, it is not for the faint of heart, and is only feasible if you can spare a month or more away from home and professional responsibilities.
If that’s not possible, and you still want to make rapid progress, why not load up and try two or more options at once? Work with an online service at home in the evenings, and have conversation practice with a colleague once or twice a week over lunch.
Or get a good lesson book and take it to a park bench at the weekend. After an hour or two, close your book and go take in a film in your target language.
Or invent your own method. A friend who moved to Hungary recently makes his own vocabulary flash cards, and studies them while sitting in Budapest train stations and shopping malls, surrounded by the buzz of Hungarians speaking their mysterious language. It works for him!
The point is this: the more you expose your brain to the language, the better. And whatever you choose, don’t forget to have fun!
Some GOODista followers are already veteran language learners. We’d love to hear what has worked for you.
Guest Blog Author Sharon Lee Cowan is a communication officer with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), based in Budapest. While her first language is English, she also speaks French, Italian, Russian, Spanish, and a little Hungarian.
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