Learning languages

My top 3 tips for learning a new language

I stress. A lot. Once the decision to move to France was made, I had a buffet of succulent stresses vying for my attention. A mouth-watering entrée of administration seemed like a good start. And let’s not forget the flavoursome fear of the unknown for mains. Ah, but someone with my penchant for sweet things should have known that dessert would occupy my thoughts the most…cake served with a seductive side of learning French. Yum yum.

Truth be told, I am already bilingual. I was born into an Afrikaans speaking household. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this term, it is one of the (eleven) official languages spoken in my native South Africa. It is an offshoot of Dutch, which was brought to the shores of the Cape of Good Hope by the early Dutch Settlers in the 17th century. It then slowly morphed into its own language and now only vaguely resembles its ancestor. When it came to my education, my Afrikaans-speaking parents decided to send me to an English school; hence my first language learning experience was somewhat natural. At four years old, English was assimilated into my vocabulary with little effort or conscious thought. This was certainly not going to be the case for learning French.

I was beginning to think that I should just skip dessert altogether. Don’t most people in France speak English anyway? I was, however, reassured that I would be immersed in the language, and so the acquisition process would be relatively quick, easy and painless. Just as little four-year-old me had found her English learning to be. You’ll be fluent within 6 months, they said. Don’t even worry about it, they said. Just to be clear, this could be the case for some people; it’s just that “some people” most definitely did not include me.  I ironically ended up speaking English the majority of the time, firstly because I found a job teaching English to adults and secondly because my husband and I converse in English. I was therefore initially forced to learn French in a contrived way. Imagine my frustration when I realised that I could recite all of the irregular verb conjugations, but when it came to spontaneous discussion, I could barely string a couple of sentences together. So to all of you language learners out there who find yourselves in a similar situation to me, here’s my pick of the top three things that helped me to learn French.

  1. Theory is important

You can’t speak without words (duh). I drove my husband crazy putting sticky notes all over the apartment labelling various pieces of furniture and home fixtures. I also used to carry a small notebook with me to write down new vocabulary and expressions when the need arose, and French lessons enabled me to get a basic understanding of some of the more important grammar points. It is, however, very important not to get too bogged down in the theoretical part of learning a language. Even though you’ll feel as if you aren’t nearly ready to start speaking, do it! This is not the time to be a perfectionist. The only way to improve your communication skills is by using the language. This exposure will help you to identify mistakes naturally, which one can then rectify by calling on the relevant theory. In this way, language learning becomes more communicative and the theory is used as a backup to strengthen your language ability. Think of it as an ice cream: first, a theory flavoured cone – nothing too intense, just some basic greetings, vocabulary and expressions to get you started; then a huge scoop of chocolate chip conversation. Now, you may feel like you shouldn’t be indulging in this, but you only live once right? I say go for it! Once you start speaking, you can add the final layer of theoretical sprinkles on top. These are not the main attraction, of course, but they do reinforce the flavour of the ice cream and even improve the overall experience.

  1. Get out of your comfort zone

Before moving to France, I didn’t realise how scary using a language in which you are hopelessly inept would be. Whilst queuing at a boulangerie to order lunch, a multitude of thoughts would be racing through my mind: “Is croissant masculine or feminine?”, “Everybody will stare at me”, “Damn, I forgot how to ask for a takeaway!”, “What if the shop assistant doesn’t understand me?” Perhaps I was a bit more self-conscious than most, but the message remains the same. When learning a language everyone has to start at the beginning; you will make mistakes, you will find yourself in embarrassing situations, you will be forced to deal with feelings of nervousness and awkwardness, and you might even find yourself in a situation where someone has no patience or sympathy with your plight. You cannot let this stop you. The thing is, you won’t ever speak a language if you don’t put yourself out there. Confidence is an essential element to making progress, because it is this confidence that’ll enable you to get out of your comfort zone and embrace new situations as opportunities for learning. And, if like me, you find yourself riddled with feelings of unease at the beginning…press on. I’ve always been a fan of the saying “Fake it till you make it” 🙂

  1. Give it time

Think of learning a new language like an FBI raid on a warehouse full of gun-wielding muscle men. Once the agents are given the all clear, things happen at a rapid pace. A shoot-out ensues. Some hand-to-hand combat may even take place. It feels like it’s all over in the blink of an eye. The good guys won! Of course (not to put a damper on the mood), a lot of planning and careful preparation went into this mission. There may have been months or even years of surveillance. Yes, the end result was an epic win, but it wouldn’t have happened without a lot of hard, persistent work. Many people at the beginning of their language learning journey forget this and then become frustrated with their slow progress. When venting this very frustration to a colleague not long after my arrival in France, her response was: “Well, give it a couple of years!” Years? At the time this jarred with my idealistic goal of being fluent within a couple of months. But she was right. Learning a language is an exercise in patience. Some may achieve quicker results than others, but at the end of the day (or month, or year) we will all be sufficiently equipped to tackle that warehouse full of gun-wielding muscle men. Despite the inevitable stumbling blocks along the way, the good guys always win in the end. You just need to give it some time.

So, to all of you who are facing a similar buffet of succulent stresses, take it from someone who has the benefit of hindsight: don’t turn down dessert. That cake served with a seductive side of learning a language is totally worth it in the end!

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