When you’re in a foreign country for an extended period of time, it is important to learn how to speak at least some of the local language in order to meet locals and learn more about that place. I know the struggle – I moved to Brazil knowing zero Portuguese. After living in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for a few months, I began feeling more and more comfortable with speaking in Portuguese. By month 6, I was speaking at an advanced level suitable for teaching a high school class. These are the ways I challenged myself to learn – hopefully they’ll help you pick up the next language you’re learning, too!
Learn the Basics
When you’re just starting off, it can help to get a basic education in the grammatical structures and common vocabulary of the language. This sets you up for success in your language-learning journey. It can be much, much harder to jump the initial barriers of speaking with others if you have absolutely no knowledge of how a language is set up or structured. If you don’t want to take a class, Duolingo or italki are great alternatives for getting a basic understanding.
You can’t learn a language in a vacuum. In order to truly learn a new language, you should listen very carefully to the local accents and slang. Otherwise, you’ll be talking like a textbook forever. The best ways to pick up on local accents, pronunciation, and intonation are by observing people talking on the streets, listening to music, and watching local television/movies. In Rio, I found that one of the best ways to pick up on the accents was to listen carefully to the way people talk while hanging out on the beach. Relaxing and learning at the same time…my cup of tea!
Immersion, Immersion, Immersion
Although this is a timeless trope, I’ll say it again – when learning a language, immersion is everything. It is extremely difficult to learn a language well without some level of immersion. When I was learning Portuguese, I lived with a non-English-speaking host family, volunteered in a favela in Rio, and took all of my semester classes in Portuguese. I only spoke in Portuguese for the majority of my days. After three months, I felt comfortable enough in the language to teach a class of high schoolers twice a week.
Keep a Vocabulary Book
Keeping a wide vocabulary can be one of the biggest challenges of learning a new language. To help with this, I kept a small notebook with me at all times and wrote down unfamiliar words or slang as I heard them. Even if you can’t figure out what a word means, writing it down can be a good way to remind yourself to look it up later. Then, when you need to remember a specific word, you have a handy reference to refer to.
Eliminate the Outs
When you’re abroad and meet other foreigners, it might be really tempting to switch back into English mode. However, there are ways to eliminate these cop-outs and continue using and exercising your language skills. If you’re with fellow foreigners who don’t speak the local language, try ordering for them at restaurants or speaking to locals on their behalf. If they’re also learning, try speaking at least part of the time in the local language.
I’ll never forget the most embarrassing language mistake I made when learning Portuguese. I was telling someone I thought they had beautiful eyes (“olhos”) but accidentally used the word for eggs (“ovos”). So embarrassing! However, going out on a limb and being willing to make mistakes is an important part of learning how to speak a new language. If you’re open to messing up, you’ll learn more quickly because you won’t hold back when you’re speaking. What’s the worst that can happen (besides telling someone they have beautiful eggs)?
Once you’ve learned a language, you definitely don’t want to waste all your hard work by losing it! To keep up with your new language, find any opportunities in your life back at home to practice. For me, whenever I meet a Brazilian, I ask to speak to them in Portuguese. Usually, they’re absolutely delighted that someone wants to speak to them in their native language, and are happy to chat. At home, I still listen to Brazilian music regularly and speak with my boyfriend (also Brazilian) in Portuguese a few times per week. This helps me exercise my language skills to make sure I don’t lose them!
* * *
Are you currently learning a new language? If so, which one? Share your experiences and tips with us in the comments!