Surviving a Language Immersion, in 3 Steps

The Tower of Babel, by Pieter Brueghel the Elder. [PD]

I write about languages because I’m interested in them. So yes, this post is kind of a general interest post, rather than a writing post, but I will start by putting in a plug for writers to learn a little of the languages of the countries they are writing about. After all, you wouldn’t want to be like Dan Brown, who reportedly mutilated French in the Da Vinci Code. (Though it was still a best-seller in spite of that – I guess the French just got a few chuckles at his expense!)

Anyway, here are three important things to do if you want to survive in another culture where you don’t know the language. I won’t claim these things will make you fluent, because it takes time and effort to make language come completely automatically. But following these tips will help anyone get a basic grasp of whatever language they’re immersed in. And if you happen to know any other hints, please share!

Without further ado, here’s what to do:

 

Step 1: Pre-Study:

Many people think it’s easier to learn a language by going somewhere that speaks it. They’re right, it is easier, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t take work! And it’s even easier if you prepare a little beforehand, or you risk getting overwhelmed and giving up in the first couple days.  Do try to learn a little bit ahead of time, even if it’s just grabbing a couple CDs from the library and listening to them on the way to work. You will be surprised at how vocabulary you thought was useless actually is used by people who speak the language. It’ll give you such a comforting feeling to know you understand something, even if it’s just one word out of fifty. And it gives you a handy structure for you to slot in all the future vocabulary you will (hopefully) pick up in the country. It certainly helped me! For example, before I left for Brazil, I learned a bunch of tourist vocabulary, including the word for ‘change,’ as in, money. The word is ‘troco.’ And I thought, okay, might be useful when talking to cashiers and stuff. But when I got there, I discovered the verb for ‘I change’ is ‘eu troco’ – just like in English, change is a noun and a verb! That surprised me, because languages don’t always work that way. But it meant I learned two words instead of just one, and I never forgot those two words either.

Step 2: Take Courage: Okay, so you memorized the Spanish-English dictionary before you left for Mexico (not a strategy I’d recommend, but let’s say you did). Despite knowing all these fabulous words, chances are you will be filled with nervous apprehension when faced with the opportunity to actually use these words in front of a native speaker. After all, they’ve spoken this language way longer than you. You remember how you laughed at that recently-immigrated clerk back home who was completely confused even though you used very simple English. What if this Spanish-speaker laughs at you? Sniggers about that gringo to all his friends? Or worse, just stares at you blankly? How will you ever pluck up the courage to actually use the words you learned?

This is probably my weak area in learning Portuguese. I would probably know more Portuguese if I tried to use it more often, but I tend to revert to English whenever humanly possible. Or made-up sign language, if English isn’t possible. But a bucket of courage and a willingness to make a fool of yourself is a great advantage when learning a language.

Step 3: Listen: What, you thought learning a language was about forcing your mouth to spout foreign phrases? That’s certainly part of it, but it’s not much use if you pronounce them so badly no one can understand you. Just because a word is spelt with an ‘a’ in it, it doesn’t exactly mean the ‘a’ is pronounced the same as an English ‘a’. And how do you learn the difference? By listening to people who actually know the language, of course! This is so important, some language theories actually recommend only listening to the language phrases you are trying to learn for several days, before attempting to pronounce them yourself. By hearing it correctly in your head before you say it, you have a far better chance of being understandable. That said, everyone will always have an accent, unless you devote endless hours to training yourself to reduce it. But at least you can reduce your accent until your pronunciation is not painful to native speakers’ ears.

 

So there you have it. Any tips to add?

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2 Comments

Filed under Brazil, Language Learning

2 responses to “Surviving a Language Immersion, in 3 Steps

  1. Alexia

    I’m definitely off-topic with this comment, but the image of the Tower of Babel totally reminded me of an expo I’ve seen this summer in Lille (that’s a city in the North of France) that has the Tower of Babel for theme. It was really interesting, you can see a few pictures here : http://www.pba-lille.fr/spip.php?article2608. I personally love the book tower (surprising right ?). There were a lot more stuff but sadly I couldn’t find pictures.

    Sorry for that comment who had nothing to do with the article, I wish I had something to add to the “Language immersion survival guide” but you pretty much covered it 🙂

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