“Estoy muy embarazada!” said a woman in front of a group of Spanish-speakers. Then, pointing to the man that had asked her to speak in front of them, she said, “Y es su culpa!”
Some of her audience gasped in shock, others only laughed. The woman thought she said she was very embarrassed. What she had really said was, “I’m very pregnant, and it’s his fault!”
Studying abroad can cause a number of unique challenges for students — especially if you are immersed in a culture that speaks a different language. Developing skills in another language will not only benefit you now as you try go grocery shopping in Paris, but will be of use throughout your life.
Here are ten tips that will help you learn faster:
1. Be proactive — It doesn’t matter how many classes you take, learning a language is something that requires effort on your part. Take personal responsibility for learning the language. Capitalize on any chance you get to learn more.
2. Take notes — During the day, write down words you didn’t understand or the names of things you don’t know the name of. You can use this later to help with your vocabulary.
3. Listen attentively — Actively listen and try to pick out sounds. When you hear a word you don’t recognize, don’t hesitate to ask what it means. Keep a pocket dictionary on hand and promptly look up words you don’t know.
4. Practice practice PRACTICE! — Although listening is important, the best thing you can do to improve your language skills is open your mouth and speak. Don’t worry about forming each phrase perfectly. If you don’t know a word, you can often work your way around it by asking something like, “what is the big yellow thing in the sky?” or “how do you say the thing that gives the time?” You must be willing to sound ridiculous.
5. Watch movies — Put on a movie with dialog you are familiar with. Because your mind already knows what the characters are saying, it will help you to associate new words with the dialog that you already remember. Besides, you’d be surprised how many opportunities you find to say, “May the force be with you.”
6. Learn vocabulary — Try learning vocabulary related to a certain task you will be performing, like making lunchtime conversation or asking for directions to get somewhere. Memorizing words that you can immediately apply in a practical situation will help you to remember them. Once you learn a word or phrase, practice it! (see tip #4)
7. Learn grammar — Learning the basic grammatical structures of a language will help you to speak more fluently. Once you know “the order of things”, you will find it easier to understand what other people are telling you. Believe it or not, learning the grammar of other languages will help you better understand your own language.
8. Read and write — Reading and writing will help reinforce the grammar principles you are learning as well as the vocabulary. Try to read a variety of different publications. When I was learning Spanish, I read primarily religious literature. When I tried to pick up Harry Potter y las Reliquias de la Muerte (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows), I had trouble catching some of the unique vocabulary that was used. Newspapers, novels, instruction manuals, phonebooks etc. can all provide you with new vocabulary to learn. One of my roommates that wanted to be better prepared for his trip to Brazil changed the settings on his computer to Portuguese. Read whatever interests you. Again, keep a dictionary handy to write down words that you don’t understand.
9. Learn the culture — Become an expert on the culture you are trying to learn about. Talk to native speakers and ask about their country’s history and culture. Learn about the politics, local customs, geography, interesting quirks, native animals or whatever other subject you find interesting. Whatever you learn can make great starting points for conversations.
10. Be reasonable — I once spoke with a guy who speaks seven languages (English, Spanish, Portuguese, Hebrew, Italian, German, and French). In his opinion it takes 10 years of total immersion and active study to completely learn a language. Most of us don’t have that long. Make sure you set goals which are low enough to achieve yet high enough to be a challenge. Don’t expect to wake up tomorrow morning being fluent in Mandarin if you just started learning it yesterday. Be patient and enjoy the ride and the mistakes you make along the way.
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