If you are like me, you probably love to travel. In fact, I bet many people have travling in their top-5 list of most interesting and fascinating hobbies. If you don’t perhaps you may want to reconsider, since traveling can be quite an eye-opener, and will expose you to experiences and situations you may have never experienced back at home.
But let’s not indulge too much into the topic of travel… it’s the language that I want to write a few words about. I speak quite alot, 3 languages fluently, and 2 fairly well. It struck me recently, how I have come to speak them so well. I started studying Chinese last year in the summer, and although I have been attending my classes regularly, and I have been learning, I wasn’t getting anywhere. And then it struck me, as I went into a chinese bookstore to get myself a dictionary. I walked in, greeted the sales person in German (I live in Germany), bought the book, and went home.
But wait a minute! This guy in the bookstore was a Chinese. I could have greeted him in Chinese, paid in Chinese, ordered the book in Chinese!
Theory vs. practice
Most people, when they learn a foreign language, focus a great deal on theory. They buy text books, grammar books, dictionaries, study on vocabulary, tenses, conjugations, and follow class. This in itself is not bad. On the contrary, it is a great way to become introduced to a foreign language. However, everything you learn is stored in the conscious part of the mind. This means, that retrieving that information costs energy and time, and you are not able to retrieve the information you need within a split second.
But isn’t that what speaking a language is all about? When we speak out mother’s tongue, we do not think about what to say, and how… it is a second nature. In order to cultivate that second nature, it’s important to practice. Even if it’s simple hello or goodbye, practice is the key. Many people don’t practice, because they do not have the confidence. They feel that they need just a little bit more theoretical knowledge, before they could put it to use. However, does this cycle ever end?
Have you ever wondered why children are so good at learning languages? The answer is quite simple: they don’t care sh*** what other people think of them, just to put it plain and simple. They are simply not that well aware of the emotion called ‘embarrassement’. They would repeat and use the little knowledge of a foreign language as often as they can, no matter how wrong or right it is, with the same ease as they’d point to a stranger and yell Look at that ugly man over there!!
I whish there would be a formula to immediately boost confidence and start speaking. But there isn’t. Some people are truly confident, and have a much greater potential learning a foreign language than those who are very shy, and want to learn everything into perfection before taking action.
Theory and practice combined
The ideal way to learn a foreign language is to combine theory and practice. Theory might be necessary to become aquainted to the language, and learn some basic structures, as well as to improve the language skills. But it will not let you truly learn the language, and become fluent. Therefore, it needs practice. Perhaps you don’t know how to say everything, or perhaps you don’t understand everything, but it is sometimes astonishing how much a person can understand from hand movements, or from context.
One way to combine theory and practice is to go abroad to a language school. The great advantage to this, is that a lot of theory is packed into a short period of time, and you can apply it in the country you are studying immediately, as it is still fresh. Additionally, you will not be tempted to fall back to you mother’s tongue if you are not able to say something, as you would back home.
Additionally, you could grasp each and every opportunity to learn a language back home. If you are studying French, for example, perhaps there is a French community in your area you could join. You may want to buy a book in French and read it, or listen to French radio. I remember having learnt German as a child solely by watching German children broadcastings on television. It is great for passive learning. But then again, who wants to sit in front of the television all day…?