Recall the days of slavishly studying your French, German, or Spanish textbooks in class, reciting chalkboard lines, and struggling with unfamiliar verb endings. How long did you spend in school? How much of the language are you able to recall at this time?
The likelihood of such happening is tiny. Even if you pick up a few words here and there or gain some background knowledge from reading signs, guidebooks, etc., without regular use, the language quickly fades away. Speaking a foreign language is becoming increasingly crucial as more and more individuals travel or even permanently relocate overseas. What went wrong, then?
Like me, I’m willing to bet that you didn’t feel particularly inspired or motivated to study a foreign language when you were in school. Maybe you were taught the language the old-fashioned way, by rote (‘repeat after me!’), and your instructor spent more time explaining the language’s grammar than actually having you use it. Perhaps the course curriculum prioritized written over oral communication.
Tips for Effective Language Acquisition
Instead of learning a language to communicate, we should try to share it with others first. Look at how your infant, toddler, young child, or pet communicates with you. I do not doubt that you will pick up a few phrases and be able to communicate effectively when you travel abroad. Your interest in the local culture will likely make you more open to learning the language. You will be more motivated if you have a personal reason to learn the language, such as a boyfriend or girlfriend from another country.
While there are many distinct types of learners, all of them share the requirement that they hear, see, and speak the target language to master it. Many of us may have been “grammar-phobic” due to our school’s heavy emphasis on the subject. Grammar is not the only aspect of a language that can be learned. You can focus more on the unique elements of grammar once you have a firm grasp of spoken communication skills, such as a working vocabulary and a few simple verbs and structures.
The advantages of learning a few words and phrases in advance
This point of view may make grammarians cringe. Still, I’m trying to understand that, for the average traveler, it’s more important to focus on hearing and speaking the language than worrying about correct tenses and word order. The dispute amongst English educators as to which is more crucial, vocabulary or grammar, is ongoing. After spending 20 years in a foreign country (most of them spent teaching English), I can confidently state both are necessary. First, brushing up on basic language skills, including learning new words, phrases, and verbs, is essential. The grammar will be fine-tuned after that.
When we travel, one of our primary goals is to communicate effectively with those around us. While “Excuse me, the post office where?” is not good grammar, the person on the other end will understand that you are trying to find the post office. It’s also doubtful that a local will correct you if you ask, “Excuse me, where the post office is?” What this means is that your question is quite reasonable.
Similarly, the more you practice, the better you’ll get. The more we hear and see something, the more likely we are to remember it. Unfortunately, not all English teachers and textbooks provide sufficient repetitions of a particular structure before moving on. They don’t help learners retain information either. I have observed many inexperienced educators quickly read through an entire chapter of a course book while I would spend far more time “milking” and developing concepts from just one page.
One’s ability to retain information increases if “engaged” in the studied material. Learning a language is natural if we are interested in it (and thus driven to study it). It’s not uncommon for us to acquire knowledge without even realizing it. Even yet, we are constantly “picking up” new languages just by being exposed to them and trying to use our existing lexical and conceptual toolkits to connect with others who speak them. Having spent many hours listening to song lyrics and surfing the Internet, many youngsters who begin a language study have already learned (unbeknownst to them) a big deal of vocabulary.
Helpful Travel Tips
Before leaving, try to acquire a few useful phrases and words. Not only will this make your time there much more pleasant (if you know how to haggle, locate the restroom, order food, and ask for directions, etc.), but you will also likely be met with warmer reception by the locals. Your hosts will appreciate the effort you put into learning the language and may even get you some perks like lower prices or special treatment. Don’t be afraid to make a few blunders; that’s how we learn and grow.
Although English has been called the “global language,” there is no reason to assume that everyone is fluent in it. When I traveled internationally, I discovered that many people who speak English as their first language are poor language learners and communicators. I have witnessed numerous instances of tourists yelling their messages repeatedly. The hapless salesperson, waiter, or front desk staff becomes further perplexed. You should remember that the other person is not deaf; they don’t understand what you’re saying.
Try to explain things in simpler terms, utilize visual aids and body language if available, and speak more clearly and slowly than you usually would instead of raising the volume of your voice. A little extra work on your part now could save you a lot of hassle afterward. You can assist a waiter in taking your order more accurately by pointing to the food you desire on the menu. If he can read your order, he won’t have to worry about mispronouncing it even if he doesn’t know your accent. You can avoid any confusion by simply asking him to repeat the order.
If you are not fluent in the local language and plan to travel or relocate overseas, visiting a bookstore and picking up a beginner’s language course with audio CDs before you leave is a good idea. Ensure that listening and speaking skills, vocabulary, and some simple grammar are emphasized in the course. In addition to positive phrases, you’ll also need to know how to ask questions and use negatives. Remember that hearing and seeing the language can help you learn it more quickly.
After learning a handful of priceless expressions, most people feel comfortable branching out and creating their own. If you have a decent vocabulary and know some common verbs like “be,” “do,” “go,” “have,” “want,” and “like,” you should be able to get by in most social situations. Knowing useful phrases for shopping, dining out, following directions, and social niceties, along with a good phrasebook and dictionary, should ensure a pleasant and fruitful stay.
You could also consider enrolling in a crash course at a nearby language institute. Likewise, you might link up with others who share your interests. Learning a new language at a school is often more effective than learning it in a classroom setting. Instead of the dreaded “Today we are going to learn about the Present Perfect tense!” their classes are typically based on a communicative method, emphasizing having fun and immersing students in a topic or situation which contains the (hidden) structure to be learned.
And if you’re wondering, yes, she does speak multiple languages. The answer is no. Example: “May I have a discount?” and “Where is the restroom?” are now available in more languages than I care to count.
Freelance writer and seasoned language instructor Gill Hart. She spent many years teaching and leading language programs in Europe and Asia, where she also made her home. She has spent the last several years writing articles, studying journalism, creating course materials, and teaching new English teachers.