How To Learn A Foreign Language
I have a confession to make:
I don’t speak Spanish.
I understand enough to get around. I can produce enough to have a basic conversation. I can read street signs and restaurant menus…
But, after a career that has included more than a quarter-century spending time and doing business in countries where the people speak Spanish, I’m embarrassed to admit that I don’t.
When we moved to Paris, none of us spoke French. Jackson, age 4 at the time of the move, learned to speak French (as well as any French 4-year-old) within six weeks (no kidding). His sister Kaitlin, age 14 at the time of the move, worked and struggled, and, after many teary nights of toil and, eventually, a French boyfriend, was speaking beautifully and fluently within 12 months.
Lief and I watched in awe. Lief resorted to using his Spanish when English absolutely wouldn’t work (and often found that the person on the other end of the conversation hablaed enough to allow him to get his point across). I was reduced to relying on my children for translation support.
Finally, after living in Paris nearly four years, I got serious. That January I made the time and registered for a month-long immersion program. Kaitlin and Jackson will tell you still, today, that I don’t speak French. My level doesn’t compare with theirs, but, after my four weeks of four hours of lessons five days a week, I was able to get along, get around, and even chat with French friends over tea en français.
A year later, we moved to Panama…where, now, finally, I’ve admitted that it’s time again to get serious. We’ve formed a study group in the office–four non-Spanish-speaking Americans and our Russian-born conference director. The five of us are meeting every Friday with a private tutor, a young Panamanian woman, trained as a language instructor, who lived in the States for several years.
We’ve begun with the basics–the alphabet, fundamental principles of pronunciation, and weekly dictations to build our vocabulary.
Based on my experience, here’s what I can tell you about learning a new language:
Unless you’re 4-years-old and spending more than eight hours each day in an environment where only the foreign language is spoken and no one will speak a word of your native tongue to you, you aren’t going to be able to pick up the language as you go along. It won’t happen by osmosis. You’ll have to work at it.
The challenge for us adults is to put ourselves in situations where we must communicate in the foreign language. Lief and I managed to live in France four years learning only basic French because we spent all day every weekday in the company of fellow English-speakers. The language in our office was English, and we were communicating all day long every day via phone and the Internet with other English-speakers around the world. We were insulated from the French-speaking world on our doorstep.
The other challenge for us adults is to make time to make progress. I was lucky, finally, to have four consecutive weeks in Paris when I could focus on learning French. It was a gift…an indulgence. Now, in Panama, I’m struggling to keep the one hour each Friday open. In fact, I missed this past Friday’s class because an appointment outside the office went much longer than I’d thought it would.
The real challenge is creating consequences.
I know that the benefits of learning to speak Spanish will be great. My life will be less frustrating at times and richer overall once I break through that barrier. I’ll be able to operate more independently, rather than relying on our Spanish-speaking office staff for help so often. I’ll make more friends. I’ll be more at home.
But, unfortunately, there are no negative practical consequences for me not learning to speak better Spanish. I do fine day-to-day.
Jackson had no choice but to learn to speak French when we enrolled him in the local nursery school in Paris. Not another person in the school spoke English. If he wanted a drink of water, to be taken to the bathroom, or to have a playmate for a game of marbles, he had to be able to communicate in French.
Here’s my advice: Don’t follow in my undisciplined footsteps.
If you’re planning a move to a place where the people speak a different language than the one you know already, start studying up now. This is one key thing you can do no matter when you’re planning your move, a step you can take starting today.
There are dozens of language-learning options in Paris. I enrolled in the month-long program offered by Accord. It was effective and fun…but but cheap. The cost was about 300 euro per week.
I also tried a private tutor in Paris, at a cost of 50 euro per hour.
Here in Panama, we’re paying our tutor a total of US$45 per hour, split among the five of us.
P.S. Another effective way to learn a new language is to find yourself a boyfriend or girlfriend who speaks only the new language and not your current one. This worked for Kaitlin in Paris, and I’ve seen it work for gentlemen friends here in Panama City.
Not an option for me, but a pleasant approach, I’d imagine…