“A different language is a different vision of life.” Federico Fellini
Here’s something that’ll rub many English-speaking people the wrong way: There is an unspoken arrogance about some English speakers who don’t wish to learn another language.
Whenever I travel to a non-English speaking country, I often ask those I meet where or how they have managed to learn to speak English so well. The answer, more often than not, was ‘at school.’
Maybe it’s just me, but that makes me feel somewhat embarrassed about how our education system – at least here, in the UK – fails to drive the importance of mastering a second or third language to young students, stressing the many benefits it brings to the learner. That’s not me pinning the blame on the teachers; I recall my French tutors at high school being quite passionate and they certainly weren’t the worst out of the bad batch that I have had the displeasure of ‘not’ learning from.
But, no one ever took learning another language seriously, because it came down to the simple question: ‘What’s the point? Everyone else already knows English.’
My father is fluent in French, upon making friends over in Nice, he took night classes after his work shifts and read relevant books on his train rides to work, developing his knowledge and testing out what he had learnt during his visits to France.
Having that to look up to as a kid was a lucky starting point for me, as I later discovered in my own life, once you conquer one language you become somewhat hooked on the process and have the desire to challenge yourself with another. So my dad looked towards Spanish and German, which meant there were often books, audiotapes and various resources strewn around the home that I would often pick up and – very quickly – put down out of fleeting interest.
As a teenager, I wanted to better myself in many ways; I played guitar two hours a day, I would write and draw as often as I could, I read book after book and so on, I always had my eyes open for the next ‘self-development’ project.
When my cousin moved to Spain to start his own holiday home business, I had the good fortune to visit one of his properties with just the cost of a return plane ticket. Learning that one of his villas was located out in the middle of nowhere outside Alicante (ex-pat haven, but let’s not get into that), I figured that life would probably be made easier for my stays there if I picked up a bit of Spanish here and there.
I’ll spare you the long drawn out story, the short version: I found myself enjoying the learning and speaking of Spanish. There was a buzz I felt whenever a Spanish local’s eyes lit up if I asked for something or replied to them in Spanish, it sounds great, it made me feel good about myself knowing that I achieved something that many would avoid learning and – being a single teenage boy – I felt like it gave me an edge with women.
By the time I got home, I discovered Michel Thomas (more on him later). From there on, I got stuck into learning Spanish.
A good few years later, when I finally had some money in my bank account with a job as a video producer, I booked a trip to Italy. Out of ‘respect,’ as I was quite conscious that I didn’t want to be seen as another ‘stupid tourist’, I decided to learn some Italian.
I found that I loved learning Italian far more than I enjoyed learning Spanish.
Plus, I had an advantage, given the similarities between the two languages. It gave me a head start and I found myself syncing in with Italian pretty quickly and surprised myself with how fast I was picking it up.
By the time the trip to Italy came around, speaking Italian (albeit, not ‘fluent’ as I had three months to learn as much as I could) to waiters and bartenders, I discovered another benefit; discounts on bills, free desserts, free drinks and top notch service. Purely because the Italians are a proud folk and to hear a tourist go to the trouble of speaking their dialect pleases them to no end and so provided a small ‘thank you’ for doing so.
Encouraged by this, I kept at it. Bouncing back and forth between Spanish and Italian, trying to improve my multi-lingual abilities and keeping a ‘day streak’ going on Duolingo.
I have revisited Spain and Italy ever since – each time a little more educated on their dialects – and I love being able to communicate with the locals.
But it’s not just having an open dialogue with the natives that serves a purpose with learning another language…
There are health benefits, too!
Yup. Just to quote the above article:
“…studies show bilingual people exercise a brain network called the executive control system more. The executive control system involves parts of the prefrontal cortex and other brain areas, and is the basis of our ability to think in complex ways…
Bilingual people, the theory goes, constantly have to exercise this brain system to prevent their two languages from interfering with one another. Their brains must sort through multiple options for each word, switch back and forth between the two languages, and keep everything straight.
And all this work seems to confer a cognitive benefit — an ability to cope when the going gets tough and the brain is besieged with a disease such as Alzheimer’s.”
I’ll let you do the research if you want to know more about that, but that is an advantage that many of us would much prefer to have as well as gain the benefit of having extra access to communication and dialogue through another language.
Which adds another bonus to our list…
It looks damn good on your résumé!
It’s been brought up at interviews or career meetings, since I have ‘semi-fluent’ for both Italian and Spanish (I would never shoot myself in the foot and declare myself ‘fully fluent’ since I’m bound to be rusty with my rare full use of the languages) and it impresses a lot of employers and colleagues. When you do business or work for/with a major international enterprise, having other languages under your belt with open more doors for you.
“That’s all well and good but I don’t have the time/patience/money to learn another language!”
Well, I’m not writing this article to boast about my abilities to speak two language semi-fluently, I’m showcasing ‘why’ it’s useful and now I’m going to follow it up with some handy resources that can send you on your way.
KEY NOTE: You need to stick with it!
Don’t let yourself be overwhelmed, it’s supposed to be enjoyable. That’s how you’ll truly learn!
So here’s a quick summary:
- Coffee Break Podcasts
- Books and Audio CDs
- Michel Thomas Teaching Methods
- “Going Local”
Let’s break that list down – we’ll begin with the freebies:
A very handy app, which can be downloaded onto your phone or you can head over to the website here.
What Duolingo does is create fun exercises, leading you through various areas and levels that helps you build and recognise keywords, phrases and speeches. Whilst it may not cover the ‘rules’ of the grammar or fully divulge into the specifics and technicalities of your chosen language, it’s still great for keeping your memory fresh, hearing those words often enough that you start to register to them on sound alone and – unless you want the version without the adverts – it’s completely free.
I use it every day and it barely takes a few minutes to meet your daily goal.
COFFEE BREAK PODCASTS
I listen to Coffee Break Spanish and Coffee Break Italian – you can find more languages and information at the production company’s official site here.
These are short lessons (hence the name) that features episodes, released week-by-week, that follow on from the previous broadcast. Again, like Duolingo, you can pay for bonus materials, show notes and extras but listening on your way to work or on an actual coffee break will suffice enough.
The lessons simplify the languages, interacting with a real student who is also learning, and you’ll find a lot of it sticks as you follow each episode.
You can find the podcast on iTunes, Spotify, CastBox and anywhere else that you may source your podcasts.
BOOKS AND AUDIO CDS
The obvious suggestion. Head over to your local bookshop and purchase a book, dictionary and an audio CD (a lot of books tend to come as both a print and CD package).
Here are a few recommendations of mine:
It’s all down to personal preference, but I like my techniques and theories kept simple without the need to write anything down nor require any revision or tests.
Which, leads us to the legend that is:
This guy was something else. He changed the way the world learnt languages forever, through his core belief that the blame of failing to learn a language was the fault of the teacher and not the student.
He would use relaxing environments and fast learning methods, where he would teach keywords to his students and within minutes had them speaking full sentences and phrases.
Thomas passed away back in 2005 but his boxsets are still available at most bookshops and online.
Whilst the audiobooks themselves are not necessarily cheap (buying ‘new or used on Amazon may help you find a better deal) but they are mostly certainly effective.
Quick example – he breaks down how all words ending in “tion” such as: Condition – Tradition – Proposition – Situation etc.
Will translate in Spanish to “ción.”
So to translate the above words: condición – tradición – proposición – situación.
Think about how many words there are that end with those four letters. Already, you have cracked that part of the Spanish dictionary with over 2500 words.
Many broadsheet newspapers are reported to use less than 600 words.
To say ‘I have’ in Spanish, you say: ‘Tengo’ (like the dance or the fizzy drink.)
All words ending in ‘ción’ are feminine, which means putting ‘a’ before it is ‘una.’
I won’t get too deep into the rules of grammar, all I’m doing here is trying to demonstrate how fast you can pick up a sentence.
So to say, “I have a condition/tradition/proposition/situation.”
You say in Spanish: “Tengo una condición/tradición/proposición/situación.”
As a brief demo – that’s what the Michel Thomas method is all about.
And then there is the ultimate learning tool:
Simply travelling to a location (or a restaurant where the staff speak your chosen language) and insist that the locals and anyone else you meet speak their dialect to you and help guide you with yours.
Some folks – such as busy waiters – may feel rather impatient to do so, but more often than not they will be delighted to help you and will tutor you where they can. Every experience I’ve had – and pretty much where a lot of my knowledge has been solidified – came from happy-to-help locals who take a few minutes to teach me, correct me or confirm what I am saying and to say it properly with clear explanation and context.
It’s a great travelling aspect to take on board too and you’ll feel culturally and spiritually richer for taking the time to do so. Don’t be embarrassed or feel stupid, nor take it personally if they laugh at your attempts to speak their language, they’ll more than likely step up and help you out.
“I’M NOT CONVINCED, IT’S NOT FOR ME.”
Okay, suit yourself. But at least learn the following words to at least show that you care enough about the culture and the country you’re visiting as a sign of respect:
- Thank you
- You’re welcome
Since I failed at learning Polish, Croatian and Danish – I at least covered those five phrases to show that I’m not a total ignoramus and those gestures in themselves are polite enough to get a smile or sign of appreciation from the person you’re dealing with.
So, if not for your health, your CV, your character development etc.
At least learn a little of another language for the opportunity to open yourself up to a new world of communication and experiences – the rewards and gratification you will receive is priceless.
The world is feeling increasingly smaller and prejudice is becoming more rife and prominent from country-to-country. With a palpable political atmosphere and xenophobia on the rise, the least some of us can do is show that we’re willing to embrace something other than our English dialect, to open up further conversation and extend the gesture of communication.
Trust me. You’ll feel richer for it.