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8 Tips for learning a foreign language

One of the biggest disadvantages that expatriates battle when moving to a new country is the language barrier. Two things will usually happen. Either you will jump in and immerse yourself in the painfully awkward and potentially disastrous act of trying to converse or just get in with the expat communities, stay stuck only speaking English with them for eternity. We have always felt that learning many languages gives you infinite advantages and opportunities. (Peter is ordering baby E. 4 different language books for me to start reading to her now!) Although English is spoken in many parts of the world today, not many people know it here in Paysandu; despite the growing number of advertisements, movies/media, store fronts, products available, etc. Here are some tips we’ve picked up along the way. As the Uruguayans like to say, “una lucha!” (it’s always a battle!)

CONVERSATION, conversation.

If there is any ‘hack’ that anyone can tell you, it is this: you must force yourself to engage in hours and hours of uncomfortable and strenuous conversation with someone who speaks the language better than you. It’s been said that a one hour conversation with a person in front of you is more effective than 10 hours of self-study or 5 hours of classroom time in a foreign language.  Why is this? One of the reasons is that you are likely to be more invested and motivated in a live conversation than studying a book or computer program. Language needs to be processed, not memorized. Being forced to use a word two or three times in a conversation actually sticks in your head compared to staring at a flashcard a hundred times. Also, our minds place priority on memories that involve social/human experiences, and emotions. I found this to be especially true when I was giving birth to baby E. The 4 days I spent in that hospital were a major crash course in Spanish.  Birth, cesarean, swelling, blood, amniotic fluid, pain, medication, etc. were all words I had looked up and written down beforehand. I had even translated my birth plan into Spanish yet all this vanished from my brain the moment I walked in to the maternity ward. However throughout my stay, I was hearing and having to use those same words over and over again. (although it took charades the first few times for all of us to understand one another) and now those words are burned into my brain.

me, very pregnant and translating my birth plan
me, very pregnant and translating my birth plan

Intensity trumps length of study

Many people study foreign languages in school. Yet by the time the semester is over they walk away with nothing. Language requires consistent commitment, personal experience, and repetition. Classes are usually a few times a week, 3-4 hours for studying, divided by other things going on in between. It is more beneficial to study four hours a day for two weeks straight than studying one hour a day for two months. (which I am guilty of) You are better off dedicating two weeks out of the year to study the language intensely than half-heartedly throughout the year.

Start with the 100 most common words

Practice making sentences with these 100 words over and over again. Study just enough grammar to work with them and then practice until you are very comfortable with it. Remember, studies have shown that the most common 100 words make up 50% of any spoken language. The basic grammar will have you speaking fundamental sentences within a matter of days.

it is muy importante for any pregnant woman to include her cravings in the top 100 most common words
it is muy importante for any pregnant woman to include her cravings in the top 100 most common words

Keep practicing in your head

Challenge yourself to think in the new language! We all have conversations running through our minds, usually with our native tongue. Practicing fake conversations in your head with the new language will lead you to greater confidence when you are actually having them with a person. You can begin to think about how you will explain why you are in this country, what you are doing for a living, etc. These questions will probably come up anyways and now you will be ready to answer them.

You will say a lot of stupid things, accept it.

One thing we kept asking in a store was if the product came in other heat.  (we meant colors) Another time I told the doctor I was bleeding while she was obviously examining me. (she was like what??) I always have this fear that I must learn how to speak spanish perfectly before anything comes out of my mouth and its frankly so unrealistic. It’s going to happen, just accept it, laugh at yourself with them and move on.


Use online and audio courses for basic grammar and the first 100 words

After you have mastered their content ONLY use it for reference. Pimsleur, Rosetta Stone, etc. are good for getting you to start saying simple sentences and phrases in a short amount of time. Although they are really helpful for learning basic vocabulary, they do not allow for useful practice. Like I said before, it’s BEST to force yourself to converse with real people on the spot.

“How do you say x?” is the most important sentence you can learn. Learn it right away and use it often!

When you learn a new word, attempt to use it a few times immediately.

Make it a point to use your new word in the next couple of sentences. Try to use it again later in the day and chances are the word with stick with you.