You Can Do It!
What do you call someone who speaks three languages? Trilingual
How about two languages? Bilingual
Just one? American
This old joke has more than a grain of truth to it. Unless you are an immigrant or a child of immigrants, chances are you only speak English.
There are lots of reasons for this. Like…we’re a big country and don’t need to speak anyone else’s darned language. Or…English is already the “international language” so other languages are unnecessary.
It’s also true that foreign languages are not emphasized in school. Plus they are hard to learn! And if you didn’t do it when you were young and had a nice elastic brain, it is even harder.
So what if you are over 40 and want to learn a second language?
The good news is, it can be done. I learned French in my 50s.
Here’s the approach I recommend.
Decide on Your Goals
There are lots of reasons to learn a new language. Your work may require it. Or you may want to travel abroad and be able to communicate. Or maybe you want to dive into another country’s literature.
Each of these paths is different – for example, one emphasizes written rather than spoken language. And one needs a business vocabulary instead of a tourist vocabulary. The level of language mastery required varies as well.
So start by knowing where you want to go. As the saying goes, if you don’t know where you are going, any path will take you there.
Finally, be reasonable. Fluency sounds great, but even a basic level of language competence can have a big impact on your life.
Build a Foundation
You need some rudimentary knowledge to get started, like the fundamentals of grammar and pronunciation. You don’t need a lot but you do need some. So take a beginner’s course – you can easily find one online or at a local college or community center. Start by building that foundation.
Talk Talk Talk
It is fascinating to talk to foreigners in their own language. And by far the best way to learn a new language is to speak it.
You are probably thinking, who wants to talk to a newbie, someone who can barely string three words together and makes lots of mistakes?
The answer is – another newbie. A language partner.
There are websites, like www.mylanguageexchange.com, that help you find language partners. Let’s say that you speak English and want to learn French. You can search this site and find French speakers who want to learn English. AND you can find someone whose level (beginner, intermediate, etc.) is the same as yours.
This other person faces the same challenges you do – they are trying to learn a new language and they need someone to talk to. So they will be patient as you struggle with their language because they know exactly what you are going through. You are helping them and they are helping you.
Once you find a potential language partner you can invite them to connect. If they accept then you are ready to go! I have found that Skype calls once or twice a week have really accelerated my language learning. I do them for about an hour at a time, the first half in French and the second in English.
A couple of pro tips:
– Video calls are better than voice, especially when you need to pantomime (and you will.)
– Try to find language partners with similar interests or you will run out of things to talk about.
When I first started learning French and would hear people speak it, it seemed like all the words ran together. Where did one word end and the next one begin? Until I could learn to distinguish individual words, I had a hard time understanding what people said.
I found that I had to “tune my ear” by listening to a lot of French. Happily, there are podcasts available on just about any subject and in just about any language. Do you like cooking and want to learn Spanish? There are plenty of Spanish-language cooking podcasts. Do you enjoy history and want to learn Chinese? There are podcasts for you. Do you love baseball and want to learn Ukrainian? Ok, well, you might be out of luck there.
Listen to these podcasts as you drive or walk the dog or work in the garden. At first it will be a blur, but slowly your brain will adapt and you’ll be able to hear the different words. That’s a big step to learning your second language.
You Don’t Have to be Perfect
No one likes to make mistakes, especially in public, so there is a natural tendency to avoid talking until you are really good. But you need to talk to get really good, so this is self-defeating. Just stop worrying about feeling stupid. Learn to laugh at yourself.
Most people appreciate it when you make an effort to speak their language. Yes, I’ve had the occasional rude French waiter. But I’ve had rude waiters everywhere, including my hometown.
I have found that French people (or Italians, or Japanese, or whomever) smile and nod and encourage me when I try to speak their language. It shows respect for them and their culture. Who doesn’t appreciate that?
And sometimes when you make a mistake, you get a funny story out of it.
French and English share a lot of words, like nation and pause. If I don’t know a word in French I sometimes fake it by using the English word with a French accent. It usually works, but not always.
I once served some French friends a cheese with edible ash on it. As I brought out the plate I announced it in French as a cheese with ash. My friends, after recovering from their shock, explained to me that this meant hashish. Oops.
Anticipate a Few Ups and Downs
Language learning is a funny thing – it happens in spurts. It seems like you are making no progress at all, sometimes for weeks, and then suddenly you take a big leap forward. I don’t know why it happens but it does, so don’t be discouraged when you feel like you are working hard and not getting anywhere. And enjoy the leaps when they happen.
This is going to take a while and you need to have fun to stick with it. So find ways to enjoy the language as you are learning. Maybe take a vacation to try out your new skills. Or watch movies in your new language. Or go to a restaurant where they speak the language and chat with the waiters.
I subscribe to a US newspaper and a French one. I look for stories that both papers have covered and read them in English and then in French (I read English first because that helps me understand what the story is about.) It can be fascinating to see two perspectives on the same subject.
After studying French and traveling there often, I can now hold meaningful conversations in my second language. I have friends in France and even read French books. It still surprises me because I was terrible with languages as a kid.
Learning a new language as an adult is one of the most satisfying things I have ever done.
I hope it will be for you, too.
Read more at www.keithvansickle.com
Thanks for sharing these tips Keith. I struggle the most with being confident in my speech in front of others. I am working on this lack of confidence and know when I master this, there will be no stopping me!!
All very good hints Keith. I am a French language teacher (now back living in Australia but having lived for several years in France). It still gives me great pleasure to learn something new about the French language every day. My son is now 13 and when he was a baby I decided that I would only speak to him in French. I still do. It has been one of the biggest challenges that I have ever undertaken but it has also been influential in determining so many of our family’s paths.
So glad you liked it!