I was living in the French-speaking area of Switzerland, where an American associate of mine told me of a time when she had gotten lost on a weekend outing in Germany. This was back in the late 60’s, when far fewer Germans spoke English than do today. She would stop in each village and look for someone who spoke English and could point her back to her intended route. At each stop, she would ask (in a much louder voice than necessary – something many of us tend to do, as if the other person were hard of hearing):
“DO YOU SPEAK ENGLISH?”
– only to be answered with “Nein, es tut mir Leid.” (No, I’m sorry.) This went on for some time, until finally, in one last desperate attempt, she approached a middle-aged gentleman who she thought surely knew at least enough English to bail her out of her predicament. In an emphatic and over-articulate voice, she pleaded,
“SIR, DO YOU SPEAK ENGLISH?” -- to which the gentleman replied with matching emphasis and intensity:
He was with the American military and stationed in southwestern Germany, one of the largest American communities outside the United States at the time.
Let’s face it – English speakers do not enjoy a reputation of being particularly multilingual. After all, they don’t need to be – take the Americans, for example: their neighbors to the north speak English, to the east and west is ocean, and to the south – well, there are enough Mexicans in the tourist industry who speak English that it’s not a necessity to speak Spanish. And what of the thousands of Hispanics who now call the US home? Well, they have to learn English if they want to survive, right?
Compare this to the Dutch, for example, in whose country I lived for five and a half years; if they want to be understood anywhere outside their small country (with the exception of Belgium and a handful of Caribbean islands), they have to learn at least one other language. This is most often English, followed by German and French. In fact, many European high school students study more than one foreign language at a time.
There’s no question that one can get by with English in much of the world – which is a fact that doesn’t exactly have a motivating effect upon anglophones to learn a foreign language.
Now let’s be honest – most of us have hidden behind this fact as an excuse not to study a foreign language. Not only that, we have also somehow convinced ourselves that Americans (and while we’re at it, we may as well add Brits, Australians and New Zealanders, all island nations, interestingly enough) are simply not good at learning another language.
This is not necessarily true, nor does it have to be.
In the 21st century, where globalization has reduced the size of the planet we live on, our excuses not to learn another language hold less and less water. The only reason we’re not good at it is the mysterious and formidable power of suggestion; and if we are capable of convincing ourselves that we’re a lost cause, then surely we are capable of the inverse. As a matter of fact, there are lots of us who are living proof. We’re also proof that learning a foreign language not only opens up new microcosms of the brain, but also opens up a whole new macrocosm waiting to be discovered and explored. Learning another language isn’t simply about forming sentences like assembling a machine with a new set of tools; it’s about discovering entire cultures behind the language. The more we resist the idea, the more we deprive ourselves of untold riches.
It’s like suddenly being able to see in vivid color what you once only saw in black and white.
What follows are some tips on how to approach learning a foreign language that will not only make the process make more sense, but also make it a little less painful, and – who knows – you may even find yourself hooked for life, as is the case with yours truly. Some of the tips might seem like no-brainers; but you might be surprised how a simple mental shift can make a world of difference.
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