By: Alexandra Talty
With a nod to Diane Kruger’s famous line from Inglorious Bastards — ”I know this is stupid question, but can you Americans speak any other languages besides English?”— it is commonly acknowledged that we Americans are not well-known for our language skills. And although the growing Hispanic population in America seems to be making the United States a more bilingual country, we still lag behind most other nations. Chalk it up to the oceans on either side of our coasts or the fact that one of our biggest exports is our English music and movies, but we are quite English-centric.
While I sadly admit that I’m a walking testament to this fact, after studying four languages (and Latin!) but am still not fluent in any, here are some ways that I have found helpful to pick up a language and become at least proficient. I also caught up with my former roommate in an effort to give the best advice possible. She’s a Belgian 23 year old who is, wait for it, fluent in Dutch and English, highly proficient in French, advanced in Arabic and Latin, and intermediate in German. And let me tell you, highly-proficient for a Belgian is a whole different ball game than highly-proficient for an American.
Emilie De Keyzer, who is working with the NGO Coordination Committee for Iraq in Amman, Jordan, landed her first internship at the United Nations thanks to her fluency in English. As for her current position, she uses Arabic to speak with some coworkers and everything else is communicated in English. So what is her secret trick to learning languages?
“Learning different languages from a young age definitely helped me in learning languages later. I studied French intensively from the age of 8 and heard a lot of English around me, as we don’t dub anything in Belgium and basically only listen to English music,” says De Keyzer, in an exchange on Skype. “Knowing multiple languages and thus different grammar systems and different ways of pronouncing things definitely helps to pick up other languages fast because you can always find some similarities.”
“Basically you just need to keep up with languages all the time because you forget them so easily,” says De Keyzer. Here are some ways to key ways to study languages more efficiently, either in the classroom or in the real world.
If you are planning on taking a language class, one thing I would highly recommend looking for is a program that focuses on immersion. While this is probably easier to find if you are learning a language in a country where it is spoken, it is possible to find immersion programs in the United States as well.
I didn’t realize the importance of immersion until I took Urban Arabic at Saifi Institute in Beirut, Lebanon. Now, I was in a beginner class with other people who had never spoken Arabic before, but somehow our teacher was able to communicate with us despite the fact that she spoke Arabic 98 percent of the time.
The biggest benefit of learning in an immersion classroom is that your brain, at a certain point, turns to that other language. Granted, the words that I had in those first few weeks of Arabic were pen, table and chair, but you can bet at the end of a three-hour class, when I saw a table, it was tawleh, not table. Getting your brain to really think in another language is a great step towards fluency.
Language exchanges can be another way to replicate the immersion experience, but at less cost. The basic idea is to find someone whose first language is the language that you are trying to acquire, and who is also trying to learn English. That way, you both practice speaking with a native speaker.
“Speaking is also really something you can only practice by living in a country where they speak the language or by having an intensive language exchange with someone,” says De Keyzer. “Although I am not a big fan of the language exchange system, it really only works if you both have already an advanced level and can just talk about similar topics. It is hard to find someone who is at the same level of a language as you are.”
3) Live With A Language
One great way to work on your skills is by living with native speakers. One of my former roommates was French university student named Lisa who wanted to perfect her English while living in Beirut. And so she found a flat with only English speakers. Six months later her ambition paid off and she was fluent.
You can either do this through a homestay program, or by finding an apartment with people who are the same age. The benefit of a homestay is that host families are often obligated to not speak English at all. However, finding an apartment with your peers might afford more privacy. It might be easier to revert to English in an apartment setting, so try to set a strong precedent in the beginning.
4) Hit The Books
There is no way to sugar coat this. A gigantic part of learning a language well is studying. A lot.
“For me, studying Latin in high school was a big help for studying a completely unknown language like Arabic,” says De Keyzer. She studied Latin for six years, reaching a proficient level by the time she was 17. “I learned how to remember vast amounts of words and learn a grammar system that is completely different than anything I knew. So although Latin has nothing in common with Arabic, it taught me how to start studying a language.”
I think this is a good point to remember, because sometimes when you meet someone who speaks two or more languages, it can be frustrating as it seems so easy for them. However, unless they were born in a multi-lingual household, they had to work at acquiring that language.
5) Flash Cards
“I think I probably have like five boxes full of flashcards at home. Those helped me a lot because it is easy to do five when you get up, five when you get home and five when you go to sleep,” says De Keyzer. “I think that is the most important thing, to do small doses of vocabulary but to do them every day. It is easier said than done of course.”
Nowadays, De Keyzer recommends the website Quizlet, where you can use pre-made flashcards for practically any language. It is free and has an audio component, so can be great if you want to work on pronunciation as well. It is also available as an app, so you can practice on-the-go.
For tricky words, she recommends thinking of other words they look like or words they resemble. She also finds it helpful to put them in a sentence.
6) Use Your Smartphone
Another app I like is Flashcards. It is fairly simple, but you can write your own flashcards, which is great for languages like Chinese or Arabic that are not based on the Latin alphabet. You can make stacks based on themes and cycle through them for quizzes.
For Spanish, I have also found SpanishDict to be a helpful free app. It has a word of the day, quizzes, a full Spanish-English dictionary and phrases based on situations.
7) Buddy System
If you have a friend who is studying the same language as you, try buddying up.
“It is always good to do quizzes with someone who also studies the language,” says De Keyzer. “You will remember things easier when you talked about words and maybe someone else has a better trick for remembering hard vocabulary.”
De Keyzer and I used to do this for Arabic vocabulary and although we were very different levels, it was a fun way to practice.
Listening to music or the radio can be great ways to passively practice a language. Although it is not equivalent to going through flashcards, it is fairly enjoyable and can be a good way to get local lingo and practice words.
Look for a type of music that enunciates well, so that you can really hear the words. One of my classmates at Saifi Institute was a 40-year-old mom of two, and one of her favorite ways to practice outside of class was listening to Lebanese and Palestinian hip-hop as she shuttled her kids around Beirut. Hey, whatever works.
Another easy way to passively practice is by watching a foreign movie with English subtitles. This is a good method if you are just starting out and want your ear to become familiar with the language. You can hear how slang is used and which phrases are most popular. It can also be a huge help with the accent and pronunciation, especially if you are not living in the country.
If you have some basic skills, challenge yourself and put on the subtitles of the language you are learning and listen at the same time. That way, you can see what is written. Try a romantic comedy or comedy as they can have more obvious plotlines and you can probably deduce what is going on even if you don’t understand it completely.
If you are really good, keep the subtitles off completely and wing it. Again, I would recommend comedies or even children’s movies, as you can infer what is happening.
10) Persistence Pays
One thing I have noticed about people who are multi-lingual is that they make a point of reverting to another person’s native language, regardless of their own proficiency in that language. For example, they would practice their basic Italian with an Italian who might be fluent in English. It might be a bit awkward, but chances are the other person will appreciate it.
The key is to be persistent, especially since most people have some English skills. Keep responding back to that person in English. I did this with my Argentine neighbor when I moved to the Dominican Republic and while someone might have laughed listening to him speak English and me reply in my broken Spanish, it really helped build my vocabulary, work on grammar and gain some confidence in speaking with strangers.
“The challenge [of learning languages] is worth a lot,” says De Keyzer. “It’s pretty cool when you do understand what people say, or what the lyrics of that song on the radio mean. That gives you a high that can make you keep going. For a couple days, until some random Jordanian Argileh guys talks to you and you wonder whether what he is speaking is actually Arabic.”
Learning a language? What are your favorite tricks for fluency? Share in the comments below.