Learning a Language: Live It, Label It

MikeachimThe Everyday9 Comments

Thank you note for every language, by Woodleywonderworks - Flickr

I’m rubbish at learning languages. So for a language method to work, it has to be truly idiot-proof.

Here are the best two ways I’ve found of learning a new language – one obvious and therefore my idea, and the other so cunning I’d never have thought of it. (Thanks, Ian).

Both of them will ruin your home life and push you to the fringes of polite society.

But hey, you’ll know a new language at the end of it. Swings and roundabouts, eh?


1. Fake It

The first thing to realise about a foreign language is that it’s not English with different words. Deconstruct your chosen language to get a sense of how formidably different it is. Different words, yes, but also different thinking. That’s what language is: your country, turned into sounds. It’s culture in action. So if you learn the language, you make a massive step towards understanding the people who speak it.

This is why I hated Mariliyn vos Savant’s playful suggestion in one of her books that since learning other languages is a stretch, and since English dominates “global culture”, don’t bother with anything else. Wait until everything’s translated into English*.

Don’t do this. Not only is it thinly-veiled xenophobia, it’s wrong. Translations always leak meaning. Bad translations leak like colanders. They’ve lost their subtleties, their contexts, their rhythm and flow and beauty. They become crappy remakes.

Since languages are keys to unlock different ways of thinking, the best way to understand these new rules (hidden between the lines) are to live them. Move to another country, in other words. Desirable, fun…rarely practical.

So the next best thing?

Swap out parts of your life for their equivalent in another language.

French Wine, by Let Ideas Compete - Flickr

Say it’s French. So – read French newspapers. Pick up books by French authors, in French. Have French radio on, playing French music interrupted by French news bulletins. Cook French food out of a French cookbook. Watch films and TV shows in French, undubbed. Stream French radio and podcasts over the internet. Read lots of French wine labels (thus forcing you to drink lots of French wine). Hang out with a French penpal, either via snail-mail or virtually. Have any French-speaking friends? Insist they do so, all the time.

In short – act French.

It’s like cultural roleplay – except you’re not an adult, you’re a child again. You’ll have to relearn the simplest things. Most of the time, you are simply not going to understand. At first, you’re lucky if you get the gist. It’ll be frustrating. Humiliating. You’ll feel like an idiot. But what you’re doing is getting the sounds and the rhythms and the feel of the language at work, deep into your head.

But of course it’ll all remain a meaningless babble without the equivalent of early schooling. (I recommend Pimsleur, myself). However,  beware of the danger of quarantining your learning inside your head, turning it into a mental reference book you plan to dip into occasionally. You don’t want that. You want it to be part of the way you think – instinctual, like your first language. And you’d never get that from going to school. It can’t be taught – only lived.

So live it.

2. Label It

Wouldn’t it be great if we were fitted with a kind of head-up display that translates the world into another language? You select “French mode”, look at a lampshade and the word abat-jour hovers above it, like a Terminator’s eye view (daft on machines, but great on humans). That would be seriously useful.

Well, here’s the low-tech equivalent.

Outside Is Scary by Cristiano Betta - Flickr

Grab a few pads of PostIts and wander round your house with a Sharpie in one hand and a translation dictonary in the other. And label everything. Light switches. Windows. Furniture. Letterboxes. Junk mail. Packaged food. Garden tools. Pets. Family members. (Or even better, get your loved ones to wear jumpsuits with the parts of their bodies clearly labelled in another language. Tell them that they’d do it if they truly love you – that always works).

Weird? Sure. You’re a freak. However, you’re a freak with an unstoppable vocabulary in the language of your choice. Maybe you could live with that.

So I’m really sorry, current housemates. Your life is about to be swamped with Greek radio, Greek music, Greek newspapers, Greek food and Greek-labelled squares of yellow paper stuck to everything including, if I can get away with it, you. I’d apologize properly, except I’m too busy learning a new language.

Συγγνώμη, guys.

* Note: to her credit, vos Savant suggested this as a throwaway challenge-your-assumptions exercise in getting your priorities right. It’s not her official line on languages. But it’s stuck with me, mainly because I’ve met people who genuinely believe that English is the ultimate repository of all meaning. They’re idiots.

Images: Cristiano Betta, Let Ideas Compete and Woodleywonderworks.