Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Learning The Lingo #1: You can do it!

You’ve heard the joke before:

“What do you call someone who can speak many languages?”

“What do you call someone who can speak two languages?”

“What do you call someone who can speak only one language?”

Americans are somewhat unique in the world. And it is not because many Americans only speak English. There are plenty of monolingual people in the world—probably in every single country. But the thing that is unique about many Americans—especially those who come from the Midwest—is that we can live the majority of our lives without ever hearing someone speak another language (in real life—not on TV). Now, if you’re from the South or Southwest you are probably accustomed to hearing Spanish being spoken, and this is increasing in many locations. (And many people resent it, too.) But in many corners of middle America you will rarely, if ever, hear someone speaking a language other than English.

In most parts of the world it is common to have native speakers of many different languages living all around you. This is certainly true in The Location. Even if you don’t speak these languages it is not an uncommon event to hear others speaking them. And I have come to see that this is normal. Living in such a monolingual environment is the exception.

Consequently, I believe this is one reason many Americans have this mental barrier to learning a language. We see it as a near impossible and very difficult task. I did, too. I remember when I was in high school I had the opportunity to study Spanish my freshman year. Something told me that I was “too young” to do this and needed to put it off until my junior or senior year. (Oh, how I regretted this—and oh, how wrong I was!) Learning another language was something only a very talented and intelligent person could do, so I thought. And so think many people.

The truth is, learning a language is difficult. However, it is not as difficult as many people think or make it out to be. Sometimes those who have learned to speak another language fluently don’t mind others thinking it is an amazing feat because it makes them look more impressive. But it is not an impossible task, or even an improbable one, if approached the right way.

I know how to help people learn to speak the language here in The Location. I have done it. I mentioned before that I have had interns from the US come for 4-6 months and in that time learn to speak more of the language than many full-timers who have been here for years. I know how to do it.

First, you must believe it is possible. You can do it. Yes, it is tough. Yes, you will get headaches and probably cry at times. Yes, you will make mistakes that are both funny and offensive. Yes, you will be confused and clueless. Yes, you will look dumb. But in the end, you will learn the language. Wanna know how?

Stay tuned…


  1. Sure looking forward to the next post!! Having immigrated from Germany to Canada in the last century, lol, I found it very easy to learn English as my second language. It wasn't so easy for my parents - mainly because they associated with other German immigrants, worked with them, and worshiped with them. As kids we were totally immersed in the new language at school, in the neighborhood and in the market place. We had to translate for our parents at times! What fun, we were smarter than they! It was hearing the language constantly that helped us. I speak both languages fluently without an accent. Our son-in-law grew up in French Canada and speaks both national languages fluently, without an accent. I'll be interested in finding out your experience! Fascinating subject!

  2. Hi Karin, thank you for your comments. That is very interesting to learn about you and your parents. Where did you grow up in the States? How far along in English did your parents get over the years?

    Well, in second language learning studies they will point out the differences there are in children learning a language versus adults. And there is a difference! Children are blessed with this ability to pick it up that adults have lost. And I actually once thought I had to be OLDER to learn a language!

  3. As the great sage Steve Martin once said, "There is nothing more annoying than going to another country where people don't have the courtesy to speak English."

    My mom if Japanese. I wish she would have taught us kids, but she never did. I wonder if it because she could talk to her Japanese friends about us without us knowing...

    My brother speaks Spanglish. He spent a summer surfing off the coast of Costa Rica, plus he lived in Southern California for many years before moving to Hawaii.

  4. Your mom is Japanese? How cool is that! Itchykneesonshigorokosheetsiihatchikoujou.

    No, that doesn't mean I'm a captain, not a sailor. But that is all the Japanese I know.

  5. When my family decided to go to Costa Rica for vacation this summer, I JUMPED at the 'excuse' to learn Spanish. I'm still quite rough at it, tending more toward the (offensive-sounding) Spanglish but it saved my bacon a couple of times in CR, AND it has the added benefit of impressing my friends! "You can speak Spanish!?!" As if I'd just discovered the cure for the common cold. My biggest problem? Mixing up the two years of college German in my brain while trying to learn Spanish. "Hola! Wie geht's?" Oops.