Patricia is one of our most hard working uTalk challenge participants, learning Basque, Czech, Farsi and Kazakh since January (and let’s not forget Icelandic, Esperanto and Latvian last year)! We can’t wait to hear which language she’ll choose next…
There are many reasons why I love learning languages, including popular ones such as improving my résumé or getting by on a trip (and yes, I’ve got another trip to Iceland lined up, það er spennandi!). However, today I’d like to share with you one reason that is perhaps a little less obvious.
Due to an unexpected flight delay on my way from Pittsburgh, I recently overnighted in Toronto. The airline provided us (wonderful) accommodation in downtown Toronto and I shared a cab ride with two other stranded passengers. The cab driver had a talk radio station on, but it was not in a language I immediately recognized. Curious, I asked the driver which language that was. He told me it was Amharic, one of the languages of Ethiopia. I excitedly told him it was a language that was on my uTalk Challenge list and that I would learn it soon. Promise. He laughed and told me a little about Ethiopia and the Ethiopian community in Toronto. He taught me how to say “Hello” in Amharic and said I was brave to take on a new language every month. He then asked which language I was learning at the moment. I told him I was learning Persian (Farsi) and loving it.
The other two passengers in the cab then turned to me and said “well maybe we can help you then”. I lit up and proudly said “shabetun bekheyr”, “parvaz”, and “ba t’akhir” – “good evening”, “flight”, and “delayed”. They smiled and asked me what else I knew and if I had any questions about the language. And from there on, we talked about the old Persian script, Noruz, the influence of French, various historical events, Persian poets, and many other things. When I had left my house that day, I hadn’t expected to learn so much from people who, up to that taxi ride, were perfect strangers.
And that’s exactly the point: learning languages, even at a rudimentary level, opens you up to the world because it fuels curiosity. I didn’t converse in fluent Persian with my fellow passengers – I just let them know that I was interested in it and the culture and history that surround it (but it was very nice to hear that my pronunciation’s lovely!).
On that night, immersed in the vast multiculturalism of Toronto, I suddenly felt extremely connected to the world. And that’s the feeling I keep seeking over and over again in my language-learning journey. Perhaps it’s one of those “chicken or egg?” things, where it’s unclear whether learning languages opens up your mind or if it’s the curiosity that encourages you to learn languages… but whichever one came first for me, I’m certainly happy they keep feeding off each other.
So go ahead, tackle a new language, just start with a few words – you never know where it’ll take you.
The other day, in a moment of idle curiosity, I took an online Spanish test. And it went rather well; when I finished, I was told that I was 87% fluent.
This is very funny, because – to my shame – I haven’t spoken Spanish properly for years. And although the test proved that everything I learnt at school and university is still there in my head, I know the next time I do try and have a conversation, I’ll struggle initially to remember the right words and how to construct sentences correctly. And there’ll definitely be a lot of ‘um’ and ‘er’.
Defining yourself as ‘fluent’ or ‘not’ seems like a simple enough task. Personally, I’d define fluency as the moment you’re able to have a conversation in another language without hesitation, just as you would in your own native language.
But is that setting too high a standard for myself? Surely what I’ve just described is one step on – what we would call native level?
So, I asked a few other EuroTalkers how they define fluency. A couple of responses were very much like mine:
“When you’re able to have a conversation (spoken or written) without making mistakes, without having to pause to think about words and grammar and without referring to a dictionary or other ‘cheat-sheets’. Be able to use the more complex features of a language with ease (e.g. conditionals, obscure tenses).”
“Speaking another language without having to think about it.”
While a couple were willing to be a bit more flexible:
“When you have enough of the language to get through a visit to the country, you can understand a local and they can understand you back when you speak their language.”
“I think minor mistakes are permitted as long as the other one understands you.”
And another one came at the question from an angle I’d never considered:
“You’re able to have any conversation about general knowledge, not specific fields like medicine, for example.”
But there was one thing all the answers seemed to have in common: the key to fluency is confidence, whether you know all the words or not. And that’s why I can’t think of myself as 87% fluent in Spanish; yes, I understand how the subjunctive works, and perhaps I’d even say that I can read the language fluently – but that doesn’t mean I can confidently have a conversation with someone about the weather.
What do you think ‘fluent’ means? Are you fluent in any other languages?
For me, the big glacé cherry on top of the holiday cake is seizing the opportunity to say something in the local language. There is nothing – nothing! – more dispiriting than shying away from an opportunity to test your language skills, forcing someone else to speak your language instead.
When I went to Ghent this month, I was determined to speak as much Flemish as I could. Not that you really need to speak Flemish in Ghent: every single person I met seemed not only to be comfortable with the official languages of French, Dutch and German, but also able to flip between English and Spanish too. But most people started the conversation in Flemish, giving the perfect opportunity to respond in kind.
I downloaded uTalk Flemish a few weeks in advance and planned to work through a little bit every day. Of course, this turned out to be a bit over-ambitious, but by the time I got to the Eurostar I was fairly sure I had the basics under control. Even if I wasn’t planning to have long conversations in the language, I felt much more confident about exploring the city than if I hadn’t known any Flemish, mostly because I felt I was showing some respect to the local language and culture, rather than ignoring it and charging into conversations in my native English.
Of course, there were some down-points: at the very first bar I entered, the waitress’s torrent of Flemish was so incomprehensible to me that I utterly forgot every Flemish word and experienced total linguistic paralysis, unable to form a reply in any language. My brother stepped in with rusty French, which got the desired result (a very cold glass of Belgium’s delicious Jupiler beer), but made me feel something of a failure.
Still, it could only get better, and as we wandered around the city in the afternoon, dipping into chocolate shops and sampling the famous rode neuzen sweets (gummy red cones sold at every street corner), I had plenty of chances to eavesdrop on Flemish conversations. Having run through a lot of vocabulary in the app but not necessarily having spent enough time to fully memorise it all, I now had the pleasant experience of picking out words I had skimmed across, and recognising them from the back of my memory. With Flemish being somewhat similar to English, there was also the thrill of occasionally recognising a word I hadn’t learnt, but could easily guess – just look at how similar some words are between the two languages:
one, two, three : één, twee, drie
Thank you : Dank u
milk : de melk
Excuse me : Excuseer
cup of coffee : de kop koffie
There’s no question that I’ll be going back to Ghent; unlike its chocolate-box neighbour Bruges, it has the feel of a real, working town with lots of interesting things to see, and I loved everything about it, including the wonderfully friendly people. AND I felt fantastic at having managed to get us a table and order three different beers of different sizes – all in Flemish! Here was the happy result:
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Hello, goodbye, yes, no, please, thank you – and ‘can I have a glass of wine, please?’
You may well wonder what connects the words and phrase above. It’s quite simple: for me, these are the bare essentials of foreign language knowledge when visiting another country. You may of course prefer beer or water, but you get the point!
How learning a language earned me a free jar of ‘seaweed’
Earlier this year, my husband and I had booked ourselves a short break to Dubrovnik in the summer, while our teenage children were both camping with Scouts.
My first attempt at speaking Croatian was a little too successful: having asked for a table for two (stol za dvoje, molim vas) in a restaurant in town, I was treated to a torrent of Croatian, but at least it was clear that we were merely being offered a choice of tables! Phew. Simply having a go, showing an interest in the people and their culture is so rewarding, as the assorted conversations we had during our short week demonstrated – albeit in English, after I’d attempted what I could in Croatian. A Brit attempting Croatian was a novelty and people were keen to chat as a result.
I was even complimented on my pronunciation – quite an achievement in such a short space of time, I felt!
Beyond the conversations and a few complimentary drinks, tangible evidence of the value of having a go came in the form of this jar of a pickled local seaside plant called motar (it isn’t seaweed, it just looks a bit like it when served up), courtesy of a restaurant kitchen during a lovely meal. Such a thoughtful and novel gift.
With a background in languages, and the amazing experience both my children have had on the EuroTalk Junior Language Challenge in the past, there was no way I could resist the opportunity to add to my linguistic arsenal at the beginning of the year, when EuroTalk decided to offer adults the chance to have a go at learning a language of their choice using the uTalk app.
So I chose Croatian. Why? I have never tried learning a Slavic language before, so thought it would be more of a challenge – and had long fancied visiting the country, in which case, it would prove handy.
Too many consonants!
Challenges work for me, but I did wonder whether I’d overestimated my ability on opening the app for the first time! It was immediately apparent that I was going to have to learn each word from scratch, no chance of using my favourite Romance languages to help me out this time! My tongue struggled to get round the string of consonants or seemingly odd letter combinations, such as ‘puno vam hvala’ (thank you very much), and I found the only way I could commit the words for ‘airport’ to memory (‘zračna luka’) was to declaim them in the style of John Cleese in the film A Fish Called Wanda…
Determination and encouraging messages from EuroTalk kept me going until the end of the month, when I was very pleased with my final score. Mind you, as I struggled to remember the order of the pictures on the memory games, I had plenty of extra practice at earning those last few points!
Which foreign language should an English speaker learn?
As a native English speaker, I can empathise with the difficulties we face when travelling abroad if we want to make an effort to speak another language. Many other countries teach English at school, it’s one of the obvious choices (leaving aside the multi-lingual communities of several of the world’s countries), but which should we learn? There are so many. Once we are abroad, those we meet may be keen to practise their English or are so used to using it with all foreigners, that it can often require some dedication to try out the language of the country you find yourself in.
However, persistence and the willingness to have a go does pay off. I have never forgotten a business trip to Warsaw when my extremely limited Polish was quite possibly a factor in my colleague unexpectedly booking me on to an open-top bus tour of his ‘beautiful city’ – a fabulous extra to my short visit.
So if you’re debating whether to stand out from the crowds on your next holiday to a country where the native language is not your own, my advice is have a go. Now where shall I go next year?
When learning a new language we are happy to pass every little milestone: the first time you address a native speaker, the first conversation… All these achievements mean the world to us, they are the reward of our continuous learning. When becoming fluent in a language you can express almost everything you want to say, but there is still that one little step further, that gives your words something that make them yours. Something that gives them personality – and this can be achieved through the use of expressions and idioms.
Many idioms make no sense even if we know the meaning of each individual word! But some of them are easy to figure out, like for example ‘it takes two to tango’, meaning an action or activity that involves participation from more than one person.
To me they are very interesting and it gives me insight into the British culture. Not to mention the fun of using them in a conversation, possibly wrong sometimes but nevertheless entertaining! That is how I learned that when you’re ill you can be ‘a bit under the weather’ or to not take someone seriously is ‘taking it with a grain of salt’.
Sometimes expressions are international and can be directly translated through more languages without losing their meaning, like ‘a picture paints a thousand words’.
Learning the academic language is certainly the most important aspect when embarking on such a challenging journey. However, informal words, idioms, expressions and slang will bring you closer to the people you share the language with. It will make any conversation more pleasant and will allow you to put your own stamp on the vocabulary you are using.
How do I learn idioms?
The best way to find out which are the most used expressions, or the most popular ones, is to ask a native speaker, read local magazines and newspapers or watch local TV shows. My personal preference is to spot them in conversations and ask people what they mean.
For example, last week I learnt the expression ‘get the bit between the teeth’ from my boss. Which he also kindly explained (possibly because my face indicated that I had no clue what he was on about). The bit is a piece that goes inside a horse’s mouth and pushes against its soft parts, which causes it to turn. When the horse gets it between the teeth he takes control over from the rider and can’t be stopped. Pretty interesting, huh?
What are some funny or unusual idioms in your language?