My name is Darren, I’m from Bath, England, and my language journey really began about 10 years ago.
I had studied French and German at school but I didn’t really enjoy them. I didn’t realise how useful languages could be until a friend asked me to help her learn some Latin for her nursing exam. She gave me the list of things she needed to learn with a look of sheer terror on her face and I told her ways to easily remember each word. You could see the panic in her eyes fade as she realised she could remember everything after just a couple of hours.
Soon after, I started working with a lot of Polish girls. It was quite difficult because only one or two of them could speak English, so I decided to try to learn enough Polish to be able to say “Good morning”, “You need to do this…”, “Would you like a coffee?” and other essential phrases. My first few attempts at communication were hilarious! My pronunciation was terrible and led to smiles and giggles, but they were all really impressed that I even tried and my blushes soon turned to grins of pride. I started doing the same when other new people arrived and was soon spouting phrases in Polish, Hungarian, Latvian, Romanian, and Greek. The look of happy surprise as a nervous new employee is greeted in his or her own tongue is itself worth the effort of learning.
I try to study a different language every day of the week for about two hours. Now I have friends from all over the world and teach English as a Second Language so I am lucky enough to be able to practise different languages every day. I’ve lost count of the number of times I have been able to help someone in the street when they have asked someone in broken English if they know where some place is, or in a shop when they don’t understand what is being said to them by a cashier. One time I was even asked to help translate for a friend who had been attacked and needed to talk to the police. Languages are now very important in my life and are my biggest passion.
One last thing: my original attempts at speaking Polish eventually led to me marrying the girl of my dreams. Just another reason to start your own language adventure!
Interview with Alexandra Turner – translator, writer, editor
Alex left her London life a few months ago to go and travel around the world. She is passionate about culture and languages and has traveled to 26 countries up to now. At the moment she lives in Stockholm, Sweden (and we deeply envy her for that).
EuroTalk: What made you start learning languages?
I started learning German and French when I started secondary school because it was compulsory. Straight away I loved both of them and they became my favourite lessons. Outside of school I was interested in watching movies or looking at books in those languages and continuing to learn (I know, so geeky!). Then two years later I started to study Spanish too as an optional subject for GCSE (the exams we do aged 16) and I loved that too – my lessons made me think about sunny Spain instead of depressing London 😛 I was starting to get pretty interested in languages so I also took Japanese lessons after school (again, yes, I was a geek…) So I kept on with those language for a few years. I started learning Italian just two years ago because I met my boyfriend who’s Italian, so I learned just by listening to him talking, by watching Italian TV with him and later on by going to Italy. Finally my other language is Ukrainian, which I started learning because I was living in L’viv, Ukraine, and I really needed the language to get around day to day.
ET: What gives you motivation to continue learning?
To be honest I mostly learn for fun. I am really fascinated by languages, how they are different and yet sometimes similar. If I have spare time I am as likely to grab one of my language apps or watch a foreign movie as I am to surf Facebook or watch TV. And in fact if I DO surf Facebook, Twitter etc, half my feed is in other languages anyway.
I also learn for work because I’m a translator and I feel like I need to keep improving. And travelling of course is a motivation because I need languages for practical things.
ET: What do you find to be most rewarding about language learning?
Earning money is one thing! But the best feeling ever is navigating a practical situation using one of your languages, or having a real conversation for the first (or second, third…) time. I get so psyched when I talk to an Italian person and they actually understand what I’m saying. Or just doing something simple like buying some tomatoes at the market in Ukraine, I feel pretty cool!
ET: What were some of the challenges you faced and how did you overcome them?
Loads! When I was at school I found grammar boring and I just wanted to learn loads of words (I was pretty naïve!!) So later on my grammar was a total mess and I had to go back and try to put it into place. So I still have a pretty terrible knowledge of some fundamental things like genders in German, which can only be fixed by hard, hard study later on. So if you want to reach a decent level in a language, I recommend to get the grammar in place ASAP, which I’ve done with Ukrainian (older and wiser) and it’s helped soooo much. Also I now find grammar amazing, like doing a Sudoku puzzle 😀
Another challenge is that I am shy and afraid of speaking to new people in new languages. This is incredibly hard to overcome, but the only solution is, like Nike says, Just Do it! Start with easier situations like buying a beer or a stamp and progress to harder ones. Or stick yourself in an environment where you are forced to use the language. For me that’s spending time with my boyfriend’s family who speak NO English, or by living in Ukraine where many people know no English at all. Another helpful thing is to organise a language exchange or find a conversation teacher/partner who will give you one on one help. You gain confidence just by doing it over and over and over…
ET: Tell us your favourite word/expression in your favourite language.
Wow there are so many! There are loads of amazing expressions in Italian although most of them are too rude to write here now… The best things are the gestures, there’s a funny one you can do to show that you’re being left alone or ditched, where you make the shape of an artichoke (for some reason…) with your hand. In German I like the expression ‘das geht mir auf den Keks’ – ‘it gets on my biscuit’, which means something annoys you. I also really like using the word ‘pobrecito’ (poor thing) in Spanish whenever I’m being sarcastically sympathetic to someone.
ET: Any funny/weird/awkward situation that happened with a native or another speaker?
Too many awkward situations to count. At the moment I keep accidentally using Spanish words when I speak Italian, which is quite awkward when people stare at me and say ‘what does that mean?’ In Ukraine I had silly situations every day, such as trying to order food and having to make animal noises when I didn’t know the name of the type of meat, for example. Luckily people found it fun rather than being annoyed. Also I’d get really annoyed when I went into a продукти to buy milk or bread – I’d so proud that I’d remembered the right words, then they would ask me some silly question like ‘which type of bread?’ which I clearly had no chance of answering. Last time it happened, I replied to the woman ‘Я не знаю’ (I don’t know) in exasperation, and she laughed at me for about five minutes…
Yes, you did read that correctly. We’re always telling you why learning a language is one of the best things you can do – so today, we’re examining a few of the main reasons why people choose not to do it. How many of these do you recognise?
1. I’m not good at languages
We’ve all said this at some point. What it really means is ‘I didn’t do well at languages at school, so I must be bad at them.’ (Remember that time in Spanish class when you accidentally said you were pregnant when you meant embarrassed, and everyone laughed? Nightmare.)
But we all learn differently and at school, we were only taught one way. So maybe it’s just that you haven’t found the right way for you yet…
2. I can’t afford it
Learning a language doesn’t need to cost a fortune. You could read newspapers online in the language you’re learning. Or find a friend to chat to, either in person or via Skype. If you’re a creative type, make yourself some flashcards and use them to practise your vocabulary.
For more tips, visit Alex’s article on learning a language on a budget. And check out our special offer at the end of this email…
3. I don’t need to learn a language
This is one that’s often heard among English speakers: ‘But everyone speaks English!’ (Apparently 33% of Brits think speaking English with a foreign accent is the answer. It really isn’t.)
And while it might be true that a lot of people now speak English, that doesn’t mean we should stop making the effort. By knowing just a few words like hello and thank you, we show respect and probably end up having a better experience as a result.
4. I haven’t got time
We all lead busy lives, and it can be hard to find time to do everything we want to do. But learning a language doesn’t have to mean studying for hours on end. Break it up into small, manageable tasks and fit it around your daily life – on the bus to work, for instance, or waiting for a meeting to start. You may be surprised how much time you actually have.
For more advice, check out our blog post on making time to learn a language.
5. I’m too old to learn a language
You’re never too old. It may be true that children’s brains are better suited to picking up new languages, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that adults can’t do it. Just look at Benny Lewis, who hated languages at school and now speaks seven fluently. If he can do it, why not the rest of us?
So let’s stop making excuses and start learning a language now; in a year’s time we’ll be glad we did…
Cameron’s spending a couple of weeks with us here at EuroTalk for work experience. In today’s blog post, he explains why he chose to learn one of the world’s most difficult languages, and gives his suggestions for anyone who’s thinking about taking up the challenge.
Are you learning Mandarin? What drew you to the language? And do you have any tips of your own to share?
Mandarin is recognised as one of the hardest languages to learn in the world, but with great difficulty comes great reward, as Mandarin is also one of the most useful languages in the world. Mandarin is so useful because it is spoken by almost 15 percent of the earth’s population natively, which is almost 1 billion people, and this figure does not include non-native speakers like myself. Also, China is one of the economic and industrial giants of the 21st century, and it’s still growing. Therefore Mandarin is very useful if you want to do business with the people involved in the global superpower that is China. As well as the practical reasons, Mandarin is also a great language to learn for cultural reasons, because, as you probably know, when learning any language, the culture of that country comes hand in hand, and China has a fascinating culture with a rich history.
Furthermore, if you learn Mandarin, that adds an extra incentive to make a trip to China to practise your newfound passion, and what’s a better way to spend your holidays than walking the great wall of China or paying a visit to the Terracotta Army? Additionally, if you’re the kind of person who relishes a new challenge, Mandarin is the perfect language for you, because, as I previously stated, it’s one of the hardest languages to learn in the world. On top of this, Mandarin will also appeal to you arty types out there in the form of calligraphy; this is a form of Chinese writing that involves painting the characters onto special paper called Xuanzhi (宣紙).
The most important thing to remember when learning Mandarin is not to get overwhelmed by the vast number of characters in the language; in fact I wouldn’t even worry about characters until you become more advanced in the language. Instead, begin by focusing on the oral side of the language, in particular, the pronunciation of words. In Mandarin pronunciation is key, for example, the word ‘ma’ can be said in four different ways and means four different things, so be careful not to call your mother a horse by pronouncing this word wrong!
A good thing to use to mark your progress of learning Mandarin is the HSK exams. These exams are held once a month and there are numerous different levels to work through, ranging from beginners exams to exams for people who are almost fluent, as well as the added bonus that they are recognised qualifications throughout China.
If you’re interested in learning Mandarin, you can get started completely free with uTalk for iOS. Enjoy!
We know what it’s like – you really want to learn a language, but things just keep getting in the way: work, school, commuting, exercise… There are so many things to fit into the average day, that it’s not always easy to make time for studying. But don’t despair – it can be done. Following up from last week’s tips on how to learn a language on a tight budget, this week we’re giving you some ideas about how to keep learning even when you’re short of time.
Please share your own suggestions in the comments, and let us know which of these ideas works best for you.
1. Learn on your commute
This is my favourite strategy, as it uses time that I would otherwise spend staring out of a train window, or (now that I take the tube) at someone else’s armpit. Half an hour or so on a train or bus is the perfect time to read a book in another language, pull out your iPhone for a couple of uTalk games or listen to a podcast (there are loads designed specifically for learners). If you’re one of those healthy types who walks to work, try listening to the radio or a podcast on your phone.
2. Combine learning with socialising
Try to find a language partner who speaks the language you’re learning and chat to them over tea/beer/dinner. There are plenty of websites like totalingua.com and mylanguageexchange.com where you can find a partner to exchange languages with, either in person or over Skype/email. Or make some friends who speak that language and resolve to spend at least 15 minutes chatting to them in their language before you switch back to English.
3. Break it up into small chunks
There’s no reason why you have to spend hours at a time for it to be effective. In fact, 10 minutes a day of flicking through some vocab flash cards, playing a couple of revision games or doing a couple of units in a language app is probably more effective than one long session each week.
4. Fit the language into everyday life
Try switching your phone or Facebook into another language so you see it every day without changing your routine. (Disclaimer: Do not do this if the language is Arabic or Mandarin and you can’t read the script yet! You might have trouble switching it back… I speak from experience here.) Make post-its of everyday vocab and stick them around your house/office to learn the names of household items.
5. Use ‘dead time’ to practise a bit
If you added together all the time you spent each month just waiting around for things (waiting at the doctor/dentist, waiting for a bus, sitting on a delayed train…), you’d probably realise you were wasting hours of your time just getting bored. Keep a language book or app with you and you can always do a bit of reading or revision while you wait. You’ll be surprised how quickly it adds up!
6. Do things you were going to do anyway… in another language!
Surfing Facebook in your lunch break? Switch it into your language. Reading the news online? Find a foreign newspaper to read instead of your usual one. Watching your favourite TV show in the evening? Find it online dubbed or with subtitles. Found a new book to read? Get the translation (or, even better, the original foreign language book!). Ok you get the idea! Try thelanguagedojo.com for links to loads of cultural sites (TV/comics etc) in several different languages.
7. Learn while you’re doing other stuff
Put the radio on in another language or some language tapes or an audio-based lesson like EuroTalk Rhythms while you’re washing up/cleaning/getting dressed in the morning. You’ll pick something up without even realising you’re ‘studying’.
8. Set yourself a goal for the day
For example, say to yourself in the morning, ‘I want to spend x amount of time on vocab or grammar,’ or ‘I want to complete this many exercises/games,’ or ‘I want to have at least one conversation in the language today’. It’ll help focus your mind on what you need to get done, rather than just saying ‘I want to learn some French today’, which is a huge, daunting and extremely vague challenge, and one which you’ll probably go out of your way to avoid.
9. Chat online
If you don’t have time to go to the country, you don’t know anyone who’s from there and you can’t make time for lessons or meet-ups, you can probably still manage to spend a bit of time Skyping, chatting on a site like busuu.com or using another instant messenger. I’m also reliably informed that playing videogames is a good way to learn, as you can chat with other players from across the world while you play!
Good luck – and let us know how you get on…