As the famous quote states, “One language sets you in a corridor for life, more languages opens up every door along the way”. Being multilingual is a highly impressive and respectable skill, and one that can quite literally transform the quality of your life. Once you become proficient in more than one language, you are instantly more employable, and you are able to explore and experience other cultures in a way that other people cannot.
My studies in Spanish began in the spring of this year, just after it was confirmed that I would be going on holiday with friends and family to Peru for four weeks. I was told that Peruvians speak very little English, and that I would need to learn some basic Spanish in order to cope and interact on a daily basis. “Fair enough” I thought, not knowing how incredibly fascinating and beneficial it would eventually turn out to be. As with anyone though, my progress was slow initially, but that was okay as I knew I had time.
As the weeks began to fly by, I became increasingly frustrated with the limitations of my ability, and constantly felt that I wasn’t good enough, or that I would never understand Spanish. When the trip eventually came around, I was taught a valuable lesson in life; to just relax. Relaxing helps your mind and body to rest and to prepare for your next task or goal. What amazed me as I developed such a relaxed attitude was the sheer quantity of vocabulary that I was memorising and using, without true conscious recognition.
You should never underestimate the impact travelling to a country can have on learning it’s language. My month-long vacation in both Lima and The Andes Mountains was as linguistically helpful as it was inspiring. Being surrounded by native and fluent speakers was lovely to hear, but more importantly, forced me raise my game. Using newly-encountered vocabulary was a difficult skill to demonstrate at first, but with the right level of confidence and a determination to be the best you possibly can, it ultimately defined how good I was, and how good I am today.
They say that to achieve proficiency in any skill that you desire requires 10,000 hours of practice. A practice makes perfect approach is something that you must respect, as it is not possible to simply become good over night. I want to be perfectly clear here; is my Spanish close to being perfect? Absolutely not. I am currently undertaking a journey that will arguably last a lifetime, but one that will hopefully become very useful along the way. So without blathering on for much longer, here are my five keys to learning a foreign language:
1. You must want to learn
Motivation is absolutely essential to the art of language acquisition. Without it, you will lack the desire and the determination to progress and to improve. When motivated, a person can not only develop their skill in an effective and productive manner, they can also learn to love language. Garnering the ability to speak in a second or even third tongue is undoubtedly tricky, but when you are enjoying the learning process, there are endless possibilities and limitless amounts of fun.
2. Exposure, Exposure, Exposure
Listening, reading, writing and speaking are the four major elements that are put together to complete the foundation of a language. Always make sure to mix up the tools you use, and the ways in which you learn, i.e. listening to a Podcast, going through a grammar book or speaking to natives through Skype. When learning Spanish, I found that utilising different methods at one time was perhaps the single most significant step that I took in terms of solid progress. I feel that this is the way to go about tackling a language as it ensures that learners are akin to experiencing it in on many different platforms.
3. Try your best to think in the language
As you go about your daily life, take a moment to mentally translate what you see, what you hear and what you are doing. This will not only improve the speed at which you think, it will also help to form pathways in your mind about how your new language works, and the many different situations that it can be applied to. This is a skill that I often implement within my own life, for example, I will often find sentences in books or in conversation, and simply test myself to see whether or not I am able to say it in my second language.
4. Pressure is your enemy, Time is your friend
Learning a foreign language is often something a person wants to do, rather than needs to do. Realise that you have time on your side and as long as you put the effort in on a regular basis, you will see results. Pressuring yourself to be better or comparing yourself to fluent or native speakers is not the way to go, as it will shatter your confidence and discourage you from continuing. It is always best to concentrate on what you are good at and work around it, in order to develop your vocabulary and your pronunciation. Repetition, while boring, is essential for a high level of competence as it enables you to produce language at a quick, natural pace.
5. You must fail in order to achieve
For me, making mistakes is the most active way of learning. It happens all the time to everybody and is completely unavoidable. It is also the most useful method of improving, as it allows you to recognize where you are going wrong, and how to correct yourself for next time. Do not allow mistakes to hinder your confidence or your self-belief, for a mistake is simply a lesson in disguise. What you didn’t know five minutes ago hurt you then, but you must quickly realise that this error will prepare you for a better performance next time, and will remind you that we are all human and we all mess up every now and then. One especially embarrassing moment for me happened in a restaurant in Chacas, a small Peruvian town deep in the Andes. Through no fault but my own, I managed to confuse the Spanish word “vaso” (meaning glass) for “beso” (meaning kiss). To say that the waiter was a little taken back by my request of four kisses would be a massive understatement. What do I take from such an experience? A funny story to tell others, and a permanent reminder of which word means which; two positive conclusions drawn from a seemingly negative situation.
I have a long way to go to maximising my own linguistic potential in this world. Spanish is not the only language that I want to learn, but it will do for now. Others on my radar include German, Portuguese and French. No matter what the language and what your circumstances, you too can be a passionate and successful language learner. Just follow these five steps and who knows, you may be fluent quicker than you’d imagined. Good luck, but most importantly, enjoy it.