Language Learning: You’ve Got To LIVE IT!

Every language I’ve ever tried to absorb just from books, classes, and, in recent years, the internet, I’ve forgotten. Sure, there may still be some linguistic remnants floating about in the murky Everglades of my brain – rotting limbs of Russian, Japanese and Chinese trapped in the undergrowth – never to be re-assembled again in a futile attempt of making conversation.

It comes down to this: If you want to speak a language, and I mean REALLY speak it, it’s not enough to allot it a fenced-off little corner of your consciousness and shine a torch on it every once in a while. Language is the most sophisticated communication tool ever devised by the human mind; it is designed to allow people to share complex thoughts, infectious ideas and a laugh, to convey their feelings, to empathise with each other. Language needs to be taken out to play, it needs a human connection to really thrive.

As enjoyable as it is to be totally hooked on a book or engrossed in an epic film, language acquires a whole other dimension through person-to-person interaction. When you’re using your verbal and your listening skills to build a relationship with another human being – whatever the nature of that relationship may be – that’s when language really comes alive.

With one’s native language, this happens naturally, but, as most of us will have experienced, when we try to learn a foreign language in an environment where real-life exposure is limited, our enthusiasm usually peters out way before anything resembling fluency is achieved.

Going to class once a week, reading the occasional newspaper article, spending a holiday once every while in a country where the target language is spoken, although useful parts of the learning process, these sporadic activities are not going to push anyone beyond tourist-level competency.

If you want to get more out of it, you need to put more into it, and I’m not just talking more of your precious time. You need to let the language mesh with the fabric of your life, to entice its little tendrils to find their way from your head into your heart.

In practice, this means creating firm links with the country where the language is spoken and/or building and maintaining mutually enriching friendships with native speakers. In this way, you create an emotional dimension rather than limiting yourself solely to the intellectual domain. The former is much more permanent than the latter, it stays with you for life, it doesn’t just slip from your memory banks like a dried-up verb table.

A new language - a door to a whole new life

A new language – a door to a whole new life

As I’ve already lamented, a number of languages I had spent some time learning in the past never made it beyond the launch pad, because I failed to integrate them into my life in a meaningful way. My three main languages, German, English and Spanish, on the other hand, are firmly rooted in my psyche. They are not just something I “do” twenty minutes or so each day. They are part of who I am. If one of them were taken from me, it would be like losing an arm.

German is my native language, and although I left Germany back in 1991, I still have family and friends there. As for English, I lived in the UK for over two decades, virtually all of my adult life, and so I maintain a rash of personal and professional connections with this country, which, incidentally, I still consider to be my home. Also, my day-to-day work life takes place in English. English is, if you will, my main operating language.

And Spanish… well, Spain is where I live right now, so my attachment to this country is growing deeper by the day, as I’m slowly crawling towards greater proficiency in the language. I guess I should point out that my primary reason for moving to Spain was, in fact, to get to grips with Spanish, a desire I’ve been harbouring ever since I was a teenager.

Besides tinkering with my Spanish, I’ve embarked on another linguistic challenge, which is Portuguese. I started learning just a bit over a year ago, and I guess it’s time to start thinking about how I’m going to weave those loose strands of Portuguese into my world. Moving to Portugal is not an option right now, that would be too much of an upheaval too soon, and my level of Spanish still leaves much to be desired.

The good thing about being in Spain is that Portugal is right next door, and that flights are pretty affordable. Before I packed my bags to come to Spain almost three years ago, I signed up for a couple of week-long stints with a language school here. They arranged accommodation for me with a local couple who I’m still friends with, and I made my first few contacts from that base. Seeing as that strategy had already served me so well, I was thinking of taking the same approach with Project Portuguese.

When I started thinking about this a bit more in detail, however, I had a realisation: I don’t actually want the language school bit. The truth is that I don’t enjoy spending hours and hours in a classroom. I’m often left so worn out, that all I want to do afterwards is lie flat on a bed with a wet flannel over my eyes. Plus, I do have a great Portuguese teacher who I see every week, so I’ve got the teaching part covered. The whole point of being in Portugal is to get some practice, to interact with Portuguese people, not have a forced conversation with a Dutch classmate.

Well, I thought, why not try and find someone in Portugal prepared to rent out a spare room to me for a week or so? That would give me the chance to talk about everyday domestic stuff, exchange a few opinions over breakfast, and maybe do some grocery shopping together. After all, I don’t need a 24/7 babysitter nor a full-time tour guide, I can entertain myself and, as a roving freelancer, I shall bring my laptop and my work with me.  I can also offer a language exchange, if they wanted to practice their English or their German.

So, this is going to be my new project 🙂

A friend of mine has already passed me a potential contact, which I still need to follow up. If anyone out there has any useful suggestions or knows someone in Portugal who may be interested, please get in touch.

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[What does it take until you finally “sound like yourself” in another language? Here is a post I wrote on this topic.]

 

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60 thoughts on “Language Learning: You’ve Got To LIVE IT!

  1. suej

    Well done you! I have never put effort into language learning beyond the basics, but you are quite right re needing to put the effort in – after all, ex nihilo, nihil fit…

    Liked by 1 person

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  2. Expat Eye

    Fantastic idea! I’m sure somebody will know someone – I don’t think I know anyone in Portugal unfortunately. I do, however, have an uncle who’s a missionary priest in Brazil (most Irish families have a priest somewhere) if you fancy Brazilian Portuguese? 😉

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      1. Expat Eye

        Not on Latvian TV 😉 It was really annoying though – the commentators kept Latvianising the names 😉 And this is Germany – highly efficient footballing 😉

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  3. adamf2011

    I think that really learning a language means that you are to a certain extent joining the community/ies of people who speak that language, learning how to relate with them not only linguistically, but culturally and psychologically. I don’t think you can really do all that just by learning from a textbook; consuming artefacts from the language/culture such as movies or novels will probably get you closer, but I agree with you that you’re not really going to get into the language/culture unless you engage with actual people. And I suspect part of it is going to be getting into situations where you run into viewpoints, values, assumptions, etc., that lie outside of your own. Like, have you ever gotten into situations where you began to suspect that your problem understanding what was going on was less to do with the basic literal meanings of the words and more to do with attitudes or assumptions that are not fully apparent or that don’t seem to make sense?

    In terms of finding a Portuguese language partner, I’ve heard of (but never used) couchsurfing websites; I’m currently using conversationexchange.com, where you can search for a partner by location and languages involved (both yours and theirs). Just for fun, I did a quick search for Portuguese speakers in Portugal who want to learn English, and got about 50 hits; wanting to learn German, about 10.

    Have fun! I was in Lisbon a few years ago and thought it was such a beautiful city!

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    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      Lisbon sure is beautiful 🙂

      You’re right re. cultural reference points and values, without those, your comprehension is going to lag behind, regardless of how proficient you are in the language itself. It’s all interlinked. Must be even more extreme for you in Thailand…

      I will keep you all posted on what transpires re. my first exploratory forays in to Portugal 🙂 Thanks for chipping in !

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  4. NancyTex

    My husband’s family lives on Madeira Island, so I’m afraid I won’t be much help with mainland contacts for you.

    I couldn’t agree with you more — the best way to learn a language and keep it ingrained in your consciousness is to use it. I am completely capable in conversational Portuguese – but struggle with reading it – and definitely couldn’t write it. I’ve never studied the language. I learned it through osmosis. Take me to Portugal and I’ll do just fine in chatting up the locals, but ask me to review a book and I’m dead in the water. 🙂

    Good luck on your adventure, it sounds like it’ll be a blast!

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  5. TheLastWord

    Right you are! As my recent trip to Paris made clear. Being able to get the gist of written French is no match for actually being able to speak it with any degree of proficiency. Someday I will move to Europe –

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  6. con jamón spain

    Fabulous. I (M) read the first paragraph out loud to S as it’s so true. We think this post should be sent to every language school and pinned on the notice boards. Not everyone has the chance, of course, to immerse themselves in language but if you can, you should. Puts us to shame.

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    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      That’s my challenge now… to find a way of becoming proficient in Portuguese while not actually living in the country. Not sure yet whether I can do it… my slow progress with Spanish is creating a wall of doubt.

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  7. Kim in Fiji

    I can’t believe you grew up in Germany – your English is so 100% homegrown….with an American accent it seems to me. It proves your point. (and also perhaps explains a little the bizarre Christmas tree?)

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      1. Kim in Fiji

        Well, let me put it this way – your spelling has not shown a British accent that I have seen yet. Nary a colour, a tyre or a programme. Neither has your vocabulary: you have steered clear (in the posts I’ve read) of car bonnets, trash bins and people coming to collect you. So, I feel my mistake can be excused!.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. ladyofthecakes Post author

        Rubbish bins, please 😉

        It’s quite tricky, at times, writing for an international audience. There’s plenty of Britishisms in my posts, coz that’s the English I know, and it would feel unnatural to me replacing some words and expressions with US terminology. Also, I do use British spelling, which WP loves to undersquiggle in red – drives me crazy!!!!

        I wrote a post on smoking once, and kept wanting to refer to cigarettes as “fags” – perfectly acceptable UK slang – but then I decided not to…

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    1. Kim G

      I think Simone’s writing is very British. Didn’t you see that she used the word “torch” instead of flashlight in this post? You won’t hear any Americans using that word for anything other than the real, flaming thing carried by angry peasants ready to storm the castle. Also linguistic remnants floating about also has a very British feel. An American would write, “linguistic remnants floating around, though even that doesn’t sound terribly American. And I’m sure there are other examples.

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  8. linnetmoss

    You’re absolutely right. I work in a foreign language department and none of our students reaches proficiency without living abroad in a place where they speak the language every day. We tell them up front that if they’re serious, they have to factor that into their education. Sadly, many of them cannot afford it…

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      1. Locky

        Iam too far away for koseqentses.
        And when she arrives on München AirPort iam there to pic her up. So i cant be tuched …. I hope

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  9. prior

    well dear lady of the cakes – if I only left this post with that photo image I would be the better – it was such a great shot!!! the depth – the artsy feel – etc.

    We had a foreign exchange student from Brazil for two summer visits – not super long visits, but just what you note here – immersing time! Being around us was exactly what he wanted – and I remember being at the grocery store one day when he started sharing a few Portuguese words with us (but Portuguese still feels all Spanish to me – ha! – O_o) – but the exchange began naturally – and it was so mrich.

    well I hope you find the perfect immersion place….

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  10. Pingback: Rooftop Gardening: Rebooting The Tomatoes | Aisha's Oasis

  11. Jackie Cangro

    Great post! You’re so right about learning in a classroom vs learning in real world settings. I’ve been “learning” Italian for years but have not managed to get past the “proficient” stage. I can read and write much better than I can speak. Probably because this is my natural affinity and because most of my lessons have been in writing. But there is nothing like immersion to become fluent. Problem is, I get flustered. Do you get nervous speaking Portuguese? Any suggestions so that I don’t get embarrassed to sound like a 5 year old?

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    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      The only way through it is “to do it”, to keep on speaking regardless of the discomfort. There’s no way of circumventing this painful stage. I’m very bad at it, too, and I often avoid speaking. I think it’s because I care about language, and I want to get it right. However, no pain no gain, as they say, and if you want to get anywhere, you’ve got to push yourself.

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  12. Bernard O'Shea

    Hi, that was beautifully written with great insight and summed up my whole language learning experience… I’ve got to get away from English-speaking countries! I wouldn’t fret too much about your Portuguese… It’ll come. Do you have a car? I’m thinking that when you can afford the time and expense, places in Portugal that are not too far from the Spanish border – Evora, Tavira, Viseu – might make good for immersion weekends, even if it means just conversing with strangers such as shop keepers and museum guides. One of my favourite places in Portugal is Vila Vicosa where there is a royal palace. But it’s very parochial and the tours are only in Portuguese. I loved the Portuguese daily and weekend newspapers too. Just browsing through them over a cup of coffee helps bring the language alive. You probably set yourself very high standards but don’t be harsh on yourself…you are making more progress than you realise, I’d say

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    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      I don’t have a car… but I’m sure I can make it work somehow. Get ready for posts from Portugal over the next 12 months 😉

      What about you? Got any summer trips coming up to the Latin world?

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  13. Nara Castro

    If you were coming to Brazil, I would be more than happy to have you in my house and talk the hell out of portuguese with you haha 😀 Keep that in mind just in case you decide to come down here one of these days.

    As for Portugal, a part of my family lives there. I’m gonna talk to them and see if they know anyone who would be interested.

    And I must admit: I wish I was the one going there. Portugal is my favorite place in the world.

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  14. bevchen

    Ooh, what an excellent project!
    You’re write, I think you do have to live a language before you can truly come to grips with it.. which is probably why I’m doing so badly with Spanish! Really, I should be learning French. It’s just down the road so I can pop over the border to practice any time. The only problem is I couldn’t actually be LESS interested in learning French!

    Sadly, I don’t know anyone in Portugal. One of my colleagues did Portuguese as her second language, but that was years ago and she doesn’t know anybody there now.

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    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      Spain’s not far, woman, you can easily get to Spain!

      I know what you mean about the French… I’ve never learnt any, ever, at all, and I feel that I “should” make a start on that one. But I’ve no affinity with it. If someone gave it to me on a neuro-chip, sure, I’d plug it into my brain right away, but with all the effort it takes to learn a language, if there’s not even an ounce of passion, if it’s just based on “I should”, forget it. Having said that, I’m a smidgen more interested in French now than I was, let’s say, a decade ago. I can’t rule it out as a possible future project.

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      1. bevchen

        No, it’s not far… it’s just that other places are closer 😉 Seriously though, I still want to go to Spain but other things keep getting in the way (like funerals… all the trips to England have seriously messed up this year’s travel plans!)

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  15. Anna

    The potential Portugal adventure sounds like a lot of fun. But I recommend going to a bar – it’s the only place my French actually worked!

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  16. Kim G

    Forget Portugal. Go straight to Brazil, and recruit a hot, sexy Brazilian lover. You’ll learn Portuguese in no time. And have a ball doing it.

    Saludos,

    Kim G
    Boston, MA
    Where we are beginning to see glimpses of fluency in Spanish. Hooray! It’s only taken about five years of constant effort.

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    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      A ball? I was hoping he’d be fully equipped with two 😉

      BTW, I’ve been meaning to ask you – maybe you could write a post one of these days about your progress with Spanish? I suspect your odyssey across Mexico has had quite an impact…

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