This is part four of a real life interview with someone who learned a language as an adult to the fluency level:

How to learn a language – Interview

What other ideas can you share about learning Polish and languages in general?

A language can be learnt in the spare moments of the day.  I always tell people who are learning English that my absolute favorite method for increasing my vocabulary in Polish was simple flash cards.  I would use these for example while waiting for or riding in a tram around Krakow or any other time I had a few moments to kill.  The 10, 15 minutes here and there throughout your day are just ripe to be used for learning a language and boosting vocabulary.

I would keep a stack of flash cards in my shirt or jacket pocket and would cycle through them.  As I got comfortable with them I would rotate them out and put new ones in the pile.  I found this a fast, effective way to get you confident and feeling like you are learning.  If we know the names of things and can identify verbs, even if we are not totally sure how to put the sentences together or how to conjugate the verb, we still feel a sort of growing power over the language as we continue to file away vocabulary in the memory bank.

Not only that, but I found that flash cards were a great conversation starter.  People are naturally curious when they see you filing through a pack of cards and mouthing words to yourself.  I found them to be fun at social get-togethers, pulling them out and making a game of it even.

The old saying that it’s best to live in a country of course is very true.  But of course not everyone can make such a large life move.  I was fortunate as I did it shortly after graduating from college, and I was fortunate enough to be able to transfer my work from the States to Europe.

When you are in a foreign country you are just constantly exposed to the language.  Even in a place like Krakow, where there are a lot of students and a tourist orientation, and thus a comparatively high level of English.  At the same time, living in larger and more cosmopolitan cities (depending on the country) can be an obstacle, as more people are likely to know English and you are not forced to learn.  If you live in a foreign country you have to be careful not to slip into the trap of only spending time with other foreigners, or with natives who speak your tongue very well.  Cultivating friendships with people who do not speak your language as well is a good way to force you to use the tongue of the country you are living in.

So just going to live in a foreign country doesn’t mean it is automatic, as it really depends on your immediate environment (which you of course have a large measure of control over).  I see a number of people here that have lived here a long time but don’t ever get past a rudimentary level of language, which is not what you’d expect, but makes sense when you look at the social circles they operate in.  It is easy to be lazy about learning when the people around you already know your language.  It may be one reason that in America we generally don’t have the language skills that Europeans do.

Language is a great ice-breaker and a lot of humor and fun can come from language as well.  When I worked selling books in Amish communities, I was always sure to try to pick up and use some basic words and phrases in Pennsylvania Dutch.  It was a great ice breaker and I think learning a bit in someone else’s language (even if they can speak your own) is a sign of respect.

I’ll never forget the sight of Amish kids looking up shocked when I slipped in a line or two of my rudimentary Pennsylvania Dutch.  They just don’t expect us “English people” (Amish term for non-Amish) to know PA Dutch, so using it out of the blue like that it often gets a laugh.  A lot of fun and again a great way to make a connection.  I would often teach some basic Polish in return—fun things that fit the environment—the word for cow, horse, etc.  Language differences, perhaps counter-intuitively, often bring people together.

People enjoy seeing you make the effort, and even if you struggle a bit, people tend to be on your side and want to help you because they see you are trying.  The more obscure the language, the more true this is, I find.  For example, someone learning English, since there are already many foreign speakers of English, is less of a novelty.  Not that you won’t get sympathy and help as an English learner, but people are less fascinated by someone speaking English with a foreign accent (versus, say, someone speaking Polish or Estonian or Thai with a foreign accent) since there are so many foreign-accented speakers of English already.

But the key thing in this is not to be afraid to make mistakes.  The only mistake is not opening your mouth.  We train our minds and tongues by using them.  Everyone will make mistakes but the vast majority of the time people are very forgiving when they see you are trying.  Just try to avoid the swear words.  Come to think of it, perhaps this is why swear words are among the first thing language learners are taught;  for amusement, but also to prevent you saying something that you really wouldn’t want to!

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