by Sean Michael Kiely
French class was the worst. It was a required credit the final semester of my undergraduate degree. It was two hours long. And—worst of all—it was IN FRENCH.
Learning a new language has always been a frustrating experience for me. Memorizing seemingly random combinations of words about seemingly random objects in the world around me never seemed like a very good use of my time. I already had a system that worked: an apple was an apple. Not a “manzana.” Not a “pomme.” I didn´t care much about how some society halfway across the world communicated with one another. I wasn´t intending on heading there anytime soon. My attitude toward other languages was basically the same: if I don´t need to know it, I don´t want to.
Traveling and moving to another country entirely changed my mind.
Living in Eastern Turkey, English is an uncommon luxury. On arriving, I had to learn—and learn quickly—in order to survive and succeed. The usefulness of language in general has never had a better spokesman than me during my first few weeks in Turkey: a bewildered traveler, gesticulating wildly, sputtering half-sounds, and incurring the snickers (and pitiful head-shaking) of bemused locals everywhere I went. Lesson learned. Sometimes language isn´t a credit you take in school. Sometimes it´s the way you order your coffee in the morning. Sometimes it´s the way you buy food at the grocery store. And sometimes it´s the way you figure out which bus to take so that you aren´t stranded on the streets of a foreign country at midnight. Language can be a nightmare, but here are a handful of ways that can help you quickly get the basics down:
Get a decent guidebook and carry it with you at all times. I´ve found the more recent editions of the Lonely Planet Phrasebooks to be accurate (phonetic spelling and highlighted word stress), brief but practical (buying, directions, social pleasantries, emergencies), colorful, and even humorous (sections on romance/pick-up lines.) A guidebook is a must if you are traveling on short stays. But long-term, having one can be of great benefit, too: sometimes spending a single afternoon memorizing useful phrases out of my guidebook entirely changes the way I listen and understand the people around me.
2. Make the Effort
Make a deliberate, systematic, and manageable effort to learn. Don´t assume that the language will “come naturally”—this will only bring you frustration. Of course, the most obvious decision here is to bite the bullet and take classes. But self-study can work just as well. Even if it´s only a few words a day, make an effort to learn, listen for them, and try to use them. But don´t overwhelm yourself. Language learning takes time. Even if I can only fully internalize one new phrase/sentence a day, I consider that measurable progress.
3. Memory Techniques
Make use of memory techniques to help you remember vocabulary and phrases. Researching a handful of memory techniques changed the way I thought about language: what once seemed an impossible nightmare almost instantly became a manageable and plausible task. There are many ways to approach this, but what has been most helpful to frame the unfamiliar sounds and phrases in terms of something either familiar or something totally absurd and ridiculous. For example, the Turkish phrase for “How much is it?” is “Ne kadar.” I struggled to remember this one for weeks until I put together the following story: a customer in a convenience store comes across a giant, red letter “R” without any clothes on. Puzzled but intrigued, the customer turns to the shop owner and asks “How much?” The shop owner responds, “What, for the naked “R?” You can have it.” Slightly foolish, but I never forgot the phrase afterward. With these sort of techniques, I´ve found that the more absurd/graphic you make the image or story, the more memorable. I´ll leave it to your imagination.
4. Join a Group
Join a casual sports team or club. My first week in Turkey, I joined a martial arts studio to keep in shape. But the class had the unexpected benefit of also providing me with an excellent beginner course in the Turkish language. Martial arts is a consistent, repetitive series of commands and instructions, and I was able to pick up on many of these instructions over the course of only a few weeks. The repetition and simplicity of the physical actions was the key. Basketball and Soccer games with friends have provided similar experiences. It comes down to this: if you already know the rules of the game, you can easily convert and discern the meaning of the new words surrounding it. And it feels a hell of a lot less like work than sitting down with pen and paper.
5. Use movies
Watch your favorite films with foreign language subtitles. English films with Turkish subtitles are very popular here. Since I already know many of the film names, plots, and dialogues, I have benefited greatly from reading/listening to the conversational language of many of my favorite films. Watch them slowly. Repeat sections. Take notes on what you understand. Once you feel comfortable with basic vocabulary and grammar, this is a great way to acquire some more sophisticated phrases.
6. Don’t be Afraid
Lastly—and perhaps most importantly—Don´t be afraid to look foolish! Let me blow your mind here: in learning a new language you will make mistakes. People will notice your missteps. People will find endless amusement in your butchering of their language in the same way that you probably laugh at the mistakes of non-native English speakers (think Sacha Baron Cohen as Borat.) But don´t let that dishearten you! Keep at it; the worst thing you can do is to keep silent and avoid trying altogether.
Of course, this list is anything but comprehensive. I encourage you to talk with others and find out for yourself, what works for you? How do you learn language? For me, the core message here is two-fold. 1) Find ways to make the unknown elements of the language more familiar to you. And 2) don´t let it just be another chore: try to have fun while doing it.
Learning a language is not only about preventing emergency and humiliation. Those who travel and decide not to actively learn the language miss out on one of the joys of traveling: communicating with the locals on their terms. Nothing else in my travels has inspired more wonder and fascination (and perhaps a little humor, too) in the people I have met than my sincere attempts to communicate with them. But, more importantly, learning a language opens up new doors and avenues, most of which are unavailable to the mere “tourist.”
Recently, I received an unexpected invitation for a cup of tea from a local vendor. Even though he spoke almost no English, he managed to tell me the heartbreaking tale of his mother´s recent death and subsequent breakdown of his family. Even though I only understood a fraction of his words, my study of Turkish made much of what he meant apparent. I walked away from that cup of tea with an incredible change in my perspective: despite our different backgrounds, social worlds, and means of communication, that man and I still shared something deeply human together, mutual understanding through the exchange of life-stories. That is an experience I would not trade for anything, and would have been barred from, had I remained the close-minded individual I was in my college language classes.
So the next time you´re thinking of traveling to another country, make an effort to learn the language. It might change the way you look at the world.
But don´t get me wrong: that doesn´t mean I want to sit through French class again.
Sean Michael Kiely is a US Citizen who recently ran away from home to work for a private language school in Adana, Turkey. He loves animals, animated films, and the psychology of Sigmund Freud. He hasn´t quite decided how he feels about this whole “Twilight” thing.