It’s not easy to speak a new language — I share your pain. Some of the greatest difficulties arise because we first learn the new language in our home country. This means we are safe and comfortable, surrounded by people who look, speak, and act like we do. Sometimes we are taught to speak by a native speaker of our own language. We usually speak more slowly than folks that converse naturally. And we always learn the language in the form of lessons where grammatical structure and funny little stories matter, which has nothing to do with real life. We feel proud with 3-5 years of language training and high scores on the language exams, but get off the plane only to realize we understand a mere 20% of what people are saying around us, and they understand even less of what we try to tell them. The following rules may help you adjust.
1. Write it down, yo.
A language journal should be your best friend. Those little casual phrases, small colloquialisms, and idioms that don’t make sense will never make sense if you don’t figure out what they mean. When you hear a phrase or word you don’t understand, or you find yourself searching for a word you don’t have in your vocabulary, write it down. Later you can look it up or ask a friend, commit it to memory, and impress people when you say, “it’s like this” or “I gotta bounce.”
2. Turn on (the television and movies).
Did a professor just tell you to watch tv? Aw yeah. On television people speak casually and with common phrases, and at a pace you are expected to understand. Typically comedy shows also come with physical activity that allows you to interpret meaning visually while you listen. When you can’t understand something, write it down in your journal so you can translate it later.
3. Tune in (to your favorite new radio station).
When you aren’t watching television, listen to the radio or download some good music. Not only songs, but also commercials, convey thoughts in short, repetitive bursts. This is helpful for imprinting words into your subconscious. Traffic reports, weather updates, and call-in shows use conversational speeds to discuss accessible topics, so they are good places to pick up new vocabulary and accents.
4. Drop Out (of native conversations).
One of the most comforting places to be is with people like you. We all love it — it’s nice to talk, laugh, and be understood (Thomas Schelling won a Nobel Prize for proving how and why). But hanging out with native-speakers of your own language is a sure way to keep your own new-language skills stagnant. If you live with a roommate from your own country, Skype with folks from home, and listen to your own music all day, when will you be practicing your conversational skills? Resist the temptation, and take advantage of the immersion you’ve given yourself. Live with native speakers, hang out with them as much as possible, and relegate Skype and your own music for times when you really need them.
5. Translations, dubs, and subtitles.
Constant inundation with sounds is exhausting, especially when those sounds are from a new language. If you’d rather be reading, try to find one of your favorite books that has been translated into the new language. I usually like to start with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or The Little Prince. I know them so well that I can read them in the new language and always know where I am in the book, even if I can’t understand every single word or grammatical construct. But I can certainly learn a lot along the way.
You can apply the same principle to your favorite movies, which you can often find dubbed or subtitled in the new language. Follow along with the story you know, but listen to the dubbing (or read the subtitles) to learn what you would say in the language you’re learning, rather than the language you know. Sometimes simply knowing the title’s translation can speak volumes.
The most important thing to realize is that your spoken and comprehensive language skills can always improve. Ask people whether you need to work on certain vowel sounds. Tell new friends that you can’t discern the difference between two words. Practice every night. You will better your skills every day.