I’m a lover of language. I love wordplay and the intricate games you can play with language. I love how by altering the stress or emphasis you can completely reverse meaning and tone.
Language can be as elegant as a dance, or brutal as a street fight. You can ebb and flow, twisting and turning with your partner in perfect harmony, or you can trade savage blows, hits coming hard and fast until you beat your opponent down into submission.
Language is powerful…… and now imagine stripping that power away. For travellers, the struggle is real!
6 months on the road seems like the dream! You’ve booked your flight, bought your guide book and set yourself to mastering the most common phrases. With smugness as your shield, you step off the plane, walk out into this new, exotic land and… WHAM! You have NO IDEA what anyone’s saying! People aren’t following the rules! They’re not asking “Can I help you?” like they did in your phrase book roleplay! They’re mumbling, using contractions, and SLANG!!!
Suddenly you’ve gone from Lord of the Dance, to a clumsy, uncoordinated idiot wearing 2 left shoes. You’ve never heard the song before, and to be honest, you’re not even sure that it’s actually music! Where once you were able to hold your own, and deflect any blow that came your way, now your opponents are dancing rings around you, stinging you with jabs, and you’re too slow and confused to even know where to punch.
That may seem overly dramatic, but I’d bet my two left shoes that there’s a few of you out there nodding along.
It’s a humbling, intimidating feeling.
True, some people live for that feeling. They suck it up, embrace it, and they’re usually the ones who are chatting away within the next few weeks.
For others it’s a paralyzing sensation, which either prevents you from traveling in the first place, or forces you to seek the sanctuary of your own native speakers wherever you roam.
I refuse to be cowed, yet I’m also not the best language learner, which led to many months in South America hiding behind 3 or 4 stock phrases, and a handful of platitudes. I’m not going to lie… it was a lonely time. I happen to quite like the solitude, but even I found it a little too isolating at times.
I tried memorizing phrase books, forever saying “Habla despacio por favor” – “speak slowly please”, speaking slow and loud myself, and lots of pointing and mime… none of which truly felt empowering.
So how do you break the cycle? How do you scale that mountainous wall, and take the power back?
Hammer vocabulary? Drill yourself until you’re blue in the face and have a 5000 word vocabulary? Conjugate until your eyes bleed?
Possibly… but I’d argue there’s a better way.
Let’s go back to the earlier analogies.
Did Shakira learn her moves from a book? Did she spend hours learning the theory behind Tango/Salsa/etc, and every possibly foot combination (spoken like a true Dance Master)? I’ve not had the pleasure of meeting her, but I’d be confident in saying No.
Did Muhammad Ali study anatomy and learn the names of all muscles needed to deliver a crushing upper cut? Eventually, maybe, but not at the start.
They both walked onto the dance floor/ring, and started to move. Repetition and drills are vital to mastering your craft… but first you need to listen to the music. Sway your hips a little, turn your shoulders, loosen up!
I believe the only way to loosen up is to learn the rhythm, the sounds, and the flow.
Vocabulary will come in time, but to gain that first level of confidence and snatch back a handful of self respect then you need to understand your opponent/partner. You need to slip the jab, and avoid kicking your partner in the shins.
You need to get used to moving your mouth in the correct way, and to form the proper sounds of your target language. German has sounds that French doesn’t, and French has sounds not found in Portuguese. They have similarities, but they each have unique ‘elemental sounds’ that, once mastered, will make you sound much more convincing, help you to be understood and help you to understand them.
I stumbled upon just such a program called The Mimic Method. It teaches you these elemental sounds of a language, and then pieces them together until you master the flow. Once you have that rhythm, these building blocks, it makes understanding SO MUCH easier. No longer are you listening to just a stream of endless noise. Your ear is now trained to pick out the sounds and shapes of previously unfamiliar words, and the confidence gained from mimicking and receiving positive feedback is priceless!
During the course you’re taught how to shape your mouth, where to hold your tongue, and how to squeeze the noise out like a local. It sounds tricky, but the course is designed to lead you by the tongue, one nasal sound at a time.
It took 90 days of consistent study (30 minutes a day, 5 times per week), and at the end I was able to hold down a 15 minute conversation completely in Portuguese! (Being completely honest, I wouldn’t have won awards for my eloquence, but we communicated in a foreign tongue for a quarter of an hour after only 90 days… I’m taking that as a win!)
Without these ‘building blocks’, I’d still be grinding away for months before I saw even the faintest glimmer of success.
I don’t believe I’ll ever find language learning ‘easy’ as such… but it’s infinitely less stressful now, and decidedly more fun!