If you grew up speaking English, chances are you’re not fluent in a second language, especially if you grew up in the United States. To experience more of the world—for business or pleasure—a second language really comes in handy. The best way to learn a language is to start speaking it right away, no matter how little of it you know.
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Not the Rosetta Stone you'd have at home
The world around us does not all speak English. There are over 170 languages in the world with more than 3 million first-language speakers. If you like to travel or want to conduct business in the non-English speaking world (even right here in Boston), now is the time to get started.
It isn’t as hard to become fluent as memories of high school French or Spanish homework would have you believe. There are many people (including Benny the Irish Polyglot whose philosophy I am following) who believe that the best way to become fluent is to immerse yourself in and start speaking the language immediately. That’s how I’m learning Polish. (Full disclosure: I’ve been studying Polish about two months and am not yet fluent.)
For my purposes, fluency is the ability to give a presentation or hold a conversation about a topic that interests you in your target language, and understand the other participants when they speak to you or ask questions. This is not fluency designed to help pass an exam or meet other specific requirements, though it could lead to that.
Immersion is the key to learning a language rapidly. Think about it. If you did not know a single word of Chinese, but suddenly found yourself spending several months in a small city in China with no English speakers, you would learn to speak Chinese.
Immersion is how children learn their first language. But adults have an advantage over children: experience in the world, which puts words and their meaning in context. So, shopping for food in that city in China isn’t all that different from shopping for food here.
How do you immerse yourself in another language if you can’t move to or travel to the country right now?
Set a goal. If you have a business meeting in Buenos Aires with a non-English speaking team and you have to give a presentation to them, you’ll likely be very successful learning Spanish.
My goal is a personal one, to speak Polish to do some genealogical research and speak to newly discovered family members. As I get closer to fluency, I plan to wrap a business-related goal around that too—to start writing for a Polish audience, to share thoughts about the American perspective on business to help companies that wish to expand to this market.
Make new friends. Find people in your area who speak the language and become part of that community. Shop at the shops, eat in the restaurants, go to the movie house. In addition to listening in all these places, and absorbing the language that way, talk to people. Most people truly appreciate that you are trying to learn their language and will be accommodating. I still put off setting up Skype conversations with strangers or speaking Polish at the local Polish restaurant because I know it will be difficult. It is easier for me to speak to my teachers (two online, one in person), in part because we can schedule time to talk and I can prepare.
Use the internet. This is a fabulous resource for finding conversation partners or teachers that you can connect with via Skype. For most languages you can also find radio stations and podcasts to listen to, and possibly t.v. stations to watch to help with your listening and comprehension skills. (Note: Licensing laws vary, but many t.v. shows and films are not licensed for distribution online or outside their native country, so be wary of sites that offer access. I learned this the hard way.)
Use your imagination. Our world is so connected these days, there are lots of ways to get exposure to other languages. Perhaps you can borrow movies in the target language from the library or Netflix. Or find audio books or lessons to download. Or buy a magazine or newspaper in your target language to help you learn how to read the language. Be creative.
There are many other steps to take, of course, in learning a language. You still need to learn grammar, spend time building your vocabulary, and practice reading and writing. It takes a lot of time and dedicated attention. But the purpose of learning a language is to communicate with other people. And the primary way we communicate is via spoken language. So stand at the edge and just jump. You’ll be glad you did.
Have you learned a new language or are in the process? Tell us about your experiences.
Manya Chylinski is a marketing consultant and writer helping B2B companies create compelling content and share thought leadership and success stories. Founder of Alley424 Communications, Manya has experience in a variety of industries including technology, higher education, financial services, government, and consulting.
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