Guest Post by: James Sparks
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Years ago I found myself in Florence, Italy taking a 2 week crash course in Italian. I would sit for hours in our small classroom struggling to understand the grammar and phonetics of that beautiful language. My problem wasn’t so much a lack of motivation – which seems to be one of the biggest obstacles when learning a foreign language-but rather the remnants of Spanish from high school and college years. One evening, however, something miraculous took place. After enjoying a wine tasting tour, my Italian suddenly ascended to astounding heights, which dare I say, will never be reached again. I was suddenly conversing with ease in Italian; telling jokes, sharing stories and that night I felt so Italian, I would not be surprised if I was hitting on every woman that walked by. The next day, hung-over and useless to the world, I was approached by numerous people that had been there the night before complementing me on my Italian. Alas whatever magic which had occurred had run its course, and in my rough state, I could only reply in half-grunts.
Since that evening I’ve often wondered what is the best way to quickly master a foreign language. I should emphasize alcohol is not always as helpful as I may have made it seem in my opening paragraph. I’ve had many a time when it’s been a huge detriment – especially in the art of pronunciation. Suffice it to say that when you begin to slur your words in your own native tongue, it’s not going to be any better in a foreign one. In most of my experiences alcohol, when helpful, just relaxes me to the point that I don’t worry about making mistakes anymore.
So what’s the answer? I think anyone willing to invest the time and effort into a foreign language can do it. I marvel at my fellow countrymen when they say, “He/she is extremely intelligent because he/she can speak x amount of foreign languages.” If we were awarding IQ points for those who speak foreign languages, half of the western European countries would be full of Einsteins. Secondly, there is no way around it – you have to immerse yourself into the culture and language where it is spoken. I spent endless weeks learning German at home before I entered an exchange program in college. Nonetheless, I was so overwhelmed by the speed and slang used by the locals when I actually arrived, that it left me spinning. Courses can be very helpful and I suggest them as a basis for everyone. But courses alone won’t do the trick. Of course, the best way to compliment that immersion into foreign life is to fall in love with that special person from the country of the target language. I’m not saying find someone just for the sake of learning a language. I’m just saying it helps.
The best advice I can give anyone, who aspires to learn a foreign language, is simply this: don’t give up. I don’t just mean during the actual theoretical stages (books/courses), but I also mean in praxis. If you travel enough, you’ll know that more often than not folks around the world love to practice their English. Believe me this is a huge advantage for English-speaking travelers. But it can also be a disadvantage for those trying to learn a foreign language, especially in Western Europe. Don’t be surprised to find yourself in a tug of war when speaking to locals who want to improve their English. Just keep answering in the foreign language you are learning. Let them know you’d be happy to speak to them in English when they visit your country. Lastly, break away from that pack of English speakers you hang out with. Don’t ignore your roots, but by all means be open to new experiences. In the end learning a foreign language is well worth the time and energy it takes to learn – you just have to stick with it.