The most important way to meaningfully enter into the life of a new country and culture is to learn the local language. Learning a new language is difficult. It can make you feel like bungling three year old. It may take months (or years!) to master. But the payoff is worth it.
Learning the local language is more than learning words – it’s about learning the local culture. Until you can enter into a conversation in the local language you will not be able to truly enter the world of the people you are living among.
- Even before leaving your home county, there are opportunities to begin learning a new language. Start by making friends! Colleges will have students that speak the language, churches will have attendees, and there may be refugees or immigrants speaking this language in your area. Being surrounded by the new language, even for an hour or two at a time, you will begin to hear the sounds, patterns, and rhythms of the language. By asking how to say simple phrases, you will begin to take the first steps in learning.
- Once you enter the new country it is important to make language learning a priority. Speaking a language is a performance skill, not just a cognitive skill. It is more like practicing basketball than studying history. Listen, practice what you hear, speak to others (even if it is only one sentence), and repeat, repeat, repeat. You should use the new language, rather than just study it.
- Becoming child-like is very helpful in language learning. A child will play with the language, repeating phrases they hear, testing new words and sentences out with their friends, having fun saying new words with “funny” sounds. Being child-like is not being childish, but is a voluntary act requiring a special type of maturity to interact with others to become involved in their new community. A child-like person understands that every native speaker is a potentially a person from whom he or she can learn. It will take humility to accept correction, and occasionally be laughed at, but the reward is moving toward understanding and joining in the conversation.
- To speak another language well, you will most likely need to study at a school in your new country and attend daily classes. But language learning is more than just a classroom activity. Your neighborhood is also your classroom and all your neighbors can be your teachers. Go out every day and practice! Be willing to make mistakes. Listen intensely and speak often, even if you make mistakes. Soon you will begin to understand, and make yourself understood.
About the author: Scott is the IDEAS Director of Project Operations in Asia and spent 25 years in Taiwan learning, speaking and teaching in the local language.