Learning a new language is tough!
The expat life is fraught with challenges, but perhaps none more constant nor more daunting than learning the local language. With a solid foundation in the local language, a study abroad year or a volunteer experience can be far more meaningful. Without mastering the local language however, the experience of living abroad will lack much of the depth, clarity and joy that it potentially could. Mastering the language will open up doors to opportunity, to relationship and to infinite possibilities for a deeper, more joy filled existence in the host country.
Many who go abroad however, settle at just above survival level in their language proficiency. Enclaved in a self imposed English compound of friends and home, it is easy to survive and yes, be happy with this life. Much of the wonders of the new host country can be enjoyed. English speakers are quite often plentiful. The food still tastes wonderful and the local beaches continue to be amazing.
I have yet to meet a fellow expat though who wanted to speak at just more than a survival level of the local language. Maybe the bohemian type who is just passing through, but those who are settling in for a while all want to learn the language well. It is their goal and too often their lament. Why is this so? Why do we plateau and then find ourselves settling for far less than we would like in our language learning?
In general, the expat needs to have enough language to survive; to buy daily provisions, to get around and to have a bit of fun. When we are able to meet our basic needs, that is when we begin to plateau. This of course is not true for everyone, but in my experience it reflects the reality of a great majority of expats around the world. It is not what we want, but reality tells us that what we want and what we need are two very different things. And it is the lower standard of our need that often dictates where we end up in our command of the language.
I have yet to meet a fellow expat though who wanted to speak at just more than a survival level of the local language.
Recognizing this reality is the first step off of the plateau. It helps re-frame the struggle in a way that gives hope and empowers us to take control of the situation, moving past where we need to be to where we want to be. As we think about this, there are two steps that we need to consider. Like a good doctor, we first think in preventative terms. How can we avoid plateauing in language? Are there measures we can take to make sure that we continue to improve even after we can do all that we need to do? Here are a few ideas:
- Develop a personal culture of language learning that fosters healthy and persistent growth. Many face the journey as a battle to be endured, the language as adversary. But a healthy and empowering attitude treats language learning more like a relationship with a friend that is to be continually explored and nurtured and loved and enjoyed.
- Create a healthy language learning environment. Surround yourself with the language. Are there books and magazines and CDs and DVDs throughout your home, car and office that keep you in the language?
- Think small. Think about small things you can do throughout the day, two to three minutes at a time that will get you into the language. Carry around a small set of flashcards, a book or magazine and an ipod filled with the local language. Fill the transitions between projects at work or home with short bursts of language learning and review.
- Always carry a notebook in which you can write down questions you have about the language and culture. Bring these questions to native speaking friends and co-workers as an opportunity to learn.
Some of you however, have stepped into the doctor's office realizing that you are beyond the preventative care stage. You are square in the middle of plateaued language, stuck at just beyond survival level and you're desperate for a kick start and a little hope. And there is hope. It begins with the same preventive measures that new beginners must put into place.
- Think about fostering an lifestyle of language learning.
- Talk to other expats who have mastered the language. What did they do?
- Think about your long term goals. Write them down.
- Use a simple self assessment tool like the ACTFL which can easily be found on the internet to assess where you are currently in your language. Use the same chart to identify where you want to be.
- Formulate a plan of action, a plan of small steps you can take to leave the frustration behind and begin again to move forward in your command of the language.
In all of this, perhaps the most important step is to take control of your language learning. It is not the responsibility of a class to help you master the language. A class is a great resource, but the responsibility to learn is yours and yours alone. Find ways to give yourself the tools to learn language on your own. Visit language learning blogs to learn from other language learners. Download The Peace Corps Volunteer, On-going Language Learning Manual and The Everyday Language Learner's Guide to Sustaining, both free booklets written to encourage and empower you. Commit to changing your everyday environment at home so that it encourages you to be in the language more.
There is much that can be done, but doing it is up to you. You will certainly be able to do what you need to do with the language. What you need to be able to do, is not where you want to be though, so get started today in moving beyond the place of your need to the level of language that you want to have.