I’m always amazed at people who can speak multiple languages. I mean two is awesome, but on my recent travels around Europe, I’ve run into so many people who speak 3-7+ languages and they transition from one to another so smoothly.
As a native English speakers, we tend to be rather lazy when it comes to learning other languages and rely on the fact that someone else has learnt English wherever we go. However, as I found in Japan, the further away from Tokyo, the less likely this is and you find yourself pointing at pictures on menus and smiling a lot.
Europe is quite different though, as it’s a rich mix of cultures and languages due to the open boarders of the EU and the fact that national boarders have been quite fluid for centuries due to trade and of course constant warfare between church and state and state and state and frequent incursions by barbarians, the French and the Germans.
Although I survived this trip without mentioning the war, being a Fawlty Towers fan, it’s always on the tip of my tongue when in hotels and when I did an exchange to Germany when I was still at school, I managed to unintentionally give my host family a present from Australia, which had the El Alamein Fountain on it, which was the battle in which my host’s father fought. Thankfully, it was taken as nice gift, rather than the Fawlty Towers faux pas that it was.
Over the past couple of months, I started refreshing my German in preparation for my trip. The ability to do this on your phone is tremendous, getting daily reminders to do my language session. However, the deeper I delved into the training, the more limited I found it to be. Other than some great reminders and the ability to learn new words, it doesn’t give you the training nor the real world practice needed to converse with native speakers.
As soon as I landed in Switzerland, I had to switch up my mind into German mode. (No, that doesn’t mean I wanted to annex the Sudetenland). It meant I had to focus on what was being said far more actively than I would normally in English. The concentration it took to pick up what was being said was also far greater than being able to flick through questions and match words on an app. As with most things digital, they’re a great help, but no substitute for real world interactions. Suddenly, you’re trying to communicate with people who are fluent and speak far quicker than an AI on any app.
However, despite this challenge, the immersion in the language and culture of the countries made it far easier to learn than playing on the phone. Being surrounded by native speakers, I pushed myself to speak German despite being uncertain of words. I constantly found myself saying half sentences, not quite knowing what a certain word was, or what to say next to complete the sentence. However, the easy option would have been to speak English and not bother, but where’s the fun in that?
Again, this is another fear that needs to be faced or comfort zone boundary that needs kicking down. Sure, it feels weird and awkward that you’re going to say the wrong thing in the wrong way, but hey, lots of people say the wrong thing in their native language. People are more forgiving when it’s your second one. Thankfully I didn’t ask anyone any stupid questions of which I’m aware!
Despite only spending a few days In Switzerland and Austria, I found myself picking up on so many different words, mannerisms and even slang in different regions. I could understand more about what was going on around me and even felt increasingly comfortable about speaking in German. If I’d taken the lazy and easy option, I would have learnt absolutely nothing.
If you’re learning a language, or want to, then the best way to get started is through some lessons combined with some sort of digital trainer. However, to truly gain a handle on the language, you really need to immerse yourself in every way possible by travelling to a native speaking country and only using that language to communicate. It might be challenging to begin with, but so rewarding when you do.