Learning A New Language



Learning a new language seems to be a natural thing for most foreign nationals.  Just about everyone I have met outside the U.S. speaks at least one other language (not always English).  As opposed to most American travelers I have met (including me in the beginning)  who only speak English.

It isn't necessary to learn to speak the language as much as it is important to learn a few key phrases.  But it definitely helps if you can converse with people beyond those phrases.  Alternately,  if you are very lucky (or rich), you can get yourself a personal interpreter to follow you around (it worked for me a couple of times, and I am not rich, but I was extremely lucky, your mileage may vary). The interpreter method works, but it was very humbling for me, and I decided I didn't like it.

After trying many methods (classes, computer based, books, audio tapes), I have found the method that works best for me.   In my opinion, it is more important to be able to speak a language than it is to be able to read a language.   For one thing, people are much less patient than the average sign you are likely to come across, and while you can fumble about in your dictionary and eventually figure out any sign or menu you come across, this just won't work when you are trying to purchase a ticket, or give directions in a taxi.  You will definitely need a book as well, but I wouldn't even open it till you entered the country in question.

I have tried several audio tapes (I refer to them as tapes, although some are digital mp3 files, some are cd-roms, etc...).  The ones that I find to be the best by far are the Pimsleur tapes (although they are probably the most expensive I have found).  They come in 3 levels for just about any language you could possibly need.  Level 1 will take you the longest to master if you are new to the language (and level 1 contains reading practice lessons in all the languages I have tried).  After you finish level 1, you will be able to converse with merchants, and taxi drivers, but it won't help you understand the average television program, or talk conversationally with any locals.  How you get through level 1 is up to you, it was very difficult for me (I am an old dog, and its difficult to teach me new tricks).  Levels 2 and 3 are fairly easy after you have level 1 down.  They get into the actual use of the language.  The Pimsleur tapes are repetitive without seeming so.  Television is the true test in my opinion.  A person you can stop and ask to slow down, or repeat a sentence again.  If you can understand television, you can be comfortable in any situation. 

A note on time frames.  In my experience, it takes about a week to begin to feel comfortable in a non English speaking country.  And about a month to go completely native.  And the same amount of time to get back into the swing of thing back in the states (although if you come back from Argentina, and stay in the Miami area, you probably never need to switch back).  As such, I will never consider taking a personal vacation (work is different, and usually out of my control) in another country for less than 2 weeks. 

This site was last updated 11/17/03