Guest Blog by Larissa Hämisegger
I thought I was bad at learning languages.
Back in high school, it was mandatory for us to study French and my grades were pretty bad. I don’t like to learn things by heart, I need to understand the reasons behind something. And that’s actually how we learn languages in school. We learn to understand the grammar of the language. However, all I remember from these 8 years or so of French classes is the struggle I had with studying grammar and words and memorizing the exceptions – and there were a lot of them. Am I able to have a conversation in French now? No!
During high school, I had the opportunity to study abroad one year and I chose Sweden. I thought: they all speak English well, which would make it easier to find friends and a sense of belonging. Of course, it wasn’t. While they do all speak fluent English, conversation amongst Swedes is obviously in Swedish. Real social integration was impossible without being able to understand and speak Swedish. So I took lessons in Swedish but after 10 or so classes I realized it was taking too long to learn something I could actually use. Also, I didn’t want to spend my time with the other exchange students: I wanted to get to know the Swedish life.
So I chose to do the following:
– I had sticky notes all over the apartment with the Swedish words for all the things we had at home.
– I watched Swedish shows with Swedish subtitles.
– I listened carefully whenever I heard people talking – to the sounds, the melody, and tried to understand at least the topic, they were talking about.
– Whenever I heard a word several times I asked what it was or looked it up in the dictionary and since I heard it many times, it stayed in my head easily.
– And since it got dark very early there, I looked through the newspapers and read about what time the sun rises and when it sets.
What happened? After 3 months I had this click moment and I was able to understand most of what people were saying. A month later I was fluent. I applied Swedish as much as I could because my main motivation was to make friends and integrate. The Swedes were impressed and started to click with me because I used all their slang words. Of course, I had those words because I learned what people were talking through reality TV shows and listening to classmates. But it was exactly that, that showed I tried to adapt and didn’t learn the language from a book.
Recently I had a chat with a linguist and then the penny dropped. It is well known that we learn a language faster by listening and imitating and not by studying grammar and vocabulary. We are not bad at learning languages, nor are they too difficult, or our brains too old – we just mostly learn the wrong way.
So here’s what do you need to do to learn a language fast:
– listen attentively and often
– imitate and repeat what you hear
– listen to and read about topics you care about
– practice, practice, practice
– incorporate the language every day
So my suggestion is, get yourself some radio podcasts or, even better, watch tv in (Swiss) German with German subtitles and do that as often as possible. Write down the words you hear often and then translate them. You will not understand much in the beginning, but you will get a feeling for the language, which is more important than anything else. Through hearing the same words and sentence structure over and over again and understanding in what context they are used, you will extend your vocabulary and your grammar. And speak as much as you can with everyone you meet and don’t worry about making a lot of mistakes because nobody cares about this but you.
Larissa Hämisegger is Founder of UNUMONDO, a company that supports non-German speakers living in Switzerland to learn (Swiss) German by facilitating real life exchanges and learning opportunities, rather than in the classroom. She combines her background in business management and organizational development with her studies in Yoga and Meditation to find ways for people to find a sense of belonging and connect through language.