“Learning a language” is not enough. You need to make it a part of your life – forever.
As plenty of people will tell you, becoming at least conversationally fluent in a foreign language is not that difficult, whether you do it little by little or through super-intense immersion or study. But just learning a language is not really enough, if you don’t think about how you can make speaking that foreign language a part of your life. This isn’t much of a problem if you become a permanent expat, but if you
One advantage of learning English as a foreign language is that knowing English is useful, if not necessary, for a vast array of professions in almost any country in the world. Most people use English when they travel. Yes, it it nice to know other languages, but if I am traveling in a country whose language I don’t speak (let’s say, Vietnam, for example) I am not going to try to speak Russian. I am just going to speak English – just like a French, Chinese or Russian traveler would do. Native English speakers learning another foreign language have to think a little bit more about how they are going to use their foreign language skills.
Professional, Personal or Both?
Let’s face it, you probably spend a lot of time at work. So if you are able to use your foreign language skills at work, you will probably speak the language more often and more consistently.
One of the most common reasons people give for wanting to learn a foreign language is that they think it will help them professionally. I have seen research suggesting that people who speak a foreign language (or two) earn more money than their monolingual peers, although I don’t think that that a desire to get ahead professionally is a good reason to embark on learning a foreign language if it is your only reason.
I have found that if you want to use your foreign language skills professionally, you have to make a real effort to both choose a career that makes that possible and to seek out opportunities to use the foreign language. You might get a salary boost without actually getting to speak the language on a regular basis: Some employers pay bilingual employees more if they pass an exam, for example, and I have gotten hired at jobs because of my language skills but never actually used a foreign language on the job.
It’s not a bad idea about how the language might fit in to your professional life even before you have reached a level of proficiency that you are comfortable with.
You can always incorporate a foreign language into your personal life. There are millions of different ways to do so, but many require at least a little forethought.
Study a language related to one of your hobbies, or pick up a hobby related to your language
The idea of studying vocabulary or grammar as a hobby seems pretty dull to me. But if you’re language is related to another hobby, it will be easier to integrate into your life. For example, I studied flamenco music and dance, and knowing Spanish is quite useful when you listen to the music, go to workshops or go to Spain to take an intensive course. If you have a connection to the language you are studying, you are more likely to be able to make it a real, permanent part of your life.
Find a Significant Other / Spouse who Speaks Your Target Language
The old cliche says that “the best place to learn a language is on the pillow.” I’m not 100% sure that is accurate, but if you communicate with your significant other primarily in the language you are learning, you will get loads of practice time. Plus, you will probably also spend time with his or her family, which gives you that much more of an opportunity to practice – and it seriously deepens your cultural experience. I’m not saying you need to shack up with someone just to learn a language, but …..
Find Friends Who Speak The Language
I think this is harder than it sounds. Just because someone happens to speak a particular language that you also speak does not mean that you will automatically be friends. At least it doesn’t for me, because I like to have things in common with my friends, and my interests are kind of weird.
Language exchanges are a good way to keep up a language and continue improving. I have met fabulous friends through language exchanges, but by no means are all language exchange partners going to be your friend – not because they are jerks, but because you might not have anything in common.
Nonetheless, you should always strive to make friends AT HOME who speak the language you are learning / speak and want to continue speaking. You can both practice the language with your friends and keep up with events that happen in that language: Like a Russian comedy show I went to in Portland or the many Chinese movies shown at the Portland Confucius Institute.
Fall in Love With Books, Movies, Music, Magazines and Everything Else
There are actually lots of ways to keep up a language all by yourself: Lots of reading, movies, music and everything else related to culture. For me, exposing myself to culture is a part of both learning the language and keeping it up. The many advantages of this approach (which of course can be combined with other approaches) include the fact that it is fun and you can do it whenever you want, without relying on someone else’s schedule.
The challenge is to find books, movies and magazines in your target language. Music is pretty easy to find on the internet, and if you’re willing to read or watch everything on the computer or on a tablet, books, movies and magazines aren’t impossible to find, although it does take some searching and you might run into problems with television shows not being available in your ‘region.’
The most important thing to take away from this post is that if you really want to be bilingual, you need to make your second language just as much a part of your life as your first language. That’s easy if you’re an expat, and hard but not impossible if you live in your home country.