13 February 2014

how to learn a foreign language: five simple tips.

Mtaka chauvunguni shati aina me. 

Poorly translated from Kiswahili into English, "If you want to get something, you need to bend your back."

Our cultural session this week was on Tanzanian proverbs (methali). Just like every culture, Tanzanians love proverbs that give advice on all matters of life, from wisdom to love to the importance of unity. This class session was fascinating because not only did we learn many Tanzanian proverbs, but also we had the opportunity to share a proverb from our own culture. Since we have students from Poland, the Netherlands, Germany, Peru, Lebanon, Burkina Faso, and the good old U.S. of A., that led to a lot of fun conversation and awkward explanations as we tried to describe our proverbs in broken Kiswahili and English. 

to ease the blow of learning a foreign language, i took some pretty pictures of flowers. and posted them here. 

The above proverb really stood out to me at this moment in time. Michael and I have been at language school for a little over four weeks now and are already a third through our course. On one hand, this is the scariest thought I've ever had. We're already a third of the way done?!? I don't have enough language yet to justify this statistic! On the other hand, I'm grateful time is flying by. This learning-a-foreign-language thing is hard… and frankly, I'm getting tired!

I was reminded today with this proverb, though, that nothing is done successfully by just sitting around and waiting. Sure, I would love to speak Kiswahili by letting verbal osmosis do the trick but it ain't happenin'. (I found out because I already tried.)

In order to learn a foreign language, we need to bend our backs. Or in American proverb speak, "Where there's a will, there's a way!" So how, my rafiki? How?

Five Tips to Learn a Foreign Language (And Believe Me, These Are Simple Because We Are Americans and Americans Are Notoriously Bad at Learning Foreign Languages)

1. Memorize. Learn grammar. Attempt to speak while a native speaker harshly critiques your pronunciation. Repeat. No, seriously, repeat. 

Even when we don't want to, we need to memorize. We need to learn grammar. We need to keep pounding loads and loads of vocabulary into our thick skulls. That's how we bend our backs, day after day, and even after language school is over. Everyone says that they learn languages in different ways, which is wonderful. But the best way to learn? To do a little bit of everything. 

You don't like grammar? (Who does? You do? You're kidding me.) Well, if you don't, that's okay. Reward yourself with a learning method that you like, like doing a listening exercise, learning new words or turning on a local radio station. Find your balance to all of the different learning methods out there.

2. Be insanely curious. 

It's really easy when we're inundated with a ton of new material we're expected to know within a week to curl up in the fetal position and cry in a corner.

Wait. That came out wrong.

It's really easy when we're inundated with new material to take a step back from active learning. We're taking in as much as we think our little brains can take in, so we let a lot go. But really, try to engage as much as you can. As my homegirl Sheryl Sandberg would say, lean in. Try to remain insanely curious. If you hear a new word, don't just let it go. Write it down. File it away somewhere. Then, when you have 45 seconds, try to look it up. And the next day, try to use it in a sentence. We are all about celebrating the small victories, people.

If you always stay curious, you will always be learning.

3. Get out (for sanity) and LISTEN (for learning).

Tanzania, specifically the area where we are currently living, is absolutely beautiful. Today is considered a "cold" day for locals, and I'd say it can't be under 65° Fahrenheit. Because of this, everywhere we walk, there are colorful plants and flowers dotting our journey. Although I joked about posting these pictures to get away from language learning, I actually wanted to give you a sense of our landscape and to provide some encouragement to our loved ones suffering in frigid weather. These walks are key to my mental health. No one can sit at a desk for eight hours a day and not lose a bit of their sanity. (Anyone who has worked an office job can speak to this.) So when learning another language, get out, clear your head, and relax. 

But when you get out (if you're living in the country where your new language is necessary), you also give yourself the opportunity of speaking with locals. This is integral to learning. Countless times in the last month, Michael and I have remarked on how speaking on the street is so different from speaking in the classroom. When you're talking to real live human beings instead of to pre-recorded tapes, your brain is forced to work in a whole new way. 

And the good news? Even if you don't understand a word of what a local is saying to you, listening is half the battle. This is why so many foreign language classes assign students work like listening to the local news, picking out a local song and translating the gist of it, or watching movies in the new language. LISTENING HELPS and for this, we should be forever grateful. Because even we don't understand anything, we're actually learning. Genius.

4. Be encouraged.

Since September, Michael and I have been living out of suitcases. In New York and now here in Musoma, we've worked to make our temporary residences a bit homier, which really does remind us of all the people out there cheering us on.

We brought two calendars, because really, can you ever have enough calendars? The first is from our alma mater, Boston College, and the second was a gift from my family. It's a personalized calendar from Snapfish, which we absolutely adore. Each month has different pictures of us with our families and even specific days have reminders (birthdays! Valentine's Day!) along with even more personal photogs. 

We also received some awesome journals for Christmas, with messages and inside jokes from family inside. I love writing in mine and happening upon a hilarious memory from the past. Once I get laughing, I'm able to shake off my foul language-learning mood. It's a good kick in the pants. 

Michael's journal (can you guess which is which?) is made by Ecosystem, which we highly recommend. The quality is fabulous, similar to Moleskine, but with a mission that we can really get behind: 100% recycled and 100% made in the U.S.A. Check it out if you're ever in need!

What does encouragement look like for you? Photos of home? A coffee break? A good song? Whatever it is, use it. Give yourself a chance to re-boot.

5. Don't. Give. Up.

For those of you out there attempting to learn any foreign language, you feel our pain. It hurts! But with a little encouragement, and a lot of laughing at yourself, you can do it. We believe in you. (Let's be honest, this is really a pep-talk to ourselves!)

And remember, shida ya leo ni furaha ya kesho. Today's problem is tomorrow's happiness. 

Let's hope.


  1. I like the new blog look, the more stick figures the better!! :D

  2. Love it! Though, you make me feel like a slacker :)