A number of language schools, colleges and other organisations run summer schools where you can learn more of a particular language, and often take part in a variety of activities. If you don’t know the language at all, summer schools can give you a short, enjoyable introduction to it. If you already have some or a lot of the language, summer schools are a great way to boast your confidence using it. They also give you opportunities to experience some aspects of the culture associated with the language, and to meet other learners and native speakers.
At the moment, for example, I am doing a summer school in Irish language and culture at Oideas Gael in Donegal in the northwest of Ireland. There are Irish language classes in the mornings with an emphasis on everyday spoken Irish. In the afternoons you can choose between singing, dancing, playing various instruments, cooking, drama, hilll walking and so on. There are concerts, recitals and other performances in the evenings, and these are followed by music sessions in the local pubs.
This is a stunningly beautiful place which attracts students from all other the world who share a passion for the Irish language, music and culture. There is a wonderful atmosphere here and everybody is very friendly, so even if you come on your own not knowing another soul, by the end of the week you will have many new friends. This is my third time at this particular summer school and my fifth to this language and cultural centre – I enjoy it so much that I keep coming back, and many other people do the same, so there are always plenty of familiar faces.
For many people, learning a language involves going to classes, doing homework, taking tests and trying to memorise vocabulary. Others try to teach themselves languages using similar techniques. These are all useful things to do, but won’t necessarily give you a fluency in the language. Conscious learning of a language using these methods tends to feel like hard work.
If you really want to become highly proficient in a language, you need to spend a lot of time immersed in it. To become good at speaking the language, for example, you need to find opportunities to use it with other people, ideally in situations where you have to use it, or at least try to say as much as you can without falling back on your native language. Listening to radio programmes, watching videos, films and TV programmes, reading books and other material, and writing it as often as you can are also good things to do. This may not feel like study, especially if they involves subjects and activities you really enjoy, but you will be absorbing and acquiring a lot of the language without realizing it.
Conscious learning and sub-conscious acquisition are both good ways to learn languages. You can probably make faster progress if you study a language consciously, but sub-conscious acquisition probably gives you a deeper knowledge of it. Combining the two together is even better.
The Spanish, and others from countries around the Mediterranean, are known to make a fair bit of use of gestures when they’re talking. If you’re learning Spanish it would be useful to become familiar with some of these gestures and their significance.
If you want to indicate that a place is packed with people (está lleno de gente) you hold one or both hand in front of you with the fingers pointing upwards and open and close them quickly.
If you’re broke – estoy a dos velas (down to two candles) you can show this by moving your index and middle fingers down your face on either side of your nose from just below your eyes.
To show that you think someone is being very lazy – qué huevon/huevona, you hold both hands in front of you as if holding something large and heavy in each one and move them up and down.
If someone is being cheeky, you can show what you think of them by tapping your cheek with your hand. The spoken equivalent of this gesture is cara dura (lit. “hard face).
Make sure you try out these gestures with a Spanish friend to make sure you’ve got them right before using them with strangers. It also helps if you look out for them when watching Spanish people speaking to one another to get an idea how and when they use. Their use may not be appropriate in all situations.
Many people claim they don’t have enough time to learn a new language as they have far too many other things to do. However, even the busiest person can usually find at least a few spare moments during their day. While they may not be able to study for very long at any one time, they could fit in quite a few shorts bursts of study among their other activities.
If you don’t have time to sit down with textbooks, dictionaries, tapes, CDs and other materials to learn a language, there are other ways you could go about it. For example, you could copy recordings of language lessons onto your mp3 player or mobile phone and listen to them while your doing other things such as commuting or exercising. You could carry flashcards around with you and whip them out when you have a spare moment or two, or use electronic flashcards. At the gym you could count whatever exercise you’re doing in the language you’re learning, or go through lists of things – days of the week, months of the year, colours, etc.
The key is the use whatever time you can to your best advantage, and to have language learning materials to hand as often as possible. Ideally those materials should be small, portable, and require minimal faffing around with to use.
When learning a language some people like to, or at least try to stick to specific timetables. This might involve studying for perhaps a hour a day at a set time each day. Or spreading your studies out over several shorter periods. It can be helpful to get into the habit of studying regularly like this, and to stick to it as much as possible.
Not everybody has a regular pattern of work and other activities however, and might find it tricky to find the spare time to study at the same time each day. This doesn’t matter so much as long as you do can find time to study regularly, even if it’s at different times each day.
Whether you study at set times, or just fit in your studies whenever you can, it’s also a good idea to immerse yourself in the language as much as possible at other times. For example, you could listen to online radio stations while working or listen to podcasts on your mp3 player. You don’t have to listen attentively to them – just having them playing in the background is useful. It doesn’t matter if you don’t understand what your hearing, or understand only bits, but the more you hear the language, the more your ears will tune in to it, and your brain will be spotting patterns and words that appear frequently. Then when you study there should be plenty of things that are already familiar, which will make it easier to learn them and remember the,.
One way to practise using the language(s) you’re learning is to attend an international event such as the Llangollen International Musical Eisteddfod, which I went to this week. Such events attract participants and spectators from all over the world, so whatever language you’re learning, it’s likely that you’ll come across people who speak it and who will probably be happy to speak it with you.
While attending events as a spectator can be great fun, you might get even more opportunities to flex your linguistic muscles if you can become part of the team running the event. This might involve selling tickets or programmes, acting as a steward or usher, working in catering outlets, helping with electrical stuff such as sound and lighting, and many other possibilities. Any of these jobs could provide you with opportunities to speak your foreign language(s) and to meet people from various countries, and you’ll probably get to hear and see at least some of the performances for free.
If you’re hesitant about approaching strangers and attempting to speak their language, it helps if you have a few foreign phrases ready to go – things like, Hello. I’m learning your language. I really enjoyed your performance. That’s a wonderful / beautiful costume. Where are you from? What’s your name? Are you enjoying yourself? The weather is lovely / hot / cold / wet / terrible today, isn’t it. Is this your first visit to this event? If you’re really organised you could even put together a collection of phrases like this in some of the languages you’re likely to encounter. Even if you don’t speak much of a language, people are likely to be impressed if you have some phrases up your sleeve, especially for the languages few people study, such as Estonian, Latvian or Maltese.
Many people steer clear of learner languages as they believe it to be too difficult, or that they are no good at languages, or because they didn’t enjoy language lessons at school. Even those who do decide to learn a language often so it as something difficult and may not believe that they’ll ever get to grips with the language.
Such negative thinking doesn’t help. Instead it’s better to think positively, and to believe that you can learn a language. You don’t have to be a gifted linguist or have some kind of special talent for languages, or to be a genius. In fact anybody can learn a foreign language – you need motivation, dedication, patience and a fair amount of time.
There will be things you find difficult – perhaps the pronunciation, remembering the words and/or some aspects of the grammar – but don’t let these things put you off. In fact you may find it helpful to not worry about the more complex aspects of the language at first and to focus on learning the easier bits. You can go back to the more challenging parts later, by which time you will have a come across at least some of them and will have a degree of familiarity with them, even if you’re not sure what they are or how they work.
So remember – you can learn a language, it is possible, it won’t necessarily be easy, but it’s not horribly difficult either.
A good reason to study a non-mainstream language that few other people study is that you might find job opportunities relatively easy to come by. Knowing such a language may also open up other opportunities for study, travel, friendship and business.
Many people study languages like French, German and Spanish, and there are many good reasons for doing so – they are spoken and studied in many countries, there is a wealth of literature and other culture associated with them, and there’s no shortage of job opportunities for people who speak them. On the other hand, because they’re so popular, competition for jobs using such languages can be quite intense, and knowledge of them alone is probably not sufficient. Those who speak one or more of these languages, and have others skills are likely to find it easier to find work.
Estonian, Latvian and Maltese could be considered non-mainstream languages: that is relatively few people speak them and study them, at least when compared to languages like English, French and Spanish. If you study such a language you may find it easier to get a job using them. There’s a great demand for interpreters and translators who speak the smaller European languages in EU institutions, and someone with a combination of a major language or two, plus one or two minor ones is likely to be much sought after.
In the case of languages like Welsh, Irish, Scottish Gaelic and Manx there’s an increasing demand for teachers who can teach them, and/or teach through them, and for translators.