I couldn’t possibly learn a foreign language. I don’t have time, I’m hopeless at languages, I’ve tried before and didn’t have much success, and it’s just too hard.
These are some of the excuses people use when explaining why they are not studying a foreign language, and if they do actually start learning a language, they often find excuses for putting off their studies, for not practising, for not doing their homework, and so. Such excuses are very common and I’ve even used a few of them myself.
Taking on something new can be challenging. Even if you’re very enthusiastic and determined there will be times when you just don’t feel like studying or doing whatever the new thing is. Especially if a lot of work over an extended period of time is required, as is the case with languages. It’s great if you study every day, but if you miss a few days here and there there’s no need to feel guilty, as long as you don’t miss too many. The key is to get into the habit of studying regularly whenever you have some spare time, even if it’s only a few minutes.
Excuses can even be turned into a learning exercise – instead of complaining about how hard the language is or your lack of progress in your mother tongue, you could try doing so in the language itself. Maybe you could also make up some interesting, silly, far-fetched or funny excuses for why you haven’t studied on a particular day. This would be a way to improve you vocabulary and grammar, and the more bizarre the excuses, the more likely you are to remember the new words and grammatical patterns.
For example, instead of just saying that you didn’t study because you were too busy or couldn’t be bothered, maybe you could make up a story involving mythical beasts, extraterrestrials, secret missions, or whatever springs to mind.
Making up and telling stories is a good way to practise using the language you’re learning. During the process of composing the stories you will need to think about how to structure your sentences, how to apply the grammar, and which words to use. As you’ll be using new words in context they’re more likely to stay in your memory than if you just try to learn them on their own. The same is true of the grammar.
Writing out the stories can be a good way to practise writing or typing the language, and by telling your stories to others you could practise reading and speaking the language.
If you need inspiration you could go around your home or office and choose a number of objects, and then try to use them in a story, either with their normal functions, or with completely different functions.
You could do something similar with photos. For example, you could choose photos of people, animals, places and other things and try to link them together in a story.
If you want to focus on a particular aspect of a language or on a particular subject, you could choose objects or photos related to that subject or which could help you practise that aspect of the language.
Foreign exchanges of school children seems looks likely to become a thing of the past, at least in the UK, as families who host foreign children will have to have criminal records checks by a new Independent Screening Authority from next year. This is because a Home Office report in the late 1990s showed that a very small number of foreign children had been hosted in the homes of British sex offenders. The criminal record checks are expensive and will deter many potential host families.
This seems a shame as such exchanges are a great way for children to experience foreign cultures in a family setting, to get a taste of foreign food, and most importantly, to improve their foreign language skills. There are many in other European countries who would like to come to the UK on exchange visits, but the number of children studying foreign languages here is decreasing, so there is a shortage of potential exchange partners here.
While I was at school I went on an exchange visit to France and stayed with a large family in a village in eastern France. The family also had apartments in Paris, where I spent part of the visit, and my exchange partner came to stay with us in the UK after I’d been in France. I enjoyed this experience and it helped my French a lot. I also got to ride little motor scooters, and discovered the delights of fresh French bread with chocolate as an afternoon snack. Other visits I went on the Germany and Austria were also interesting and enjoyable, but didn’t involve my exchange partners coming back to the UK. These exchanges and visits were arranged via family friends or teachers at school.
Exchanges don’t have to be confined to school children though – there are ways for adults to arrange something similar. For example, CouchSurfing is a network of people who are willing to put up others in their homes, and who can stay with members of the network when they go travelling. You can specify that you prefer to host speakers of particular languages, so it’s a good way to make new friends, practise languages you’re learning, and learn about foreign countries and countries. It’s also free and has over a million members who between them speak over a thousand different languages.
There are a number of other organisations and networks which help you arrange foreign exchange, such as Foreign exchanges. Some focus on language learning, others on cultural exchange, which can include language learning.
Staff at Waverley Station in Edinburgh are being opportunities to learn languages, and other things such as IT, at a new Rail Learning Centre that opened this week. The plan is for them to learn how to provide information about the station and trains in a variety of languages, including French, German, Italian, Spanish and British Sign Language. This will help foreign tourists and other visitors to Edinburgh, as well as Deaf people who use sign language. There are similar centres at other Scottish stations.
This is a good example of how a know of foreign languages can be useful in your work if you regularly come in to contact with people from other countries. The staff at Waverley probably won’t all become fluent in the languages they are studying, but if they can at least direct people to the right platform and provide information about the trains, they efforts will be appreciated.
When learning a language for practical reasons, such as using it in your work, it’s a good idea to learn the phrases that are immediately relevant to what you do, at least at first, and then maybe learn the language in more depth. Or you could focus on learning useful, work-related phrases in a number of different languages. It also helps if you have the phrases written or printed so that if you efforts to pronounce them are met with incomprehension, you can at least show them to the people you’re trying to communicate with.
If you speak a language at a basic level, is it a good idea to try use what you know when doing business in foreign parts?
When doing business with people who speak a different language it can help your chances of success if you are able to do so in their language, but if you only have a limited knowledge of that language it may be better to rely on interpreters and translators, as your language level will put you at a disadvantage. You could use the language when socialising with your foreign counterparts, and this will probably impress them.
Another challenge when doing business abroad is understanding the local culture and avoid cultural faux pas. If you have studied the local language in depth and have become familiar with the culture, things will probably go move smoothly for you, but if you are a beginner in the language it might be more difficult to avoid the faux pas. Unless you take a cultural training course to familiarise yourself with the culture of the people you’re doing business with.
In other contexts using whatever you know of a language is certainly worthwhile and is likely to be appreciated by speakers of that language.
Learning a foreign language can help you to understand your own language better and give you different perspectives on your language and culture.
Learning related languages or languages that have contributed a significant amount of vocabulary to your native language can be very interesting and useful. In the case of English related languages include Dutch, German, Norwegian, Danish and Swedish, and languages from which a lot of English vocabulary comes include French, Latin, Greek, Old Norse, Italian and Spanish. It you learn one of these languages you will find quite a lot of familiar words, which helps a lot, and some of the foreign words you learn will help you understand English words. For example, if you know that ego means I in Latin, words like egocentric become easier to understand, and if you know the Greek words anthropos (mankind) and phobia (fear), the meaning of anthropophobia should be obvious.
Learning foreign languages can also help to understand grammar better. Many people in the UK and some other English-speaking countries are not very familiar with grammatical terms like adjective, adverb and case, but when learning other languages such as German, Russian or Irish, it helps if you understand the significance of these terms. You could learn these languages without overt knowledge of their grammar, but requires extensive and intensive exposure to them, which is what native speakers get. A knowledge of foreign languages can also show you that there are different ways of expressing things, and of structuring language. If you’re used to putting adjectives in front of nouns (e.g. a funny story) it can take a while to get used to language that put them after nouns (e.g. une histoire drôle), but once you get used to this, it becomes second nature and this helps when learning other languages – your mind becomes open to other ways of expressing things.
Part of learning a foreign language involves learning about the culture of those who speak it. This can be very interesting, and can also give you a different perspective on your own culture. There are many ways of behaving and interacting that are natural to you and are part of your culture, but when you encounter another culture and are asked to explain your own culture to outsiders, might lead you to consider why things are as they are and whether there are better ways of carrying on.
If you’d like to learn a language and are not sure which one to choose, one way you could decide is to listen to a variety of languages and decide which one sounds good to you. This might bias your choice in favour of languages that are related to your mother tongue, or at least contain quite a few familiar sounding words, but there’s nothing wrong with that.
The languages with the most in common with English are Germanic languages such as German and Dutch, and Romance languages like French and Italian. Speakers of dialects of English from northern England might also find familiar sounds and words in languages like Norwegian and Danish.
Completely unfamiliar languages may sound strange or even unpleasant to you, but could also be worth learning if you live in or make regular visits to in a region where they’re spoken, or regularly come into contact with people who speak them in your own country.
I believe that one reason why unfamiliar language might not appeal to you when you first listen to them is precisely because they are unfamiliar – there is nothing in them you can recognise and they will probably sound like incomprehensible sounds. If you make the effort to learn one of them though, they will begin to sound familiar and you will eventually be able to make sense of them. You may also come to like their sounds, even if you were not too keen on them at first.
Some of the languages I’ve studied, such as Italian, Portuguese, Scottish Gaelic and Irish, appealed to me very strongly from the beginning. Other languages, such as Taiwanese and Cantonese, didn’t sound particularly wonderful to me at first, but the more I learnt of them and the more familiar I became with them, the more I liked them.
So in the case of languages, familiarity does not seem to breed contempt, but can in fact do the opposite.
One good reason to learn languages is to do business in other countries. If you are able to conduct meetings and negotiations, and provide sales and marketing materials in the language of your clients and customers, the chances of selling your products and services are much higher than if you can’t. You could rely on interpreters, but that would cost more and probably slow things done, so it’s better if you can do things yourself.
According to a survey by the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC), quite a number of British companies – 11% of those surveyed – do not export to Europe due to language barriers, and a further 5% cited cultural barriers as an excuse for not exporting. The BCC estimates that the average small business in missing out on up to £250,000 of annual orders as a result of being unable to do business in other languages.
Traditionally British companies export to countries where English is spoken, or at least widely studied as a second or foreign language. Some also prefer to do business with countries with a similar culture. Exports to places where relatively little English is spoken, such as Spain, Italy and Latin America, tend to be much lower.
A study in the USA found that those with a minimal knowledge of English are six times less likely to buy things from websites in English than those with a good level of English, and that people are more likely to buy from and are willing to pay extra on websites in their own language.
Today is Hangeul Day (aka Korean Alphabet Day) in South Korea. The Korean alphabet, or Hangeul (한글), was devised by King Sejong the Great (1397–1450) and first revealed to the world in 1446. To mark the anniversary of momentous occasion the Hangeul Society established Hangeul Day in 1926. The date of this celebration has varied a bit over the years, but was fixed as 9th October in 1945 and has been celebrated on this day ever since. It was also a public holiday in 1991. The Koreans are the only people who have a special day to celebrate their alphabet, and not surprisingly they are very proud of Hangeul.
Before the invention of Hangeul the Korean language was rarely written, and the few aristocrats who could write it used Chinese characters. King Sejong realised that Chinese characters were unsuitable for writing Korean as the sound systems of the two languages were quite different, and because the characters were very difficult to learn. As a alternative he proposed a simple alphabet consisting of 28 letters which was easy to learn, and to read and write. King Sejong believed that all his subjects, including men woman and children, should be taught to read and write, and Hangeul made this possible. At this time the idea of universal literacy was generally not considered necessary or even desirable, as a result King Sejong is considered a wise and benevolent ruler who longed to bring literacy to all his subjects. While there was opposition to the new alphabet from the elite, the common people took to it with enthusiasm.
The Hangeul alphabet in current use has been slightly modified since King Sejong’s time and consists of 24 letters – 14 consonants and 10 vowels. The letters are written in syllable blocks, as the image on the left demonstrates, and can be written from right to left in vertical columns, or from left to right in horizontal lines. It represents all the sounds of Korean and is easy to learn.
If you have a good reason to learn a language and are highly motivated, you’re more likely to succeed in your efforts than those who only have a vague idea why they want to learn a language and go about it in a half-hearted way.
If you regularly come into contact with people who speak a foreign language and who don’t speak your language, or who speak your language but feel more comfortable speaking their language, you’ll have a very good reason to learn the foreign language. You might find yourself in this situation if you live in a foreign country, if you visit foreign countries regularly, or if your company has many foreign clients and/or customers.
Another good reason to learn a language is to understand the conversations of others, especially if you suspect they’re talking about you. This can be useful when you’re abroad, and also when you encounter speakers of other languages in your own country.
There’s an urban myth that when English-speaking people go into pubs in Wales the locals will start speaking Welsh so the new arrivals cannot understand. This assumes that the locals were speaking in English beforehand, but how would the English speakers know that? Indeed, how could be sure that the locals were speaking Welsh if they don’t speak it themselves? Having lived in Wales for a year I’ve never observed this happening, but I’ve heard of one case in which a number of Polish people were talking in Polish in a pub and the person who went in assumed it was Welsh. Welsh speakers tend to speak Welsh among themselves if all present speak it, but it there’s an English speaker in the group, most of them, if not all, usually switch to English.
People often assume that if they speak in a foreign language nobody around them will understand, and so it’s safe to make comments about people. This is a dangerous assumption to make as you never know when you might come across someone who understands your language. In fact if you regularly encounter someone who speaks a foreign language and appears to be talking about you and others around you, you have a good motivation to learn that language. There’s an example of this in this video, in which an Irish psychologist’s receptionist makes scathing remarks about the patients while talking in Irish to a friend on the phone. None of the patients know Irish when they start going to the psychologist, but they are spurred to learn it so they can understand the receptionist.