Sunday, February 17, 2019

6 Easy Tips to Improve your Language Skills (without using an App)

I was lucky enough to grow up in a very complex linguistic environment, with at least 3 complicated languages regularly spoken at home. As a kid, it might be confusing, absurd and annoying. Besides keeping asking why we are not 'normal', like all the other families and speak a simple local language, I remember my very rebelious years when I simply refused to accept the fact that I should learn or speak a certain language (let's say, French). Which language ended up being one of my few places of stability and comfort, in a life that brought me all over the world and a multitude of languages. Every time I am in a home where I am surrounded by French books, especially those from the Editions de Poche collection, I instantly remember my childhood and my mother's working room, from where I was snatching some books, not few of them by authors forbidden in the old country.
As I was growing up, the pressure of learning languages increased too, as my professional and personal life was becoming more and more complex. I've learned some languages for pleasure, some to better communicate with my new friends or a partner, some because they were part of my professional assignments. I had to forget some of them to make place for some new ones, or remember some, when life brought me again in the old places of my childhood. I wish to have enough time and dedication to learn at least 3-4 more complex languages, one of them Mandarin.
After a life full of adventures and life experiences of all kinds, 10 years ago I landed in Berlin, Germany, with a very precarious collection of words in the local languages and unclear life plans. No friends, no relatives, just me and my boxes full of books. My plan was to take a break for a very busy corporate life I was very proud of but was somehow eating me and my life alive, get on a short Sabbatical to finish writing my PhD, and eventually try to put my life together. 
My PhD was successfully written altough I've decided that the everyday academic life was as deceiving as my previous corporate, institutional and media lives. Professionally and personally, I had perfectly human downs and ups, and I ended up getting back to business life, although on a relatively smaller level, while building up my own business. Meanwhile, I've learned and improved a couple of languages, while my German was very much lagging behind. It's a common place that while you are living in Berlin, you hardly need to use your German and I was a living proof of this: for five years, I've hardly made any effort to use the basic grammar and vocabulary that I've learn during an intensive class I took at the very beginning of my expat life in Germany. My friends were able to speak in some of the languages I knew and at the end of the day, I was back in my bubble that I've known and despised so much before. In my bubble, everything was perfectly fine and only the people that were more or less like me were accepted, with a minimal connection to the immediate reality. This is why I come to Berlin after all? Old habits die hard and it took me more than 30 days - the minimum amount apparently required to abandon/create a new habit - to analyse carefully what I am suppose to do next.
Before I was able to decide clearly, circumstances of all kinds dictated that my life will settle in Berlin, but if I want to be real and take my new life seriously - including for my own business purposes - I have to put my German seriously at work.
Which is exactly what I've done with all my might in the last five years. Although I'm far from being really happy with my German, and I am a couple of long row of stairs away from the moment when will be perfectly at ease with producing smoothly a creative piece of writing in this language, I am working hard toards this goal. In less than one month, I'm about to start two intensive months of 16 hours of German the week, a one-on-one course that will hopefully bring me one step further to my endeavour of being fluently at home with this language.
For those of you who are working hard their German - or any other language - I am happy to share some six tips of how to improve your language skills but without using an App. Although I personally used a couple of them myself for some of my languages - Duolingua being one of them, I've progressed the most when I decided to leave my computer or device and let my language develop freely.

1. Dare to Talk!

There may be some people that are making fun of your accent or just notice that you have one. It happens to me all the time, regardless what language I'm speaking and I just got used with that. But nothing can stop me from putting my German at hard work. At least one hour per day, I am trying to talk in German, offering myself to give directions, asking a vendor about a special product, trying to fix some issues with various authorities, calling my German friends and refusing to accept to talk with them in English. 
Through listening, trying to create a sentence in your mind and further talking in that language you are doing daily little wonders to your fluency. If you are working from home as a lonely freelancer, it might be difficult to find the partners of conversation, but every encounter with a native speaker counts and it's up to you to use it in your benefit.

2. Read Children Books!

My love for reading children books as an adult had't start since I have a little book worm at home. I've used them constantly when I was trying to improve my Spanish, Hebrew and Italian and I will always use them as a perfect basis for improving a language. A couple of years ago, I've even took a class in creative writing for children and I've wrote a draft of a book for children that I haven't published yet only because I haven't find yet that illustrator that might add the perfect visual spice to my writing. One day... 
If you are able to understand and communicate perfectly in the simple language requested by a 3-4-5-6-7 year old than you are doing really well with your language. 

3. Watch TV and Listen to the Radio

The language of the media is aimed at sending the message to a relatively medium-educated audience therefore, the language level should be simple yet comprehensive enough to explain complicated events and phenomena. If you struggle with a good prononciation - who doens't in German, with the long words that takes your breath before you finish them - and also need to work out the understanding part listening to news is a great way to advance the language knowledge.

4. Listen to Music

From the same category of learning to hear, listening to music might speed up your knowledge of some easy and sometimes useful sentences (of course, 'Alle meine Ente...' doesn't count here). 

5. Travel! Travel! Travel!

Charlottenburg Palace in Berlin
As a travel lover and travel writer, travel not only set me free and fill my brain with the expactations of travel and my heart of the love for discovering new cultures and way of thinking. It also does good for the language. The most frequent occasions when I had to use my German while during my frequent travels across the country. During my trips, I got in touch with locals and exchanged random conversations with my travel companions (as I applied the tip no.1), but I also had to ask for directions, check-in at my hotel, order food and ask for different questions about local histories and traditions (besides answering the eternal question I'am always asked as in no other country in the world: 'Where are you from?' tip: answering Berlin never counts). If you want to visit a museum, try to take a bilingual guide and keep an eye to the various descriptions of products on the market. 

6. Go to a Language School

That's the obvious, actually. Especially if you are new in a country, and you have no idea about grammar and vocabulary, a language school is the right place to start. You will get back to school, with homeworks and conversations, and you might also meet some interesting people in the classroom. 
I personally started learning for my B1 certificate in a class with around 15 people, and it was a good way to learn from the others too and get motivated. Now, when I am aiming the highest level of German knowledge, I prefer a more private ambiance, when I can using the time at maximum, with a clear agenda of topics and issues to be addressed that might be useful for my future professional endeavours - like a specific vocabulary and writing skills required for journalistic projects or for business presentations and various standard communication. 
A summer language school where the immersion into the local culture is part of the learning process is an excellent opportunity to create a direct connection to your environment. Words are acquiring a new meaning. It creates a different disposition towards learning, because the language is more than a given homework and dialogue you should learn, but becomes an useful tool mediating communication toward and within a culture.

Hopefully, those tips is helping my fellow expat readers to reach their language goals. If you are interested in some specific expat tips or just looking for motivation, don't hesitate to contact me at ilanaontheroad@gmail.com

Hope to hear from you soon! Auf Wiedersehen!

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