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Learning a Second Language – Does it have to be Hard?

Posted by on February 9th, 2016.



When moving abroad it’s not always possible – or polite – to assume that everyone you meet will be able to understand English. While the majority of the top ten expat destinations for Brits are primarily English-speaking nations (Australia, New Zealand, the US and Canada among them) there are obviously many appealing and popular emigration destinations with other official languages.

In order to get the most out of your move and really embrace your new home it’s a good idea to try learning at least a little of the vocabulary before you get there, knowing even a few basic conversational phrases can make a huge difference when it comes to settling in.

If you’re taking younger family members with you on the move it’s inevitable that you’re going to need to at least dip your toes in the local lingo, if only to avoid having any number of comments go over your head at the dinner table as your little ones pick up the language.

But while younger adopters can often learn additional languages with relative ease, it can be more of a slog for those of us who are a little older, particularly if the language in question is from a substantially different family to English.

There’s No Such Thing as the ‘Hardest’ Language

Before attempting to learn any language, adopting the right mental attitude is crucial. It’s much harder to act as a language sponge if you go into the process with a defeatist mentality, so don’t be put off just because someone tells you the language in question is a particularly difficult one.

Ability always varies from person to person. Somebody who can pick up the complex characters of Mandarin easily may find themselves struggling with the longer compound words of German, or vice versa. The important thing to remember is that you’ll get out what you put in, so long as you’re willing to try there’s no reason you should let the rather daunting ranking tables and statistics worry you.

The number of hours, minutes or months you’re going to need to become competent will always depend on how much time you have to devote to the task and the method by which you’re learning – as well as how much you actually want to learn.

Someone who’s able to set aside dedicated, uninterrupted time on a regular basis is more likely to get to grips with a language than someone who can only spend the odd ten minutes trying to pick things up here and there.


A Tale of Two Languages: Written vs Conversational

Some languages can actually be easier to read than speak, due to the wide gulf between formalised written language and the spoken dialect, while in other cases you’ll find yourself able to get by in conversation long before you can even think of reading a book or picking up a local magazine.

This in itself can be complicated by the ever-evolving nature of the spoken language, particularly among the younger generations, as slang and colloquialisms are hardly unique to English. As a rule this is often why people advise that new speakers should learn primarily through conversation rather than written exercises – after all if you’re going to live somewhere it’s going to be your ability to hold a discussion that matters most. It’s an approach that can be a particularly appealing if you’re faced with a language like Japanese and its three distinct writing systems of kanji, katakana and hiragana.

Nevertheless, when it comes to navigating signs, bills, etc, there’s merit to knowing how to read (if not write) some of your second language, unless you’re happy to rely on a translator app.

If you understand the grammatical rules it can also save you a lot of trouble when it comes to constructing sentences, particularly in languages that have far more cases and genders that you’re used to – like Polish which boasts a daunting seven of each!

Slight variations can make a vast difference between what you think you’re saying and what you’re actually saying, with simple mistakes potentially leading to some serious confusion. It should also be noted that while pronunciation can be a very tricky thing for a native-English speaker to master, if you know how to write the basics you have the option of jotting things down in order to get your point across clearly, assuming that gestures aren’t working!

Beware of Shortcuts

Although there are plenty of internet sites and courses out there which promise to make you fluent in any given language in a matter of weeks, it’s best to be wary of such claims.

Even if several days of intensive swotting can get you to conversational level, it takes a lot of work to keep that sort of fluency up in the long term, and picking up lazy language habits initially could ultimately prove counterproductive. By rushing the process you may also fail to grasp some of the basic grammatical underpinnings and other finer details that make all the difference when it comes to actually mastering a language and not just memorising chunks of it.

At the end of the day, anyone can pick up a few of the basic spoken phrases of a language pretty quickly (from ‘good morning’ to ‘how are you’ and the less commonly uttered ‘my hovercraft is full of eels’) and if you lack the time to learn the language before you go, these expressions will help you get by in a new country.

You may even find that you absorb a lot of the local vocabulary in time just by virtue of being surrounded by it, so don’t fret too much if you don’t have the opportunity to do much more than consult a basic phrase book before you actually take the plunge and move abroad. Sometimes immersion is the best lesson, particularly if you can find a native-speaking neighbour to help teach you.

If you have any second language learning tips or stories of your own be sure to let us and your fellow expats know on Facebook or Twitter!

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