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Four Ways To Short-Circuit Your Language Learning While Working Overseas

By Edited Aug 27, 2016 1 0

I have spent most of my career working in non-English speaking countries, have learned to speak three languages fluently, and failed to learn three other languages.  What was the difference?  It wasn’t my capacity to learn languages, although I’m not exceptionally gifted like others I know, almost anyone can learn a foreign language if they are sufficiently motivated and avoid these four mistakes.

 Mistake #1: Spend all your free time with other expatriates so that all your social needs are met in English. This also virtually guarantees that your vocabulary will all be work related and you will avoid social situations with locals because you are uncomfortable.

Cure #1: Really try to find a local family to hang out with, or some colleagues or friends who don’t want to speak English with you all the time, and make a point of spending time with them regularly.

Mistake #2: Cut down your language lessons and study because of work. In the long run this will make you less effective, not more, but it is the easiest to justify.  I can’t tell you about the number of people who arrive fresh from their language course and confident that daily interaction at work will plus private study are all they need. Unfortunately most of them end up using English, which means they are limited in their interactions to local people who also speak English. Sometimes the excuse is that they can’t find a decent language tutor.

Cure #2: Find a class or a language tutor and commit to two to three lessons per week no matter what. If you take responsibility for your learning, just about any tutor will work and you can help them with lesson structure and materials if necessary. The important thing is to have some accountability and structure for your learning and that is best provided by a regular appointment with a teacher. Local teachers are often keen to supplement their income and are usually used to correcting students, but almost anyone who speaks the language well will do.

Mistake #3: Skimp on homework. Putting off your homework until just before class is a recipe for disaster in language study, as in any other pursuit. It is often a sign of lack of motivation, which may be due to discouragement. If you are in a class go well-prepared so that you understand what is happening and will not be constantly embarrassed by your ignorance. If you are working with a tutor, do not let your laziness be the reason that you feel as though you are not making progress.

Cure #3: Do your homework diligently and thoroughly and try to check it over one last time before class. Keeping a journal of the things you are learning and the mistakes you are making is also encouraging when you look back on it later, as you can see how much progress you have made. Also, while you don’t want to fish for compliments from your teacher or colleagues, take any encouragement you get from them to heart - and keep working hard.

Mistake #4: Have a one-sided program. A good language program should have a balance of grammar and vocabulary, reading and writing, and conversation. As you progress, you will want to focus more heavily on extending your vocabulary and widening the scope of subjects on which you can converse, but you should be practicing all of these elements. 

Cure #4: Practice conversing on an increasing variety of topics in your lessons so that your tutor can correct your mistakes. Everyone makes a lot of mistakes while they are learning a foreign language and your tutor can help you learn from them. However, don’t neglect the other aspects of language learning because you ultimately want to be able to function well in the language.

This is not just my experience. Over the years I have seen dozens of foreigners arrive in a country after an intensive course in the language, whose progress withers shortly after arrival. This is in an environment where opportunities to speak and hear the foreign language are all around them. Those who fail usually fall into the errors I mentioned above, those who succeed persevere even when they can’t see much progress.

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