What is it about the local language that makes you feel good? What makes it loveable? Is it a certain word? The regional accent? Maybe you love the tones or the way it creates a certain atmosphere in a café. Or perhaps you enjoy hearing songs and greetings in the language?
Words and sounds have energetic power. Inflection and intonation are rivers and streams of flow. Sentence structures and idioms make an entire field of deeper meaning.
But where’s a good place to start when you’re abroad and faced with a totally new language?
Quite often when you move abroad, new soundscapes surround you. Your sense of familiarity is disturbed. The doorway to genuine human connection outside of the expat bubble can seem locked until you find a way to communicate with local people in the language close to their hearts. Have you taken the privilege of your human gifts of communication for granted? Who could you be abroad if you could unlock the door to the local language?
Unlocking the door is always the first step to any kind of learning. It’s akin to opening the mind. Opening the door to a new language reveals possibilities. Increased opportunities may be what you want for your children in their sojourn abroad. The cognitive, social and practical benefits of learning the local language are hard to ignore. Are you keen to profit from the linguistic fortune that a global family lifestyle can bring?
Language learning optimizes not only your child’s brain development, but your own as well. An article in the UK Telegraph online highlighted staving off Alzheimer’s and dementia, improving memory and improved functionality of the brain as a few of the benefits of learning foreign languages. I don’t know about you, but these sound like “no-brainer” reasons to learn the local language of your host country.
Have you ever met anyone who has said, “Gee, I wish I didn’t speak this language!” Probably not. Language is a common way to getting closer to people’s hearts and gaining access to cultural understandings that transcend the content of travel guides, custom and etiquette books.
Every language evolves and changes over time as people use it in new situations and contexts. Connecting to the heart of a language helps you to live better, learn better – and adapt better – in your adventures abroad. Think of language learning as being in a choir. It’s more about being in harmony in the larger group than about you being a soloist.
Simple ways to tap into emotions for language learning
When I was a foreign language teacher, time and time again, I noticed that the students who were most successful in language learning were also the most engaged on an emotional level. Your language growth emerges from your emotional foundation. You want to ensure that you nurture feelings that help, rather than hinder, your mental efforts.
Spoken language is a social joy. Having a desire to connect with others can exponentially increase your success in learning a foreign language. In the book Understanding Emotions (Wiley, 2013), Keltner, Oatley and Jenkins state that “emotions are not extras. They are the very center of human mental life…[They] link what is important for us to the world of people, things and happenings”.
It’s time to groom your mind, body and soul for optimal language learning in a new country, no matter your age or location. Here are five simple strategies you can use daily to get you started on better living abroad:
- Greet and bid farewell with a smile. Be authentic and consistent when you use the local lingo to say hello and goodbye to people (even on the phone!). It’s amazing how effective smiling can be in lifting your mood. This is an easy way to bring more joy into your own life and the lives of the people you meet and greet abroad. However, do pay close attention to when it’s appropriate to smile (and to whom) in the part of the world that you’re building a life.
- Mindfully observe local people’s verbal and body language. Cafés and casual coffee shops are ideal for extended observation as you can discretely watch and listen to people as they come and go. If you’re interested in mastering the local art of appropriate gestures, facial expressions and other body language, the coffee shop is a great place study and “people watch”. Just be sure not to stare when taking it all in – discretion is key!
- Memorize at least three polite and accurate “go to” sentences. Having some simple sentences ready to smooth over socially awkward situations is a smart idea. Both you and the local person you’re having difficulty communicating with will appreciate having these phrases ready to recite: I’m sorry I speak very little French. I wish I could speak your language. Could you please show me what you mean? Adapting these sentences to convey the essence of this message can spare both you and the person you’re talking to the social discomfort of an uncomfortable language situation. Adding a warm smile can often go a long way.
- Use the local language to “hang out” with a local friend. This is one of the most down-to-earth and effortless ways to begin having some small wins with the local language. Once you have established a friendship with a person who speaks the local language, play a simple card game with them! This is a fabulous way to learn how to say and use numbers and all kinds of informal language phrases such as “Whose turn is it?” and “It’s my turn.” For absolute beginners, the card game Uno might be a great game to start with for practicing colour and number vocabulary words together. Coupled with beverages and snacks, this could be the best mini-language class you could have!
- Enjoy frequent listening to a song you enjoy in the local language. Not long ago, the whole world seemed to be learning a little Korean when the pop hit “Gangnam Style” hit YouTube and the radio. It was an international phenomenon that showed how music can provide an easier and more enjoyable way to access a foreign language. If you haven’t already done so, check out the pop hits (or another style of music you like) in the local language to see what song grabs your attention and lifts your mood. You’ll want to then do a search for the lyrics online and run them through Google translate to see if the lyrics complement your personal taste and values. If so, you’ve got a wonderful new tool to learn from! Buy the song in your favourite format and listen to it frequently for a safe and fun way to learn (and imitate) the sounds of the new language. Did you know that the act of singing releases endorphins, also known as “feel good” chemicals, in the human body?
Regard the local language with the heart, not the mind.
Choose to focus on moments of joyful communication between people in the early stages of your observations abroad. This is the kind of communication that you’ll want to eventually reproduce. Also look for gestures and facial expressions among the local people who can positively punctuate meaning in the local language. This is a way to actively develop deeper cross-cultural empathy – a highly valuable human skill.
Pay attention to moments when you notice a smile along with particular words and sounds when local people speak. Try to use what you’ve learned in a similar context, even if it’s just the most polite way to greet or bid farewell in your host country. That alone may be your first small step towards more social inclusion in the local community.
Speaking with Heart for Your Wellbeing Abroad
When you have an ability to recall and repeat some of the positively perceived words and phrases you’ve heard in your observations, it’s time to look them up and be certain of the meaning of the words. It’s true that perceptions can mislead and we want to prevent embarrassing social errors in your life abroad. In private, find a mirror and imagine your reflection is a local person and say the word or expression in the joyful way you observed it said in the local community. Actors do it when they take on new roles, why can’t you do the same in your experiences abroad?
What’s your next step to learning the local language?
Please share your discoveries and comments about learning how to speak the local lingo with heart. I’d love to hear about your experiences!