Sounds like a dance move or an exotic cocktail but in fact, the Swahili Swerve is what I call my recent “abrupt change of direction” in my language learning journey. I’d been plodding along quite nicely this year. I brushed up my Spanish to use at a wedding in March, my Polish teacher was here again over the summer so I ploughed on with “the terribly difficult Polish language” (his words, not mine) in preparation for my trip to Warsaw in November. But then all of a sudden, out of the blue, I’m sitting in a jeep at Kilimanjaro airport at the start of our Tanzanian holiday and our driver Tito (who became my Swahili teacher for the next few days) was greeting us in Swahili, “Karibu”. Oooooh something shiny and new! Within the first 15 minutes of our drive, I’d learnt a few phrases and from there I was off!
On arrival at our first lodge, news quickly spread amongst the staff that there was a Mzungu (white foreigner) learning Swahili and by dinnertime I was happily communicating with them and having a great time. Every time I went to the bar, to the buffet to reception or generally wandered around the complex, staff started talking to me and handing me their own handwritten list of useful words for me to learn. They were so sweet, polite, patient and encouraging that over the next week I continued to learn and practice with Tito and talked to anyone along the way who would listen to me.
So, how is this possible? How can you start speaking a brand-new language and making basic conversation with locals in such a short time? It’s true that my experience of learning and teaching languages gives me a head start, but there’s really no magic here. And that’s why in this post I would like to share my own tips on how to get going with a new language in 15 minutes flat!
- Rule 1: No fear! Probably the most important rule when it comes to learning and, most importantly, speaking a new language. If you are afraid to speak, you will not progress. End of story. Forget the shame, swallow your perfectionist adult pride and just give it a go, right from the start. This strategy always works for me (see The Polish Project). In addition, the locals were sooo patient and supportive that I never once felt stupid, even when I made mistakes. That was a huge help. Once you get over your fear, your progress will be unstoppable. If you are unlucky and the native you speak to is unsupportive and doesn’t want to help you, find one who does. There are always plenty out there, I promise. If you don’t have the luxury of having a patient native to practice with, YouTube should be your next option. There are thousands of videos with natives giving you the “First 20 words/phrases” in whatever language you want to learn. Listen and repeat out loud as many times as possible. Talk to your friends, family, the cat, whoever will listen. It doesn’t matter if they understand you or not, the point here is to find and listen to your own “language voice” as early as possible.
- Rule 2: When you’re starting out, don’t learn grammar right away. Focus on useful phrases and learn by heart, word for word. Once you get deeper into the language, you can see the patterns and figure out some basic grammar. But at the beginning, keep it simple and most of all, practical. Learning “Everything is great thank you” or “I’m fine thanks, how are you?” can be used immediately and much more often than “I go, you go, he goes…..” yawn, yawn
- Rule 3: Be a parrot Listen and repeat, listen and repeat. Every time Tito taught me a new word, he repeated it at least 4 or 5 times and I copied. Not only does this give you chance to get used to the sound of the word and help you learn it (and drive the other person in the jeep i.e. my husband, mad) it helps with accent. It’s no good learning a new language if no one understands you because your accent is all messed up. I’ll talk about the importance of a good accent in a future post but personally, I think it is essential and the sooner you start working on it, the better.
- Rule 4: Choose an easy language Listen out for words you might already know and create hooks. While Swahili sounds like an difficult, exotic language, it’s actually classed a level 1.5 for English natives i.e. relatively easy. If you want to see progress quickly and you have a choice, aim for an “easy” language. For example, if you are a native English speaker then French, Spanish, Italian and Portuguese are considered easier than say Bulgarian, Russian or Turkish. Swahili is phonetically easy for English speakers and I was amazed at how many words I already knew. If you’ve ever watched The Lion King, you probably have a lot of words already; Simba, Pumba, Jambo, Hakuna Matata! Finally, a vocabulary “hook” or mnemonic is really helpful when you are learning brand new vocabulary. Try to find a connection between the new word and your own language e.g. the Swahili word for “Yes” is “ndio” which sounds a bit like “indeed” which is close to “yes”. There’s your hook.
- Rule 5 Have fun with it Learning should always be an enjoyable experience and add something positive to your life rather than cause stress. Will I use my Swahili in the future? Honestly, I don’t know. It is the most spoken African language and around 90 million people speak it so yes, perhaps. Personally, the most important part of my Swahili swerve to me was making a connection with the local people and seeing how much they appreciated my efforts. Their big smiles and positive reactions constantly reminded me of my favourite “language learning” quote:
“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head.
If you talk to a man in his language, that goes to his heart.” (Nelson Mandela)
Maybe you have a trip planned and want to give a new language a try? Follow my tips above and let me know how you get on. As always you can add comments below or add your name to the box on the right to follow my blog.
So, here we are at the beginning of a new year, looking ahead at what we want to achieve and once again, I’m making a new list of goals. You may remember I did the same last year. I had 9 goals on my list and here’s how I got on:
- 2 goals ticked off 100% (Japanese and slow cooking)
- 3 goals adapted and then ticked off 100% (I started learning Polish instead of Italian, I learned to loom instead of knit and loomed a jumper for Polo, my dog)
- 1 goal got 30% ticked off (still a few more kilos to go)
- 3 goals were complete failures (guitar, book proposal and (gasp) my cake decorating skills! Still no idea how the hell that didn’t happen.)
Despite those 3 flops, I’m pretty happy with what I achieved. So, I decided to make a list again, consider what went right and what went wrong last year and make a few adjustments to my strategy.
My list for 2019 turned out to be very “language learning” dominant, so I thought I would share a separate “language goal list” with you and my tips for sticking with it. When people make their bucket lists, learning a language often comes high up along with travel, learning a musical instrument and getting healthy/losing weight. Surprisingly, when I recently took a look at dayzero (a website where people share their bucket lists) “Kissing in the rain” was also featured very highly! Just head to Sheffield on a Friday night and have a few drinks. Job done.
But moving away from the random targets, why is it that things like learning a language, playing an instrument and losing weight are often on these lists. Unfortunately, it’s because they are often the things that elude us. They take time, dedication, some discipline and are long-term projects. While my 24-hour Polish Project had its advantages, I know a lot of what I learned has already slipped away as I have been totally focussed on my Japanese for the last few months. In many ways, languages are the same as health and music. They are never really short-term projects, but rather a way of life. While that all sounds a bit daunting (especially the health part as cinnamon rolls are currently my “way of life”), let me share my language targets for this year plus some tips on how I intend to reach them:
1. Do the next JLPT (Japanese Proficiency) certificate in December
How? So, this is a good example of smart goal. The key here is the deadline. I’ll talk about the pros and cons of language exams in another post soon but registering for and taking part in an official exam really kept me on track last year. Finally getting my certificate also gave me a real motivation boost.
2. Refresh my conversational Spanish by mid-March
How? Again, I have a deadline (wedding in Madrid in March) but I have also tried to make the language focus quite specific. I initially wrote “Refresh my Spanish” but then realised that is way too vague. What does it even mean? How much? Refresh what exactly? Better to prioritise exactly what I want to use it for. In my case, to chat to any Spanish people on our table (although the bride is actually English. Hopefully we are not on a Brexit table!)
3. Refresh my Polish for a trip to Warsaw in June
How? Once again there is a date. It isn’t fixed yet but I am definitely going to Warsaw with a friend sometime around June. As I am still very much a beginner, my focus here will be on travel survival phrases and some basic small talk. Again, I have already planned what I need to focus on.
4. Start learning Turkish
How? Turkish is going to be another 24-hour experiment (like the Polish Project) but this time only using the Duolingo app. No idea yet where this journey will take me but I’m excited to start something totally new (the only word I know is Döner) and get more experience of using apps to learn languages which I can also pass onto my clients.
5. Read at least 4 books in German
How? One of my non-language learning targets for this year is to read more fiction. I realised that I’ve spent the last few years mainly reading coaching books and I really miss reading fiction. Luckily, my German is good enough to do this quite easily and I feel that it’s a good way to keep my language level up in a passive way. The key here is fun. It‘s something I like doing that takes little effort.
So what are your goals? Do you have any language learning plans for 2019? Feel free to add your targets in the comments below. Sometimes just writing them down can give you the motivation to get moving. And as always, if you would like my posts sent straight to your inbox, feel free to follow me by using the box on the right.
Just about every job advertisement you read here in Germany these days contains the words “Fluent English required”. Something that scares the hell out of a lot of non-native speakers. Even the ones who are pretty good at English.
But before you decide you shouldn’t apply for that job, take a minute to consider the following things:
1. “Fluent” does not equal “perfect”.
Nobody is perfect. Not even in their native language. How many people know every single word that exists in their native language? People would consider me to speak “fluent” German as I am a CEF level C2 and can handle every situation from scary telephone conversations with the tax office to nice conversations with my nail lady discussing the pros and cons of a shellac manicure. All of this I can do without reverting to English, checking a dictionary or getting into too much of a flap. But I am NOT perfect. I make small mistakes all the time. And sometimes big fat ones when I’m having a “Bad German” day. Just for reference, a “Bad German” day is a bit like a bad hair day. No matter what you do, it just isn’t right. One of my Bad German day classics was asking someone in a tourist information office if I could get to the local castle “mit dem Fuss”. A weird combination of “mit dem Bus” and “zu Fuss” which literally came out as “with the foot”. Like I only had one foot. Or I was planning to hop up there “with the foot”. Yes, my husband still laughs about that one.
2. What is the employer really expecting?
For many employers, good English and fluent English are interchangeable. They only write the word “fluent” because that’s what everybody writes these days. The reality could be they need anything from a level B1+ to a C2. (click here to see more on CEF language levels). Don’t know your level? Ask your English teacher for a guideline or take one of the many free online CEF tests available.
3. Get yourself an interview and then let them decide.
If English is important they will test it during the interview anyway. If they decide your level isn’t good enough, then that’s that. But perhaps your level is good enough for what they need and meets their idea of “fluent”. If you really want the job, it’s worth giving it a try at least. You could also ask in the interview more about what skills you really require in English.
So, to sum up, defining the word “fluent” is a bit like defining the word “fit”. I can run 5 km without dying so some people would call me “fit”. On the other hand, I generally can’t do it in less than 30 minutes which means I’m pretty slow, so therefore a lot of people would say I’m “not fit”. In the same way, everyone has their own definition of fluent. Just take a look at the blogs and forums on this subject and you’ll get a lot of different answers.
Try not to see fluency as an unrealistic ideal. There’s more flexibility to fluency than you think.
Do you have a different idea of “fluent”? Feel free to comment below. For regular posts like this straight to your inbox, subscribe to my blog by adding your email address in the box on the right.