Are you going overseas as part of a teen summer program or gap year and nervous about getting lost in a foreign language? Think you will struggle expressing basic needs in a new environment? Afraid of getting laughed at by locals for making "easy" language mistakes? Take my advice to push yourself through it and get the most out of it.
Before starting my bridge year with Global Citizen Year in Senegal, I was most excited about learning a whole new language – French. It would be tough, but I had a lot of energy so I would rock it!
Then, on my first day with my host family in Dakar, the capital of Senegal, I had a “conversation” with a 7-year-old, using a French dictionary. "C'est joli," she said, meaning, “that’s pretty.” And I wondered how to spell that. Within a few weeks this became one of the easiest phrases.
Language immersion in a new country is a great way to grow. You will test and develop your patience and your understanding of yourself. It is also a very rewarding process. From embarrassment, you gradually move on to conversations and fluency.
So how can teens cope for the first clumsy weeks learning a language before true improvement starts to happen? Here are my tips:
1. Listen and ask questions
You might have some background with the language or you might be starting from zero. Either way, initiating any verbal communication with people is the first step.
Test your greeting and conversing skills. If you know very little, begin by pointing at objects in your house or hotel and showing an eyebrow-raised, question face to a local, and – sometimes after they offer to gift you the object – they will tell you what it's called in the local language. Write down any expressions you hear, particularly ones that are repeated.
If you attend language classes or have a tutor, keep a list of questions. I recommend keeping two running lists: one for things you want to be able to express, and another one for things you hear frequently but don't understand. Slowly but surely, you will begin to improve.
2. Learn a funny line
Apart from the greetings and other mainstream beginner's vocabulary, learn one or two funny expressions you can use. I highly recommend this, because getting the reaction you intended from people is a reward and great motivation. For example, I managed to cause some semi-hysterical giggling attacks to mothers by telling their babies, "Don't hit me, I'm not your equal!" and making my host mother laugh by saying, "I'm doing nothing because I'm lazy." What is thought of as funny often depends on the culture. Try finding out a couple sentences that work in the local context. A sense of humor will likely help you make new friends, too!
3. Find alternative ways to express yourself
In the beginning, my biggest struggle with language was my inability to express myself verbally – not only my simple needs and wants, but also, for example, my questions on things we saw on my host family’s TV.
Sometimes it could feel suffocating to have my head fill up with unspoken thoughts. This is why I recommend finding another way to express yourself: drawing, charades, or even music.
Also, keep a journal or record the thoughts you can’t express. When words used to pile up in my head that I couldn't translate, I would go to my room and take five minutes to give a quiet "TedTalk" to an invisible audience. This might sound crazy but it really helped me. It's important to get your thoughts out so they don't distract you.
4. Shake it off!
Let's face the truth: If you start learning a whole new language and simultaneously communicating in that language daily with the people surrounding you, you will make mistakes. Sometimes you will be laughed at and people might repeat what you said for a while. But I noticed that as long as you don't take your own mistakes very seriously, neither will anybody else.
When you realize you've made a mistake, laugh, and when you're confused, laugh. It's often difficult to know when you've made an actual mistake and when they're just laughing at other things, like your accent or what you're wearing. So learn how to ask "Did I say something wrong?"
The real struggle is that you can feel like a clown for a while, and no one likes to be laughed at all the time. I recommend weekly phone or Skype calls with someone back home to remind you that you are an intelligent and capable person. And when the locals hear you speaking another language fluently on the phone, they will be reminded of this side of you, too.
5. Remember your manners.
I’ve described the people in your new, foreign community as "them,” and I've expressed a bit of my own frustration towards the way “they” always laugh at “us.”
However, the people you meet are an irreplaceable part of your overseas experience. Remember to treat them with respect and courtesy. Without daily interactions in the local language, you won’t learn it. So appreciate people and their efforts to help you. Remember "thank you" is an important phrase to know for anyone who helps you learn something!