How quickly can you learn a new language

This is a topic very close to me because I have learned a new language in my adult years. I decided to share my thoughts and experiences with learning a new language as an adult so you get an indication of what to expect.

I have always been fascinated by languages, dialects and accents. Some sound harsh, some romantic and some plain foreign to me, but the one thing they all have in common; they separate us.

What’s it going to be Scotty? Mandarin or Spanish?

When travelling one tends to default to English as the international language of communication. Why is that? Why not Mandarin or Spanish? They are spoken by millions more than English according to statistics.

As normal as it might seem to native English speakers, there are many languages out there. We are very fortunate that English seems to be the default language of the world.

It then only seems natural that you would learn a second language simply because most of the world has to do the same just to be able to communicate with us fortunate English speaking folk.

I found learning a new language challenging, hard work, embarrassing, frustrating and extremely fun at the same time. It’s not the easiest thing you will do in your life, but once you feel confident to hold a conversation; the reward is unbeatable.

Repeat after me, ‘buenos días’…

Getting started with your adventure will depend on what language you decide to learn, how you will learn and where you will learn. I decided to learn Hebrew.

I first started out with a language teacher and studied in the afternoons 2-3 times a week for an hour. The first time I knocked on her door she greeted, invited me in, and offered me coffee all in Hebrew (did not have a clue what she was on about at the time). I felt silly and almost immediately felt this was going to be an Everest.

She refused to speak in English and the immersion seemed harsh. It took a good few lessons to actually catch on what she was trying to say and included a lot of childlike pointing and repeat; “café…?”.

On a funny side, it also became my challenge to get her to explain in English. A sort of achievement only satisfying in a student teacher relationship. The absolute frustration in her eyes when I insist she explain.

I’m starting to understand.

I was fortunate to be living in Israel whilst learning Hebrew. This helped heaps as you quickly pickup on cue’s, greetings, slang, and swear words.

A teacher a few times a week, a two month intensive language course (6 hours, four times a week) and I was starting to understand the language around me.

It all started to make sense, I could follow a casual conversation and started predicting the conversation direction and responses. It felt amazing.

I’m never going to get there.

Towards the end of the intensive language course I had a good understanding of the language, could follow conversations but struggled to speak.

I don’t think that this was due to now knowing enough but rather a confidence issue. You might not have this issue but for me it was big.

It is one thing to meet someone at home that happens to speak a language you are learning, and you fire off a few basic greetings. You both laugh and it’s all good. But to live in a foreign country it seemed that every time I opened my mouth and tried Hebrew, the other person would start talking English to me as if they are doing me a favour.

Another thing I remember being extremely difficult was to bring YOU as a personality into the conversation. It felt almost robotic as your mind process millions of memory requests to find the right word to translate to a foreign language.

I like to think of myself as a little cheeky and witty by nature and it was almost impossible to get the language to flow well enough to bring me (my personality and cheek) in.

Expectations are everything.

You will hear this a lot in life and it’s very true with learning a new language. I decided to learn the language as fast as possible and the best way was to move to where the language is spoken. It seemed natural, and gave me the opportunity to increase my vocabulary.

How you choose to learn will greatly affect the time it takes to learn and master amongst the many factors.

First three months.

Within three months I felt I had enough foundation knowledge of Hebrew to feel comfortable speaking or attempting to hold a conversation. To be clear- conversation was more me injecting a very well thought out and planed line into an ongoing conversation when the opportunity came.

The next three months.

It took another good few months for me to then start working and build a larger vocabulary. You can learn to greet, compliment, ask for basic things fairly quickly, but to actually get on with the daily life language, takes time.

For example, you might know how to say, “Pass me the pot”, but what happens when there is no pot and only a fry pan? This is where the time factor really pays off. Vocabulary will be your biggest asset.

Six months on onwards.

They say you only really know a language when you can argue with your wife, chat up a lady, or sell a product in the language. This is certainly the case and once I could do all the above, I truly felt confident and fluent.

I simply understood that I will make mistakes, not remember a word and just got on with practicing. In my case simply refusing to speak English and made sure to be the one to initiate conversation wherever I went.

The Fluent Stage.

After many years, I still find myself thinking in English but can just as easily think in Hebrew. Even after moving back to NZ, and not holding daily conversations in Hebrew, it turns on the moment I hear Hebrew around me.

I like to think of this as the fluent stage. By this I don’t mean native fluent but fluent enough for me to feel comfortable living in a place where the language is spoken, I can be funny, cheeky, and even sound intellectual with the language.

Your turn, are you planning to learn a new language? Have you been through a similar experience? Please share with the rest of us.

Image thanks to GoLocalise