How I learned to speak 5 languages

By: Lu Salgado

I’ve always thought that learning a new language is a personal thing to do, due to the different ways of learning in which each one learns. Most people don’t achieve to learn a language on the traditional way of learning, at least I know I haven’t.

For me learning the languages I know has been more linked to my experiences and curiosity rather than to exhaustive studies on grammar. I studied English and French at school ever since I was a little girl for several years and I never achieved to be fluent or to actually speak. I used to watch series or films on those languages with subtitles to learn more but it wasn’t until I found myself on a situation where I had to speak, that I tried to do it.

And you’ll probably be thinking, well since you had the information already on your mind you came to use it as an emergency, but because you knew it before. Probably, but then I prove that to be wrong. Later on I had the chance to live in Turkey, where they speak Turkish.

I mean… how common is learning that language? Of course I couldn’t find lessons in Mexico!

So there I went, to spend a year there without clearly knowing a single word. I remember watching some videos and learning a couple of ways to ask How are you? — which later I realized were the least used ways to say so. Also, my host family didn’t really think that as an spanish speaker it would have been great for me to actually learn turkish through lessons to be able to express myself there, so I had to learn it through practice, repetition and mistakes.

For me this is an effective method to learn but you have to be willing to do it. Most of the time, when we decide that we want to learn a new language is because we have to, due to our jobs or our education requirements. Learning a language by obligation turns it more complicated than it should be, because you do have to practice and if you don’t genuinly feel like doing it, you probably won’t or if you do so, it probably won’t last.

Probably if I didn’t live in Turkey for a while I would’ve never thought of learning Turkish, that’s right, but I did have curiosity once I got there. If I didn’t have it I probably wouldn’t have achieved to learn. Also later, I realized the world is full of brazilians that love to travel and eventually I became friends with some of them, the thing about some groups of brazilians around the world, is that they love to speak Portuguese even if they’re with other non-speakers.

Luckily for me that was a great advantage, because not only was I curious about Turkish but I also started to feel this genuine interest about learning to understand other people’s feelings and thoughts about life through their own languages. So I learned Portguese, while being in Turkey.

… but how?

So we already talked about how important is to actually have the willingness and the interest to learn a language otherwise it’d be forced and won’t last. Here’s what you have to know.

  • Pay attention to the way others express themselves: This has been very helpful to me. Body language is a kind of universal language that we hardly take advantage from. No matter where you are, there’s always some gestures you can recognize when someone says Hello, Wow!, What?, Oh shit, Welcome, Goodbye or when they get good news or they start a gossip or say they love you, to name some… Those are the keys to start learning because your mind starts to recognize some similar patterns when trying to understand and that’s very useful.
  • Check the constant expressions: Our brains store information by repetition. Every country has at least something everyone says, that you can save on your mind. For example in Turkey when you get to a new place, store, someone’s house you’ll usually hear Hoşgeldin (Hoshgaldin) which means, Welcome or literaly, is nice that you came. Or in Brazil is very common to hear, Saudade which is almost like feeling something is missing or used as I miss you/I miss this. You can also notice the typical expressions that people use in specific situations: To congratulate, to greet, to comfort, to express love, appreciation or gratitude. It’s a matter of paying attention.

This 2 points take me to the third one,

  • Mistakes are your allies: Once you’ve noticed the usual expressions or the ways people say something you have to start trying them out. If you heard some expression from someone but you don’t know how it’s spelled or exactly what it means you can either look for the meaning on internet or just take the risk to say it on the same way others do, hoping for people to understand you. If they don’t, some will probably make fun of your accent or if you said something else instead. I remember once I tried explaining what a meme was while pronuncing it with my spanish accent and I didn’t realize that saying it like that meant nipple in Turkish, so all they were hearing was my nipple this, my nipple that… Of course people started laughing but since I did too, we actually became friends and now it’s a very funny story. What I mean here is that you have to learn to make fun of your mistakes as well, don’t take it too seriously. Enjoy while it’s funny to listen to you talking because later you’ll sound so much better.

How are you supposed to be perfect at speaking a language you didn’t grow up with?

Mistakes show you what is useful for you and what’s not, otherwise you wouldn’t know.

  • Get rid of fear: Abandon that part of you that feels afraid of mistaking. People enjoy when you actually try and if they don’t, that has more to do with whom they are rather than with what you do. When they notice that although they’ve been mocking you for a while you’re still able to leave them speechless with the way you’re improving your skills, they start taking you seriously and actually caring about what you have to say, instead of just looking for possible mistakes.
  • Practice: You do have to practice. Chooose your own way: through a book, though films, youtube videos, exercises, through awkward conversations with others, whatever you feel more comfortable with just do so. Practice is focusing on what you want to achieve, you cannot expect to be good at something if you haven’t completely put your mind on it.

I do believe that studying every grammar rule on a language helps you improve it way more but I also believe that not all the people learn that way. I guess I enjoy learning the street language which for me is a better way to connect with people.

All these recommendations are better of course if you are on another country where you can constantly challenge yourself. However I don’t think that the fact of not being on one has to limit you. Once you have a genuine desire to learn you start crossing your path with all kinds of opportunities to practice or to learn from. Learn to notice and take them.

So to sum up, for me the success of learning languages lies on being aware of expressions, ignore fear of mistakes and being mocked, practice and repetition and of course, not taking it too seriously to be able to enjoy your progress!

Lu.

As I align with my most authentic self, I share my knowledge through my experiences along the way, using writing as a translator of my head.

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