I remember when I was at school learning French, one of the best pieces of advice my teacher gave us was, “If you don’t know it don’t use it!”
At first it was a little daunting as the amount of French anchored in my brain was very little. How could an essay be written or a conversation be had without reference to English? In reality, however, adherence to this ‘rule’ developed an agility with language that has helped me ever since.
If you don’t know the word for a ‘frying pan’ (this happened to me while an au-pairing in France) describe it! You get there in the end (using more of the language to boot!) and learn a new word, but these linguistic gymnastics help you to hone that all-important skill in language learning – thinking in the target language!!
I’d like, if you’ll permit me, to indulge in my own personal experience and throw a few anecdotes around which, I hope, will help to illustrate not only the importance of thinking in the target language but also the joy of discovering that you can do this.
Losing your own language
One alarming, at first, consequence of using a language other than your native tongue for a long period is that you forget words! You don’t really lose them but sometimes you will come across a phrase or word and realise that you haven’t used it for a long time. Two things – it means that you are possibly expressing these things comfortably in your new language and secondly it is lovely to rediscover these ‘old friends’.
‘Creating your own language’
No language is perfect. If you begin to learn another you will find that there are certain things it expresses much better than your own language.
As your proficiency in your new language approaches that of your mother tongue you may find yourself adopting words from both languages and making a hybrid language – a sort of idiolect. Sometimes these phrases are shared among a group (very common within expat communities).
In Indonesia we all said ‘Go and mandi (bath)’ and ‘Where shall we go makan’ (eat). I remember on my first trip back to the UK from Indonesia speaking like this automatically and getting some very strange looks!
Not realising which language you’re using
As you use your new language more and more you may get to the stage where you don’t realise which language you are using!
On one occasion I was reading a newspaper and was surprised to find that there was a lot of local news in it instead of the more international news I usually found there. Imagine my surprise when I at last discovered that instead of the Jakarta Post, an English language paper, I had picked up the local Medan, Indonesian-language, newspaper and hadn’t even realised it!
Another time I brought an Indonesian cookery book back as a present for my mother – you’ve guessed it – it was written in Indonesian and I hadn’t even thought about it until she pointed it out!
Being taken for a ‘native’
My final story is a pearl!
I was standing at a bus-stop in Jakarta during a power-cut. It was very dark. I began speaking to a woman who told me that she knew that I wasn’t from Jakarta from my accent and thought I must be from Medan! It turned out that her family were also from there and she claimed that it was a purer form of Indonesian that we both spoke!! Imagine her surprise when the electricity came back on and she was confronted by a Westerner! It was precious!!
How did these things happen?
The main reason for all these incidents is the ability to absorb a new language alongside your own so that it becomes second nature. To do this you need to think in the new language when you are using it.
To get there try to:
- get as much exposure as possible – (read, listen, watch TV etc.)
- try to ‘get in the zone’ – remember the teacher’s advice – if you don’t know it don’t use it
- listen to local people – not just teachers (we are trained to manipulate language in a certain way within the classroom)
- imaginary conversations – rehearse these in your head – when learning French I used to talk to my dog, it was good practice of accent, phrases and just getting into the language
- sing songs – this is a really fun way of practising and learning
Above all don’t translate it generally doesn’t work and you have to move away from the comfort of your own language and wear the new language like a new skin!!