If you think learning another language is tough, try living in one! Language learning can be rough. But, if you can slog through the learning curve and embarrassing mistakes, the rewards are well worth the pain.
People Think You’re Dumb
Have you ever spoken with someone who doesn’t know English very well? Maybe they had a thick accent? Or, their grammar was confusing and hard to follow? Or, they spent half their time ummm-ing and uhhh-ing trying to remember the word for pen/carrot/hello? As a listener, the mental focus that goes into understanding a non-native speaker is exhausting. You may walk away from the experience thinking, “Boy, that person is an idiot. What’s wrong with them?”
I used to think the same thing until I lived in another language – Mongolian. I spent two years in Mongolia as an English teacher. Due to the nature of my job as an English teacher learning business Mongolian wasn’t necessary. Thank god. If it had been, my work life would have been damn near impossible. However, I did need to learn the local language to do daily tasks, like: grocery shopping, buying internet and cell phone credits, going to the bank, getting a taxi, etc..
My first summer in country was spent learning Mongolian. I lived with a host family who had a four year old that was soon starting school. On the wall next to the kitchen table was a giant poster with the letters of the alphabet and each one had a picture of something that started with the letter. I was learning to read the Cyrillic alphabet along with my four year old host sister. I was in a new place and living in a new language which made communication especially difficult. It took me weeks to remember how to say the basics like “hello”, “goodbye”, and “thank you”. I wished I could tell them all about myself and get to know them as well. Instead, we had to resort to my broken Mongolian and lots of hand gestures. The process was frustrating. For goodness sake, I was the proud owner of a college degree, who only months before had been able to write a 10 page academic essay on Dicken’s “Great Expectations” in one night (okay, kids, procrastination is stressful don’t do it!). But, at the end of the day I still felt stupid.
In the initial stages, people wrote me off and stopped speaking to me mid-sentence because they were frustrated I didn’t understand their mile a minute Mongolian. Not only that, I was learning classroom Mongolian with full words and proper grammar. But, in the real world no language is spoken like a textbook. For example, in English most people say, “I’m gonna go to the store”. If you are just learning the language you learn, “I am going to go to the store”. See the difference? Using contractions (I’m) and blending words (going to>gonna) quickly confuses novice language learners. Most of the time, non-native speakers aren’t stupid. They are furiously catching up and jumping into the slang and shortcuts that native speakers use.
But If You Think About It…
If a person is speaking in their non-native language then, duh, they must be an intelligent and capable person. It means they know, at a minimum, two languages! Damn. And, many people that know more than one language are self-taught either from choice or necessity. Imagine, learning an entirely new language through t.v. shows or YouTube? That is incredible. Many people live in their adopted language and actively use it far longer than the language they grew up with.
Oooooh my, I could go on for a long time about the benefits I’ve received from living in another language. However, I’ll keep my final thoughts short and to the point. Even though learning and living in a new language is difficult the payoff is amazing. The confidence I felt navigating my way around Mongolia is one of my proudest accomplishments. Meeting new people and making friends is much easier when you make the effort to bridge the language gap. A whole new world opens up to you and you are given opportunities that would never have been offered. So, if you’re visiting another country for vacation or moving somewhere new, learning the language is always a good idea! And remember, the next time you speak with someone who doesn’t know English very well…be kind to them and think of me struggling to buy eggs in the middle of the Mongolian steppe.