3.10.11

How To Learn A Foreign Language


Tips, Tricks and Resources to Learn A Foreign Language Faster


First let me briefly explain where my qualifications for this particular article come from. Way back when I went to school, I was terrible with languages. I went to a school in Germany where English was a compulsory subject, and as a second language one could either choose Latin or French. And I was absolutely useless! In fact, I had to repeat two grades because of my miserable grades in English and Latin. I threw in the towel when I was just about to repeat another grade and run the danger of ending up in the same class with kids that were three years younger than I.

Now, at the age of 52,  I speak a total of three languages fluently. In fact, it went almost up to four, but the first foreign language I learned to speak was Greek, and that I don’t speak right now, since it was at the beginning of the eighties that I spent a couple of years in Greece. If I would go back now it would take me probably three month to speak it again, since you never forget a language. They get stored away when not used continuously, and it’s like a file that has been hidden away somewhere on your computer.

I started developing myself as a language teacher in 1989 in Mexico-City, and that’s what I’ve been doing ever since. I work freelance, because that’s where I’m best. I don’t approve of most language teaching methods as applied by modern language schools, and it will become more transparent why in the course of this article.

Let’s start with the basics.

We don’t think in words, but in images or concepts. A toddler who gets too close to the kitchen stove and touches it will experience immediately the meaning of what is called in English ‘hot’. It’s through his physical pain that he learns that particular reality. And the concept of ‘heat’ has been literally burned into his mind.

A totally different, and at least in this context, secondary issue is his mother’s reaction to the approaching toddler. She cries out in panic ‘ Be careful, it’s hot!’ For the toddler the word ‘hot’ is nothing more than a sound that comes out of his mother’s mouth. Mind you, it’s not a word for him yet, he doesn’t understand at this stage what a word is. And it’s  this sound that he will henceforth associate with the physical pain he experienced. He knows what ‘hot’ means!

A German mother would have cried ‘heiss’, the Mexican mother ‘caliente’; it doesn’t really matter for the toddler, since again it’s just a sound to him. Our parents teach us our mother language through different sounds (words) that we learn to associate with certain aspects of our environment and our experiences.

I remember my and my siblings’ disbelief when our father told us that German was not the easiest language, that in fact it was one of the more difficult ones to learn. Of course we were young then, but it shows you the state of mind children have when dealing with language.

So it’s important to understand that we associate sounds with meaning, which might be an objective meaning (a table is a table is a table….) or a more subjective meaning when using the word ‘friend’ or ‘love’. Both words are  colored on the one hand by our culture (their  use in English is far more common as in German, for example, I’d think twice before I’d call somebody ‘friend’ in German, whereas in English or Spanish it’s far closer to the word ‘acquaintance’).

If you have already learned a foreign language, or you are in the process of it, you will inevitable feel that you are translating one language into the other. And that’s the fundamental mistake most people make. They confuse the process of taking the word ‘cold’, if English is their first language, then rummaging in their files for its meaning (which is obviously not necessary) and then allocating to that meaning the sound (word) that corresponds to it in the foreign language they are learning. An understandable process, but useless, it seems.

It’s precisely this process the language teaching technique of ‘total immersion’ tries to avoid. And it makes sense. Why use words of your mother tongue in a learning experience when you can just put a corresponding word to your concept or experience in the second language you are learning? In total immersion translation is to be avoided, students are confronted with the new language through real life situations.

How To Avoid A Divorce

My feeling is that if you are reading this article you are concerned. It might be your own marriage that’s pretty rocky right now; it might be the marriage of one of your children or a friend’s marriage. I will address here one of the most fundamental reasons why relationships break up or why people get a divorce. And I will try to describe a technique with which relationships of all kinds, but in particular marriages, can be saved.

I will not go into detail about specific problems a marriage might be having, be it the children, the money or sexuality. The scope of this article simply doesn’t provide for it. I will, however, talk in detail about communication problems. Without an effective communication no problem that is shared by two or more people, as is the case when a divorce looms on the horizon, can be solved.

Have you ever felt that you simply can’t get through to the other person? You try to tell and explain, but whatever it is that you say seems to fall on deaf ears? You talk and talk, think about ways how to say what it is you want to explain, and it just doesn’t work? And you have this real negative feeling of impotence, because if you can’t even make yourself understood, how on earth can you solve the problem which has to be solved?

Might it be possible that your spouse feels exactly the same way? He or she can’t get through to you? My hallucination is that this is precisely the case, even though you might have not seen it this way so far.

Let’s step back for a second and do some imagination. Imagine that you stand in a container, visualize a barrel, an aquarium, whatever. You stand in that container and the space within is shared not only by your thoughts, but by your emotions as well. It will be obvious by now that the more emotional we are, the less space we have at our disposal for our rational thoughts.

If we are only slightly ‘charged’ with emotions, let’s say they come up to our ankles; the more space is left that allows us to act on a rational level. Imagine now that the level of emotions goes up to our waist – it is becoming more and more difficult to move, isn’t it? We literally have to wade through that mass of emotions, and we begin to say stupid things or act foolishly.

Let’s take this a step further, you have it up to your neck. You’re fighting for survival, your emotions run the show, and there is next to nothing left for rational thought. That’s when we go crazy, which might lead to verbal abuse or violence.

In order to lower this dangerous level of emotions and regain space for our thoughts, there is only one way – we have to feel understood. But we don’t have to feel understood on a rational level. That’s pretty easy, your next door neighbor, if you would talk to him or her, would probably understand the facts of your problem.  We have to feel understood by what the problem at hand is doing to us, the other party has to understand how it makes us feel!  

And once we feel understood, when deep down in our guts we feel that the other person is understanding us completely, not just the facts but what the problem at hand is doing to us, then we are on our way. Because, then, and only then, a magic valve opens at the bottom of the container we stand in, all those emotions and confusions can run out of the container, thus giving us space again for rational thought.
Now, here is the bad news. You are the proactive person, you’re reading this article, you are looking for solutions, and you want to save your marriage. And you have to take the first step.

Because remember what I said above? I said that you are the one who doesn’t feel understood. But I said as well that your partner is feeling most likely exactly the same. So you have to forget yourself for a moment (or for some long moments) here and initiate the process by trying to really understand what your spouse is going through. You will need some strength of character for that, but my hallucination is that you have it.

Talk to him, and try to find out what the situation is doing to your partner, how she is feeling. It won’t be easy, in fact, you might find resistance, depending on how far down the road the relationship has progressed so far, and your partner (particularly if he is a man) might even get suspicious.

Go on, anyway, and explain what you are trying to do. Invite her to tell you in detail not what’s bothering him (you know that anyway), but what’s it doing to her on an emotional level. Put yourself in his place, wear her shoes, see and perceive reality as he perceives and feels it.

You might not get it in the beginning. So give feedback, ask questions. That gives him a chance to elaborate, maybe correct you. And do that until you feel exactly the way she feels. And once he perceives that, then she will feel really understood, because he can sense that you are on the same emotional level as she is.

By all means, ask for reciprocity, just don’t do it there and then. Give it a day or two, mull things over, and then ask your partner to listen to you. Bets are he will, because she probably still loves you and wants you to feel as nice (meaning free from negative emotions) as you made feel her.

Remember, us humans being rational beings is basically a fallacy. We are only rational when we are not emotional. Sounds absurd, I know, and it doesn’t only apply to negative emotions. Have you ever been blindly in love and done some stupid things? My guess is that yes, and here you go. So let’s work on getting rid of these negative emotions, make space for thoughts and this way find a rational solution with which both of you can live, and not only live on a rational level, but on an emotional as well.