This past summer, my girlfriend Pia and I set out to ride our bikes from Berlin to Venice. The four videos in this article document the four stages of that journey, and each highlights a fascinating character we befriended along the way. We are no amateurs when it comes to bicycle touring. Last year we cycled from Argentina to Peru, and a couple years before that I cycled from Berlin to Beijing. You could probably call me a professional traveler, but one thing I am not is a professional language learner.
It’s funny, in everyday life I think of myself as quite a shy person, but that completely changes when I attempt to speak a language other than English. Battling my way through a conversation in a foreign language, I seem to forget all self awareness and decorum. All I think about in such moments is trying to convey a thought to another person. I want to understand them, and I want to be understood. I don’t realize that I might look like a fool until I catch myself waving my arms around and miming words I don’t have the vocabulary for. Embarrassing? Possibly. Do I care? No! This attitude has been a huge asset for me learning other languages. It’s helped me to learn German (including bits of two regional dialects, Swabian and Austrian), Spanish and now basic Italian.
Every foreign conversation I put myself through exposes me to new vocabulary and expressions – and leaves me with a bunch of new questions! It’s an organic learning process that is fun. I am excited about filling the gaps, I look up new words and by the time the next conversation comes around I have a chance to use them. I find this to be a very effective way to memorize words.
It definitely helps to do some homework as well. While I do sit and look at my vocabulary list sometimes, I can recall the words after a shorter amount of time if I have used them in conversation. And don’t underestimate the power of your ears: hearing native speakers in conversation will give you a feeling for what sounds right. It will also expose you to expressions and nuances that you will eventually pick up to make your use of the language more eloquent.
At the end of the day, what do we learn languages for? There are people out there training to become interpreters and translators no doubt, but I think it’s safe to say that most of us learn languages in order to be able to speak to people in everyday situations — so why not start there? Make sure that the vocabulary you learn first are the words you need the most.
You’re not going to learn a language without speaking to people. If you start speaking early on — no matter how imperfectly — the whole learning process becomes much more enjoyable, you will learn faster and you will be more motivated. What gives me the perseverance to learn languages is the enjoyment I get from having interesting exchanges with people from other cultures. You are learning a language in order to communicate with people, so you need to want to communicate with people! Tap in to that desire! If you want to tell someone something badly enough, you WILL find a way…
And don’t be afraid to look silly while you’re doing it! After a few weeks of stumbling through conversations in Italian, see how much I improved by the time we reached Venice:
Sure, my Italian still isn’t perfect, but being able to talk to strangers and express myself in a new language makes those awkward moments along the way totally worth it.