What’s the most embarrassing thing you’ve ever said in a foreign language by accident? When I’m travelling, I always try my best to immerse myself with the locals and make an effort. A recent incident in China however with a can of lemonade, proved to me that the way I had been learning the language wasn’t exactly…spot on. This led me to look into ways to learn new language fast.
Fresh from coming out of an intensive Jiu Jitsu session, learning how to defend myself as a woman whilst travelling, I was a right old sweaty betty. In need of some ice-cold refreshment, I stepped off the mat and carefully folded my Gi and white belt into my backpack. Popping on my sun-faded pumps, I started making my way towards the local mom and pop shop.
4 weeks into my crash course of Chinese cultural immersion, I was feeling pretty confident with the phrases I had picked up. ‘You’ve got this’ I told myself as I strode down the cobbled lane. Besides, I had been living in Shanghai teaching English for 2.5 years just a year before. I believed I was a cheeky Chinese-speaking wizard. Buying goods at this point was a breeze.
In an effort to be a better human being, I was setting myself daily little tasks to try the new language I had been learning from Earworms (a programme to learn new language fast to music no less!). Today’s goal was simple: ask for a can of lemonade. Easy right?
Stepping out of the gentle touch of the sun’s rays into the dimly lit hole-in-the-wall shop, I shuffled past the shelves full of shrink-wrapped chicken feet and questionable pickled eggs. I made a beeline for the cans of fizzy pop. With the ice-cold residue covering my fingers, I took a deep breath and plonked the can on the counter…just as my one-session-a-week Chinese teacher coincidentally walked into the store too. ‘One can of lemonade please’ I blurted out confidently to the little old dear in front of me.
Gulps of enormous quantities of oxygen were suddenly robbed from the air as my teacher and the little old lady swallowed their utter shock. So naturally, I went ahead and said it again with utmost effort. ‘One can of lemonade please’.
Dammit. What was going on here? My Chinese teacher came hurtling towards me, eyes bulging. She quickly told me to put the money down and stepped me outside.
Important Mandarin side note: Mandarin is tonal. Some words sound the same.
Say them with a different tone however and you’ll get a totally different word and meaning.
‘What’s happening?’ I asked.
‘You said c**t’, she exclaimed.
‘Say what?’ I replied.
‘You just called that lady a c**t’.
What a nightmare! Turns out I’d probably been calling a ton of shop owners in Shanghai a c**t for two years straight when the desire for lemonade came on. They just didn’t have the means to correct me.
In this instance, I just have to give my Chinese teacher a serious high five. She corrected me on the spot, saved my ass and let me buy lemonade in China for the rest of the course without embarrassing myself right off to a request to leave the country there and then.
As an English teacher myself, I know how important speaking practice is. I was hired by Universities purely to get my students speaking. They knew the grammar, they knew how to read and write but their speaking was rubbish…and what’s the most important thing that you need from language? Direct communication!
Unless you’re going to be in a disco texting each other because it’s too loud, you’re kinda screwed. You need to speak and speak and speak and have someone right there to correct you if you’re coming out with gobbledygook.
I’ve learnt numerous languages over the years. Thankfully, the techniques have got better and better. I learnt Russian and Spanish at school, listening to endless long and painful conversations in a language lab and writing vocabulary lists with little context. The amount of speaking practice we had, with immediate correction, was minimal.
I didn’t do very well in Korean to begin with either. Purchasing textbooks to teach myself the alphabet and simple conversation, how could I possibly be spot on with the pronunciation when all I had was a book? I knew I needed to go to the next level.
Podcasts are definitely a step up. Actually hearing the language helps me a lot when I’m studying a new language but the problem is that podcasts are one way: you’re not getting any feedback on your speaking with them. As for apps, I do love using Memrise but it has its limitations. When I’m doing the speaking exercises, the same people in the video listening exercises say the same phrases. I know what they’re going to say before they’ve even opened their mouth. Not close to real life as much as I’d like.
A lovely follower of mine told me about her love for Duolingo. Carrie, who’s learning Spanish and Italian, says that it’s a great app for learning to read and speak but it does have its downside too; you’re essentially learning with a bot.
These apps aren’t going to teach you the real slang natives use either. I’ve learnt some awesome slang over beer and fried chicken in Asian countries and by dating the locals. This way, I’ve learnt the swear words and cheeky expressions we all really want to know.
I’ve landed in plenty of countries with bare minimum phrases. It certainly helps to know how to say thank you, please, hello etc. but to really connect with the land you want to discover and get by, it without a doubt serves you well to step it up a notch. Waving your hands about and miming random things you need has its limits.
The kind of adventure travel I do, where there aren’t many tourists and I’m mostly hiking in the middle of nowhere or stuck in the mud on my bike in a random village…that forces you to learn new language fast. If you want to really get into the nitty-gritty of a community, this is some genuine motivation to step up and force yourself to speak.
You have to get out of your comfort zone, into an immersive environment to truly learn new language fast. Sam, who’s learning Spanish, agreed with me on Snapchat: ‘You need to find a native speaker of your target language and then meet to speak…Everyone I know that speaks another language at a good level listened to tons of hours of native speakers’. Thankfully, if funds are short for you right now where you can’t get to the country to live and study in it, there is another option out there!
Thank the world for the internet my lovelies. Thank the world for the ability to speak to someone face to face online because if you want to learn new language fast, Preply is the best way I’ve found to do it.
Preply is a language learning platform that connects you with a premium network of handpicked, professional native speaking teachers online. Every teacher that conducts lessons on Preply undergoes a rigorous selection process.
You can learn at any time to suit you, 24/7. This means there’s no need to battle with your schedule and try to fit into a 9 to 5 class! There are a lot of online learning platforms out there but Preply is certainly budget friendly: around $5 a class rather than the usual $50 leading language schools charge.
Preply currently offers tutors in 50+ languages!
I’ve been learning French on Preply with different teachers so I can get varied practice. My goal is to go and visit my best buddy Michaela and her French husband. I’m back in the UK for a while now. Each teacher has listened to my goals and then given me a lesson which I really want to learn and practice. This is language learning at a level tailored specifically to me: just what I need.
Ultimately, fingers crossed that when I next go to France, I won’t be making the mistake of calling a Frenchman a c**t when I’m buying a baguette.