Photo: Bredgar. Feature photo: foundphotoslj

To really learn a new language, you have to let go of the desire to understand everything.

“And so you need to put your three daily activities in order, and then tell your partner about them, and then cover them up, and have your partner remember what you said. OK?”

Three or four students — the ones who’ll fight their way through conversations in English until they get to the point of fluency — will nod.

Can you get far enough outside of your own cultural and linguistic box to divine what someone is trying to say?

Some students will tentatively look at their friends for encouragement.

A handful of others will stare up at me with traumatized expressions as if I’ve just sung an obscure Italian opera.

Florence by Deva.

This is when I can identify the natural language learners in my class.

They’re the ones who aren’t obsessed with hearing every word I say, with breaking down the grammar and analyzing it, or with trying to have a crystal clear native speaker’s appreciation for the exact meaning of a sentence.

They’re listening for gist—they want to get to the baseline meaning of what I say and follow it intuitively.

They know they’re blindfolded and feeling around in the dark, so they use their intuition and all the bits of language and memory they have to make their best guess.

The single most important skill any language learner can have is the ability to induce and intuit meaning, especially when one doesn’t understand every word—or even most words—a native speaker is saying.

Can you get far enough outside of your own cultural and linguistic box to divine what someone is trying to say?

Perhaps this is the most full-on plunge you can make into a foreign culture: giving yourself up to the language and letting yourself be carried along by it, even when you’re not sure, even when you don’t fully understand, even when you’re totally out of your element.

You’ve got to be confident enough to make a solid attempt at understanding and acting on that understanding, and yet you’ve got to be humble and perceptive enough to pick up on the speaker’s intentions.

Photo: Ed Yourdon

And most of all, you have to give up the need to make sense of every element of language.

You have to get to some deeper level of connection and communication, based on intuition, based on those skills you have when you’re an infant and you’ve got to figure out how to get milk and love.

Use whatever you’ve got – random vocab, frantic miming, raised eyebrows – to make communication happen. And be willing to accept the fact that you won’t know everything, and that you may be partially clueless for awhile.

After all, the struggle to grasp bits and pieces here and there until you can begin to make sense of the foreign world around you, is at the core of every travel experience.

Embrace the confusion!

Like so many things in travel, it makes the most banal moments — sending a postcard, ordering a beer — into grand tales of success and failure.

Please share your language learning tips and stories below!

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