Previous Next

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!

Language Learning


About The Author

Sarah Menkedick

Matador Contributing Editor Sarah Menkedick has traveled, lived, and taught on five continents, and is constantly in pursuit of spicy food, dark beer, and new places to run. She is an MFA student at the University of Pittsburgh.

  • Colin Wright

    Very good ideas to keep in mind! I’m already dreading the feeling I’m going to have when I step foot into Argentina, with my muy terible grasp of Spanish, but I think that learning this way will gel well with my desire to learn conversational Spanish quickly and relatively painlessly.

    • Tim Patterson

      Argentina? Sweet! You’ll be fine. Just remember this: dos media lunas y cafe con leche por favor.

      Will you be in BsAs?

  • Tanya

    Sarah, I couldn’t agree with you more. Thank you for putting into words the thing I could never quite put my finger on that helped me become fluent in French. The best tip for learning a language in my opinion? Move to a country where it’s spoken!

  • Shreya

    “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.” Bingo!

    Lovely article, thanks.

  • Abbie

    I totally agree! It’s so much easier to get the gist of something than try to figure out each individual piece! I will definitely keep this in mind when I try to learn another language. :)

  • Shawn

    I agree with you, because while learning to speak French it was really confusing, but I am up for far greater challenges when I get off the plane to whatever country my savings take me too after getting out of the United State Army after twelve years of service. Wish me well and thank you so much.

  • Hal

    Oh, I have embraced the confusion!

    Nice piece, Sarah.

  • Ryukyu Mike

    When you find yourself automatically thinking Japanese when you dial a Japanese number, English dialing an American and Spanish when you dial in Mexico, you’re getting there. When an American asks me for a Japanese person’s phone number I get confused trying to remember it in English.
    Oops, showing signs of age: anyone have dial phones these days?

  • Bo

    Excellent article Sarah! And as others have previously replied already, I couldn’t agree with you more! I have found nearly the exact same response from my students, in that the more keen language learners are feeling out the language and grabbing the big picture first instead of concentrating on each individual word.
    This is also how I have learned, and am still in the process of learning, the Thai and Laos languages.
    Lots of head nodding and partial understanding, but remaining steadfast to follow my intuition to induce meaning.
    again, great article, and thanks for sharing1

  • niamh

    Great article Sarah! It’s so true that language learning isn’t really about knowing the grammar, it is about letting go. I taught in a primary school for a while (long story!) and those kids had no fear, just babbled in whatever language they were meant to be studying that day. It was great to see. If you could bottle that lack of inhibition and sell it, you would have the most popular language school in the world – and the most successful:)

I rummaged in my pocket, thinking I could at least pretend to look at my camera.
Not only do you need to learn a new way of moving your pen, a new way of reading and how...
Do we really need to teach students outdated idioms like "It's raining cats and dogs"?...
I have to applaud these actors for managing to get through this without laughing.
Anne Merritt shares her 5 goals for learning Korean in 2011. Learning a language? Join...
He spoke loud and clear, “Whitney is the fattest person in our class.”
These words are so short and simple you can learn to use them immediately.
I want to hear your stories about struggling with new languages, stumbling forward and...