Moving and language learning

My background

I’ve moved around a bit. First time was when I was 16 and went to Texas as an exchange student. That was purely my desire of travel and exploration. And to learn English of course. Later, when I was at the university I spent a year in Moscow for the same reasons. Well, this time to study Russian. And while I was not going there to live with a Russian family, for the second half of my year I did rent a room from a Russian lady to learn Russian better.

Lately, I’ve become an expat and I did my PhD in astrophysics in France and lived near and in Paris for 3 years. After that I moved to Cologne, Germany to do a postdoc. Currently I live in California. These last moves were not just to learn a new language and culture, but to study for real and work. I had studied French for quite a long time, German not so much, but I found the languages much harder than when I was in US or in Russia. My latest move to California made me think: “Now I’ll improve my Spanish”, but I haven’t really gotten around to it.

My personal experiences made me think about writing about them in this language blog. Because it seems like every language learner’s ideal to live in a country and learn the language.

new country: Immersion

There are so many people telling how the immersion is the only way to learn a language. And based on my exchange experiences, I would agree. I moved to Texas, I lived with an American family and I learned to speak English. I had studied a bit and my level was definitely ok, but I really learned to speak when I was in US. Later I moved to Texas and while the first half of the year I lived with other exchange students in the dormitory (or  общежитие as we called it, no one used the English term), I finally rented a room from a Russian lady who only spoke Russian, which improved my Russian so much.

What I didn’t know was, and what I learned from moving to France and even more when moving to Germany, is that just moving to a country doesn’t mean you will be immersed in the language (Benny Lewis has a good post on this). And that immersion is hard work. In the end my French is decent and I did learn German, but I also took lessons on iTalki to improve. In California I’ve done nothing really to improve my Spanish.

Moving: why it’s hard

So, why is it so hard? I have my own experience and that of many other scientists that have been there. In science I think part of the problem is that you work in English. To be fair, I wouldn’t have gone to France to do my PhD if I had to write it in French… But this makes it harder. Especially since English is not my native language either. And switching between 2 foreign languages is hard. And tiring. Also, I was doing my PhD in astrophysics and I was doing a lot of learning. My brain just couldn’t handle more learning to efficiently immerse myself. Also, just building routines in a new place, let alone new country takes time, when everything is suddenly hard. You don’t know where the hardware store is let alone remembering what hammer is called in the local language and you really need to build some Ikea furniture to have something to sleep on…

In addition, when you move to a new country alone because of a job or study, you don’t have your support network. And you need to build it. Of course people like Benny Lewis say this is an opportunity to speak the new language and improve. But you also need to just relax sometimes. And talk in a language you can express yourself in. Here I really see the difference to the times I just moved somewhere to learn the language and culture. After a full day of demanding job, you also need socializing to be fun and not just hard. In addition, if you do meet other expats (and you will), they understand what you’re going through with all the bureaucracy of the country and whatever other annoyances you have. Also, if you’re not exactly an extrovert, you might find it even more challenging (see Elena’s post on Hitoritabi).

What can you do?

Well, then. Nothing to do but give up? I don’t think so. Again, Elena gives really good advice. I think the biggest thing is to learn to forgive yourself for being slow, but not give up. Try to enroll on a language course, even if it’s not your level, you will meet other learners and it’s sometimes easier to start speaking with other people who understand your difficulties and are not perfect. And don’t worry about picking up imperfect language, you will get there.

Another thing I’ve noticed is that I speak much better with people who don’t really know or like speaking English. These people usually see my efforts in French or German good enough and realize that if they don’t make an effort to understand me, they have to speak English and that won’t work. Of course it might be hard to find these people, especially with limited language skills. I have two suggestions:

  1. Speak to the sales people. These conversations are usually short and only few sentences. Also, if you don’t understand everything, it’s not the end of the world. In Germany the lady in the coffee cart that I always bought my coffee from came out to hug me when she realized she wouldn’t see me anymore. It’s not like we are life long friends, but I still remember and miss those daily interactions.
  2. Find a hobby where the language isn’t English. Something that you can understand even if you don’t understand all the words. In Paris I did tap dance. I could figure out a lot from just mimicking the teacher, but every time before and after class you talk to other participants and these can lead to if not actual friendships, then at least acquaintances and again your speaking time is limited and not too stressful, but still it becomes a routine and happens constantly.

For me, often the language courses just frustrate me. And even if I just gave that advice (I know it works for many), it’s not necessarily something I do. I rather spend time learning the language myself. Trying to listen podcasts or even just music in that language. If I can, trying to read anything, romance novels are good, because even if you don’t understand everything, you won’t get confused. And if it’s a language I don’t know so well, like German was, I take private lessons in iTalki.

With iTalki though, take your time testing out teachers. I first started with conversation practice and it took awhile to find a person I clicked with. That was great, but then I really wanted proper lessons, because I realized I was missing grammar and I was not really advancing fast enough for me. If you have time, you could even try to have a grammar/official lesson and speaking practice additionally. Or if you’re tired of grammar, speaking lessons with different people.

In any case, it is not as easy to keep yourself focused on the language learning when you have other responsibilities and stress factors in your life. And especially if you are only in the country for 2-3 years. But you can do it. Just give yourself time and don’t stress about a particular level. Anything you learn will be helpful. And most importantly: do what works for you and don’t listen to other people too much. Take advice as helpful hints at most. Find a way that works for you!

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