I am often asked about language learning, since I have business proficiency or higher in six languages - Spanish, French, Arabic, Turkish, Hindi/Urdu, and my native English. I am not a language genius, just someone with a genuine love for communicating across cultures, especially in the context of facilitating business.
My top 7 language learning tips are:
- Have fun with it. Avoid becoming a grammar slave, because most people find that very boring. Instead, seek out fun immersion-style opportunities for practice: watch films or read song lyrics in your target language.
- Get global at home. Find ways to interact with foreign communities without leaving the country or even your neighborhood.
For instance, many refugee organizations will be grateful if you volunteer, especially if you have even basic foreign language proficiency. You can also check out local immigrant community events or a foreign restaurant.
- Study frequency lists. These are lists of the top 1000 used words in a language. Do you know that as much as 90% of conversation is composed of a vocabulary of only 1,000 words? By learning these words, you will feel proficient seemingly overnight.
- Let go of perfection. Be willing to make mistakes. The aim is for people to understand you, and not to write a PhD dissertation in the language.
Once you embarrass yourself a few times, you learn that mistakes make for great storytelling later. Like that time I was young and in Tunisia, and afraid to wait for my friend on the street so waited for him in a hotel lobby. I was asked who I was waiting for. I explained that I was foreign, and alone ("seule" in French), and that if he did not mind, I would like to wait there. When he kicked me out, I started crying that I was alone and scared and how upsetting it was that he could not appreciate that. It was not until much later that I learned my mistake- I had mispronounced "seule" as " soûl", so I had been crying not about being by myself, but about being drunk!
- Variety is the spice of life. Have as many language learning activities and resources at your disposal as possible. This creates a more entertaining language learning environment and when you are bored with one, you can just pick up another. Using multiple methods also greatly reinforces learning
You might have a couple of textbooks, some on-line newspapers, a podcast that you listen to regularly, access to a foreign television channel, and a language buddy whom you practice with. You could even try keeping a journal in the language!
- Use it as a means to an end. Languages are tools- they are meant to be used. Having an idea of what you will use the language for will serve as a continual source of inspiration and new learning resources.
I learn languages because I love to do business around the globe and make new friends. So I focus on practicing with people, and absorbing everyday as well as commercial vocabulary. I avoid extended highly specialized learning opportunities outside of my interests. For instance, avoiding an emphasis on political vocabulary is challenging when taking Arabic classes in the US.
- Set reasonable expectations. Even just learning basic phrases demonstrates respect for a foreign business party's culture. This is invaluable in emerging markets where profitable business starts with establishing relationships of respect and trust.
While speaking a few languages dramatically facilitates global business, you can focus on your company’s core competencies and instead engage a business consultancy with multilingual capacity like SH International. Get started by filling out our prospective client form.