Learning Language Through Osmosis!
August 8, 2008 3:31 PM   Subscribe

Does anyone have any tips or strategies to help in learning a new language when living in a foreign country but not doing a formal study program?

While this is a general question that I imagine could apply to people in a variety of different countries attempting to learn different languages, I'll use my specific information in case that can help people give advice.

I am in Israel for the year trying to get much better at speaking Hebrew. I came here with zero Hebrew knowledge and did a 5 week immersion program, and now I am here for the rest of the year.

What should I be doing over the course of the next year to improve my Hebrew? I try to talk to people as much as possible, but I don't really know past or future tense yet and my vocabulary is weak so people usually try to switch to English?

I have the textbook from the course I took that I can continue to work through on my own, but I want to get as much benefit as possible from actually being in Israel. What should someone do when in a foreign country (where most people speak English) to aid in learning the local language?
posted by andoatnp to Writing & Language (14 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
When I lived abroad for a year, there were a lot of local university students interested in doing a language exchange. They want to learn English and you want to learn X language, so the two of you meet and spend time talking in each language. Check bulletin boards near university buildings and bookstores.
posted by Nickel at 3:45 PM on August 8, 2008

Tip #1: stop speaking English. Just force yourself to figure out how to say what you want to say in Hebrew. This gets you thinking about your vocabulary and what new words you want to add.

Even if people want to speak English to you, try to speak Hebrew back. Don't be afraid to ask how to say something. I know in Sweden, lots of people wanted to sharpen (or show off) their English skills so it can be useful to trade that way.
posted by trinity8-director at 3:49 PM on August 8, 2008

I don't have personal experience to speak from, but here's what I see people doing (here in Portugal):

- Socializing with the locals and saying "I know you guys speak English and I do thank you for making me feel welcome, but please go ahead and speak Portuguese, because I really want to learn". Sometimes it does switch to English, but then it sometimes switches to Portuguese anyway... They also get a lot of bonus points for the attitude.

- Offering exchange conversation classes. Colleges are good places to advertise - put a paper up with your offer for conversational English classes in exchange for Hebrew ones, name, phone number and e-mail.

Good luck!
posted by neblina_matinal at 3:49 PM on August 8, 2008

In my living-in-Japan experience I found that I learned quicker when the TV show was subtitling the spoken action in Japanese (variety shows there do this fairly frequently).

Also karaoke for similar reasons.

IME I think about 80%+ of language acquisition is parroting what you've already heard, so you've got to HEAR and UNDERSTAND language elements and their nuances before you can USE them.
posted by yort at 4:23 PM on August 8, 2008

hooking up with a local of the appropriate sex is the standard approach, isn't it?

read all the time - newspaper, adverts, bus tickets, whaetever. constantly translate stuff in your head. talk to yourself (silently) as you walk down the street: "what i am doing? i am going to ... why am i going to ...? because ..."

also, "everyone speaks english" is probably only restricted to certain social groups classes (i don't know israel, but i can't imagine it's that different to the rest of the world). so try meeting other social groups (that's a polite way of saying talk to people poorer than you).

you can try reading books, but it sounds like you're going to find that too hard (it took me a long time until i got to the point where reading a novel in spanish was actually a pleasure rather than a chore). but you may be able to find books for learners that have parallel texts (english one side, hrebrew the other).

another motivation is politics. if there's something that you can only read in the local language, it's more motivating. you could start a blog where you translate articles from the newspaper that shed light on the "palestinian problem".

back to books - short stories are easier than novels. i remember reading a book of short stories that had been published as articles in a local newspaper. they were good because they were modern, easy to read, amusing and short. i even translated some and stuck them on a web page - ended up in contact with the authors who thanked me!
posted by not sure this is a good idea at 4:28 PM on August 8, 2008

Most of the above but there is something that's not been mentioned. If you're one for watching tv or going to the cinema, try watching English films which have been subtitled in the local language. The translations are often condensed for convenience but it's surprising how much you can pick up by reading text with the English soundtrack in the background. Of course this only works in some countries (Sweden in my case), and the other downside is that you miss most of the film's visuals!!
posted by the-happy-manager at 4:42 PM on August 8, 2008

I lived in Latvia last year - where all the signs are in Latvian, but everyone in my neighborhood spoke Russian.

• Read read read read read read read! I learned the Cyrillic alphabet from country-name cognates in tourism ads in the free-classifieds paper. Don't use the internet/English to get information unless you have to - check the weather, movie times, apartment listings, yadda yadda yadda only in Hebrew.

• Watch music videos. With subtitles, if you can. Pop songs are often reallly simple, and the lyrics are available online. Karaoke is good too, especially if you "know" the song first.

• Don't worry too much about tenses. People are way more likely to converse and chat in casual ways anyway, so saying something like "Would you like help with that bag?" might be less important to learn than "Hey, can I help?" (which is useful in more situations anyway).

• Leave little written messages for the people around you. "Happy birthday - have a good one!" and "I think we're out of milk - can you get some?" isn't the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but you get to practice sentence structure and all kinds of other grammatical things that you wouldn't have a lot of practice with outside of a class.
posted by mdonley at 5:01 PM on August 8, 2008

Nthing reading!!!

I learned a lot of Mandarin just being immersed in the language over here, but what really dragged me from "functional" to "conversational" was hunkering down with some of Mao's little red books, a dictionary, and a notebook where I read them until I understood them and then copied them out by hand (maybe not necessary in languages without characters, but it was a good memory aid). That was really the thing that pushed me over the first plateau. Force yourself to get out of textbooks and put yourself in a context where you see the language in all its native functionality, and don't quit until you get it. The first tract took me 3 months, the second 1 month, and the 3rd about two days. It really does work if you have the patience.
posted by saysthis at 5:53 PM on August 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

What made the biggest difference to me --
-- use it all the time. I'd taken two years of college spanish and still, my book learning was almost useless and I re-learned it from the "hello, how are you?" ground up.
-- put yourself in specific situations that are vocab lessons. Eg, the farmers market. The zoo.
-- put yourself in different contexts. Eg, I ended up running a volunteer tree-planting project. I had to learn the command forms of verbs ("please carry that box over to George.") In fact, after a disastrous morning, I had to learn it over lunch.
-- chat with the nine-year-olds. They don't realize they should talk to you slowly. Chatting with nine-year-olds while adults are around is even better because they'll help you understand the kids. Adults with toddlers are also great ("what is this? is it a banana? yes, it's a banana! yum!")
-- don't hang out with the cool neurotic intellectuals. Those guys are jerks about your inability to understand, which is discouraging. Hang out with people who enjoy conversing on the level of "hey man, how's it going? good day?" For me, this was the local stoners and surfers.
-- sit in on adult meetings that are way over your head. I was at a city council meeting, and after 90 minutes of being lost, I suddenly could understand almost everything said. It was a babelfish moment.
posted by salvia at 6:25 PM on August 8, 2008

A meet-up language exchange group. This will inevitably lead to meet-ups with groups that are not so much about language but about things that are of interest to you. And those groups are not going to be spending half their time speaking in English about the subject. Do not underestimate the power of a subject which interests you when learning a new language. Mrs. Paris speaks excellent French and English and my French is horrible -- but I posess some vocabulary within my areas of interest which leaves her speechless -- in any language, I suppose.
posted by Dick Paris at 10:00 PM on August 8, 2008

Something I found really helpful when living in Romania and learning Romanian without lessons was that I made 2 resolution:
1) I decided to get over the fact that I was going to feel like I looked an idiot. I was going to make mistakes and people would often struggle to understand me in the early stages, but I was just going to get over it in advance and press on.

2) I would start every conversation in Romanian. If I got stuck and the other person spoke English then we could swap to English part way through, but I would always at least start in Romanian.

And I found that in a place where many speak people English so that foreigners don't need to learn the local language, that when a foreigner actually does take the trouble to learn, people are really pleased and will often be very patient and helpful in comminucating with you.

Hope it goes well :-)
posted by alicegoldie at 12:59 AM on August 9, 2008

1-Buy a book of teaching your self

2- Place an add on a web , for language interchange.

3- Study podcast ,and learn 40 new words every day.

You'll be speaking in no time.
posted by zulo at 4:17 AM on August 9, 2008

What worked for me (my native language isn't English, I learned it through immersion):
1) Watching television and listening to the radio. Your first step before managing conversation is understanding, then you can start replying.
2) Reading lots, guessworking words you don't know from context rather than stopping every 2 minutes for the dictionary.
3) At least for a week, avoid anything to do with English (within reason). Do not speak, read or listen to anything in English except in brief bursts. Force yourself to do so, it'll help you start thinking into Hebrew, which will help you a lot with using it.
4) Conversations with other people in exchange of English conversations is good, but also conversation with other foreigners like you as long as your common language turns out to be Hebrew and not English. They will probably be struggling as much as you are, so there's no feeling of 'doing things wrong' included in the exchange: you're communicating your ideas without fear first, then you can look for the proper way of saying things with natives. The only danger in that is picking up a foreign accent, but you can worry about that later.
5) If you can, go to local English lessons. That should help you boost your brain into learning the new language in a rather effortless way as what you need to produce is your own language (easy bit), but your learning environment is Hebrew. Also, there are a lot of translation going on that should make you pick up new vocabulary.
posted by tweemy at 7:02 AM on August 9, 2008

Learn 10 words a day.

Go sit somewhere, on a bench, in a park, with a dictionary. Meditate, look around, try to describe what you see around you.

Don't know the word for the thought in your head, look it up. You've got your first one.

This way your vocab grows according to the words that you most often will use. Plus good visual cues to remember.

posted by iamck at 8:23 PM on August 17, 2008

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