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How to speak 8 different languages

Updated: May 12, 2018

Here’s my take on learning foreign languages: it’s hard, but it’s doable.

After I returned from my first embassy experience in Nigeria – where almost everyone speaks English – my husband and I visited the bank where my mother-in-law worked. Some colleagues seemed really excited to talk to us because, when you work in a bank in Idaho, you don’t meet diplomats every day.

As we shook everyone’s hands and fielded their questions, one man stood next to my husband and said: “I think it’s incredible what you do, I mean, you speak like seven or eight different languages?”

I kind of had to laugh at the idea that someone would think that we speak that many different languages. I mean, it takes months of intense practice to learn a language, and years to become fluent!

Fortunately, my husband handled the situation diplomatically. He thanked the man for his compliment and said that learning new languages was one of the things he enjoyed and appreciated most about his job. I think he even thanked the man for being a taxpayer, since it’s the US taxpayers that allow diplomats to do language training in the first place!

A decade of Foreign Service life later, though, my thoughts on this encounter have changed. The idea of speaking seven or eight different languages doesn’t seem so ridiculous after all. By now, my husband is fluent in English, Dutch, Spanish and Armenian, and he could probably get by in a couple of other languages, including Farsi.

As for me, I speak English, Dutch, Spanish and Russian, and I could certainly hold basic conversations in German and French. I can also read the Armenian and Greek alphabets, and do simple Latin translations if necessary. And in the future (depending on our next postings) we’ll probably be required to learn several more languages.

Personally, I think knowing the language of the country you live in makes all the difference. I feel like I can work more effectively, and be much more self-sufficient in general. It makes me feel more at home and more safe when I can communicate with everyone around me.

I noticed that knowing the local language shows interest and respect for other cultures and immediately deepens relations with anyone I meet. Also, I believe that learning a language is not only about learning how to translate stuff. You learn how best to communicate, how to approach someone, which words and expressions to use, and which ones to avoid.

What I also like about learning the local language is that it makes the USA stand out in a unique way. It’s probably not a surprise that English speakers – and particularly Americans – are not famous for their language skills. Americans are well known for being confident and for making things happen, but not necessarily in a way that is sensitive to other cultures.

That's why I think that arming diplomats with language skills and cultural knowledge is a great way to counter that image and earn some goodwill abroad. Also, my experience is that most other countries do not provide any language training to their diplomats, which means that those diplomats have to play catch-up – and spend a lot of their time and money on simple translation stuff.

Then again, the difficulty of learning new languages should not be underestimated. I learned how to speak English at a young age (my native tongue is Dutch), and I am still learning. After that, I believed for a long time that it was utterly impossible to add another language to my repertoire.

I studied French, German, Italian, Modern Greek, Spanish and Urdu, but I never became fluent in any of these languages. For a long time, I thought I was doing something wrong. I looked – in vain – for the ultimate method to become proficient. Now I know that learning a language simply comes down to practice and perseverance.

For example, it took me six months of full-time Spanish training to reach a point where I had enough vocabulary to talk at length about a (limited) number of topics, and two more years to become comfortable speaking it. After that, I knew Spanish well enough to remember most of it, even when I didn’t speak it for a long time. But I know that my memory won’t hold on to this Spanish forever. Basically, if I don’t start speaking or studying it soon, I will gradually lose my fluency and most of my vocabulary. Still, the fact that I mastered Spanish gave me confidence about learning new languages in general.

So I felt pretty good about myself for a while, until I started to study Russian. All of a sudden, I realized why people say that Spanish is a comparatively “easy language”: there is much less to worry about than when you learn Russian!

A few things that make Russian particularly difficult for English speakers are: it has a different alphabet; words are often long and do not look or sound anything like English; Russian has letters that are hard to pronounce and many Russian words are impossible to pronounce correctly if you don’t already know the word; there is a TON of grammar to digest and memorize, and there are rules that do not have any equivalent in English.

Over the years, many people have asked me how to go about learning a new foreign language, and I still find a difficult question. It’s a fact that different people learn new things in different ways. However, I did discover a few things about learning languages that I’m happy to share with anyone who is interested:

· Pronunciation: when speaking a foreign language, you need to actually train your mouth to pronounce the words correctly. So don’t get discouraged when you stumble on certain letters or words in the beginning. If you practice enough, overtime you will be able to say stuff correctly.

· Vocabulary: cramming words is a good way to memorize them. Memorizing words by studying useful phrases is an even better way to memorize them. And probably the best way to learn new words is to make word associations. It might seem weird to do it for each individual word, but especially in the beginning it helps enormously.

· Listening: listening to a native speaker, as frustrating as this can be, is very important. Think about it: what good is it to speak a language if you can’t understand someone else’s question or reply? I think that language programs should pay more attention to this, because the reality is that – once abroad – you are not going to be the one speaking most of the time. You'll be listening.

· Reading: reading is useful for some, and not so useful for others. In general, I would only focus on reading if you plan to read a lot in that language. Or if you want to speak the language on a high, bookish level. So for diplomats, it’s definitely useful to practice reading. But if you just want to start speaking another language, I’d start with conversation classes. The problem with reading is that it doesn’t tell you how to pronounce the language and it doesn’t help you remember the useful words and phrases people use on a daily basis.

· Grammar: if you want to speak another language properly, you must learn grammar. There is no way around it. It’s also not as bad as it sounds, because once you know it, you have a handy tool to construct your own phrases. There is a big “but”, though. I think people beat themselves up way too much about grammar. They forget that, in the end, the most important thing is getting your point across! I’ve heard many people speak Dutch, English and Spanish with terrible grammar while they did a great job at getting their points across, joking around, and generally getting by. Perhaps this is because communicating really isn’t about just the language!


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