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Learning Languages on Site

During my 25 years living and working in various countries in Europe, I found that taking a course before arriving in a country can be helpful, but learning in situ can also have its advantages.

Languages live in the hearts and minds of those who use them, and these are often the best teachers. A friend with no previous foreign language training arrived where I was working in Germany with some language tapes and a burning desire to communicate. He traveled the length and breadth of the country, stopping to talk with anyone who had the patience to listen and reveling in the challenge of the different dialects. He left after three months with a fluent grasp of German and a handful of life-long friends with whom he maintained a lively correspondence.

From Zero to Fluency in French

The local shops are a wonderful resource for learning and practicing a language. The grocers, bakers, and butchers often have a poor command of English and are only too happy to pass the time of day in small talk with a curious and friendly customer. Another valuable resource is the local paper, especially the small "human interest" stories, about the child who found her lost pet or the brother and sister reunited after 50 years. These stories can usually be unraveled with a simple dictionary and provide an excellent way of seeing how the local people use their language.

Thirty years ago, an expatriate Australian, I stood shivering under an awning outside the Lausanne central station in Switzerland watching snow, which I had seen for the first time the previous day, falling in great white flakes onto the road in front of me. I felt desperately alone as I contemplated my immediate future in a foreign land about which I knew very little, with only a smattering of poorly remembered schoolboy French to help me.

When I reported for my first day at work and introduced myself to the receptionist, she smiled uncomprehendingly at the sound of my broad Australian accent and called in a secretary who spoke perfect English. This one also found my accent incomprehensible and in desperation called one of my future colleagues-a jovial Welshman who was happy to translate my broad vowels. My pride was deeply hurt and I resolved to learn to speak French as quickly as possible.

In Australia I had avidly followed the English television series about the French detective Maigret, based on the novels by the Belgian writer Georges Simenon. I bought a number of paperbacks in the original language and read them at night with a dictionary by my side. During the day I practiced the phrases I had learned the night before on my workmates, whose patience proved almost boundless.

Saturday was market day and the farmers who brought their produce to sell on the street had little knowledge of English. My purchase of a pound of carrots became a lesson in language and culture. As my confidence and fluency increased, I visited the local bars and dance clubs, finding companionship with non-English speaking locals. Within a few months, my French was fluent.

After two years in Lausanne, I took a job in a small village near Utrecht in the Netherlands. I was determined to learn Dutch the way I had learned French, but this proved to be more difficult. Many Dutch speak flawless English, but they are also immensely proud of their own language. My attempts at stammering conversation on the first day were meticulously dissected. I had to repeat "Goede Morgen," trying to reproduce the guttural "g" sound, until it seemed afternoon was approaching.

Holland is a land of bicyclists, and I soon found myself cycling around the countryside visiting small neighboring villages, where conversation in Dutch became much easier. Utrecht has a wonderful market on Saturdays and once again the stall holders proved excellent teachers. Newspapers were also a help-reading simple phrases helped me to visualize the complicated vowel structure of the Dutch language. However, despite my best efforts, it was many years before my friends accepted that I really could speak Dutch. The ultimate test was to repeat "Schoon Schiffs von Scheveningen" to their satisfaction.

My next move was to Munich, and I was careful to study the language before my arrival. Since many Dutch words have close equivalents in German, I gained a basic vocabulary reasonably quickly. On my first day at work my new colleagues seemed delighted to be able to converse with me, albeit haltingly, in their own language. I felt ready to tackle life in my new environment.

Beer Garden Bavarian

There was only one catch. Munich is in Bavaria, and the Bavarian dialect is difficult, even for other Germans. Although my work colleagues were happy to speak "high" German at work, on the streets it was a different matter. Although I never fully mastered the dialect, I learned enough to enjoy the unique Bavarian sense of humor during many riotous evenings in the beer gardens around Munich. On one occasion I found myself in Hamburg, attending a Bavarian play. Sitting next to me was a local family who were completely perplexed by the humor and were grateful that I could explain some of it to them in the interval.

My experiences have taught me the value of jumping in and speaking with people across the language barrier. Young children do this with ease. The key to success is to discard any prejudice about how a language should sound. Become "as a child" and allow the inner ear to absorb the sounds and the vocal chords to repeat them. This requires a good deal of patience and perseverance, from both the speaker and the listener. Application and a good deal of imagination are required, but rich rewards in friendship and cultural awareness await those who put aside their inhibitions and try.

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