Dying of Fire
Trying a New Language
As anyone who has attempted to learn a new language can tell you, book knowledge and actual language usage are two different animals. As a young girl I wanted to be able to communicate with the African people who would come to my father with burns, snake bites and other problems. I thought that it would be nice to be able to meet and greet them and make small talk. So I asked my mother to write down a few phrases I could use, and I practiced them over and over.
One of the sentences was: Nda-fwa mpeyo. Literally this means: I die of cold. It is simply an idiom to say that a person is cold, and not that the person is actually dying. When I finally was brave enough to use the phrase, I botched it by saying, "Nda-fwa mpiya." The woman stared at me in confusion and then laughter. I had said, "I die of fire." I was teased so much about that! I didn't want to try again, being so embarrassed.
When you try to apply the new language, whatever it is, be prepared to be embarrassed, and decide ahead of time to laugh along with the people and try again.
As a young adult I was involved in a language study program in Bangladesh. They had sounds that involved extra air with a consonant. We had to be very careful with certain words. Khabar was the word for food. An airy H in that word needed to be enunciated. If it was not, the word Kobar meant grave. How would you feel if you invited someone to your house for dinner and he told you, "I really like this grave?"
Because of my childhood experience with confusing the words cold and fire, I was especially conscious of enunciating the word for food properly. And, I was also prepared for possible awkwardness culturally if I did not. Hand signals and body motions can help to clarify meaning. For example, having a big smile, and rubbing the tummy to show enjoyment of the food would go a long way to make understanding easier even if the word itself was wrong.
Practice Makes Perfect
Whenever I have traveled to a foreign country for any length of stay, I have tried to learn the basics of the language. The reasons I have done this are
1. to be able to ask for help if I am in trouble
2. to build a friendly relationship with someone, even if I might have to use English later, because they appreciate that you have tried
3. to have a greater understanding of their culture
The way that I have done this is to find a basic language book that has accompanying tapes or c.d's. When I practiced Bengali and Russian, it was with tapes. When I practiced Spanish, it was with c.d's. Whatever method you use, it is important to hear the spoken language and practice phrases over and over until they become automatic to you. Try to make your sounds as much the same as the instructor as possible.
The most effective way to learn a language, when it is possible, is total immersion. This is how you learned your first language. As a child you heard day after day, your mother tongue spoken. You did not automatically understand it. You absorbed it. Your eyes, your ears took in information. Your brain worked until it made sense of it. You understood it before you spoke it. Then you tried, "Dada," and got a wonderful reaction, even if it wasn't "Daddy." Because of the pleasure you felt, you tried again.
When you actually live in the culture where the language is spoken you hear it frequently. Add that experience to your book knowledge and your repetition of tapes or c.d's. It increases your success exponentially! This is what I did during the time I spent in Bangladesh over 40 years ago. I still remember a considerable amount of what I learned. I cannot say that for Russian or Spanish, because I was not in the culture being immersed in language while I was learning.
The less contact you have with people who speak your mother language, the more you will depend upon the new language to communicate. It is a sink or swim type of feeling, but it will work if you have the faith to step out and try it. The rewards of new friendships and relationships far outweigh the embarrassments of errors.