Learning a new language when studying abroad is one of the most important and difficult parts of the experience, especially if you don’t have a background in the language. Furthermore, beyond knowing words and phrases (and, hopefully, eventually reaching a conversational level of linguistic ability), picking up on cultural habits and behaviors is important, too.
I came to the Czech Republic with virtually no linguistic or cultural background. A Czech exchange student from my high school taught me how to say “hello” years ago, which, admittedly, I only remembered because it is also an English word (“ahoj”, pronounced like “ahoy”). I tried to research basic social norms, just to make sure I didn’t do anything inappropriate when I first arrived, but still went in completely unsure how to behave, and with no communication skills at all.
Since beginning my intensive language course (four hours per day of just a language class for the first week, with a second week of the same class overlapping with our regularly scheduled classes), I have been thrown into a completely challenging academic experience: learning a new language that I need to know just to function, which comes from a language family that I have never studied before. Having never studied a Slavic language means that I have no knowledge to start from; my experience learning French after having studied Spanish for many years, for example, was much more straight forward, as the Romantic languages are related and there are many cognates and similarities in language structure.
After a few days of practice, I’ve come up with some tips for learning a new language, especially in the beginning stages:
–After learning the letters, accents, and their respective sounds, study them thoroughly. Without a thorough understanding of these sounds and the ability to procure them quickly, your learning process will delay significantly. Make a strong foundation for language learning by understanding the basic facets of the language. A great way to practice this is to read things in the language as often as possible. When I’m on the metro, walking on the street, seeing or hearing advertisements, etc., I always make a point to try to pronounce written words correctly, and spell spoken words, in my head. It doesn’t matter what the words are or the context in which you see/hear them, it’s just a good idea to practice reading and listening to the language outside the context of a classroom.
–Take note of formal and informal words and forms of address. This is harder for those with no foreign language experience to grasp, as it isn’t really something we have in English, but it will be considered offensive if you use the informal form of a word or address to someone who you would not definitely be on casual terms with. I have several classmates who have been baffled by the dirty looks they’ve gotten after saying “ahoj” to people in public; they don’t realize that using this informal greeting, instead of the formal “dobry den”, is seen as disrespectful and presumptuous when said to someone who isn’t clearly your casual acquaintance.
–Learn basic, essential words and their correct pronunciation for the situations that are applicable to you. It truly is like being deaf when you’re in a public place where you don’t speak the language; at least learn how to say “thank you”, “excuse me”, “yes”, “no”, and “I don’t understand”, and use them when speaking to people in public instead of reverting to English and expecting them to understand you. I know this seems like a self explanatory tip, but it makes a world of difference in the way people view you as a foreigner, as well as your own confidence in situations where you need to navigate on your own.