Learning another language one phrase at a time

The importance of incremental learning, whether at home or away

Our first morning in Paris, I was so nervous at the local bakery (ahem, boulangerie) that I looked up how to order and literally texted myself, je voudrais une baguette et deux croissants* so I’d have it on hand. I repeated this over and over on my walk. That first morning, I felt terribly uncomfortable while fumbling through my order, but I kept at it each day and was excited whenever the baker responded en français though it was usually en anglais, bless my heart. Flash forward a month and I had plenty more phrases in my back pocket, but the trick, I learned, was to focus on learning one phrase at a time.

The prospect of learning a new language can be daunting. For anyone who has a strain of perfectionism in them, allowing for close-but-not-quite-right can be a mighty feat. But just like you learned your first language over time, you can begin with the basics to learn another language.

I’ve found that focusing on one phrase at a time builds confidence, hopefully paving the way to (eventual!) fluency. Reviewing vocabulary words in a new language probably won’t do you much good, unless you have significant time to memorize them. Even then, it’s more helpful to know a few questions and greetings essential for travel instead of random terms that you’ll likely never use on your first trip. My mom still remembers how to say “la neige est belle aujourd’hui” (i.e., the snow is beautiful today) from studying French in high school. Decades later, she still hasn’t used it in an actual context.

There are many tools out there to help with learning a language, many of them free. (My favorite is DuoLingo). But the best thing you can do is simply to start talking, listening, and putting yourself out there… and allowing yourself to make mistakes. Take advantage of being in a place to practice your language aloud instead of turning to judgment-free reading material or online tools instead. It’s easy to hole yourself away even while traveling and keep thinking you’ll use the language once you learn a few more words or phrases. But I’d say the best way is to practice in real life and listen as much as you can to your surroundings.

While at home, there are ways to regularly immerse yourself, even if only once a month. Are there local neighborhoods, shops, or restaurants where you can listen and learn from another more prevalent language closer to home? Have you searched for public radio programming from other countries online? For instance, Radio France. Or have you streamed any international films on Netflix? We enjoyed a date night before traveling re-watching Amélie, keeping the subtitles in French. We didn’t understand word for word, but we followed along and processed some of it. These tactics aren’t highly interactive, but they’re still a start and might increase your comprehension.

So put yourself out there with speaking a language and try your best, even if your best isn’t very good.  You’ll eventually feel more comfortable and speed up your learning too.

*I later learned that saying “je voudrais” for “I would like” quickly pegs you as a tourist. One local told me to just say what I’d like, as in “une baguette et deux croissants” instead. Et voilà!


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