Going abroad and immersing oneself in a country of native speakers is the fastest and most effective way to learn a new language.
Going abroad and immersing oneself in a country of native speakers is the fastest and most effective way to learn a new language. Many go off with the dream of attaining complete fluency and speaking like a pro, but getting to that point is a long, tedious process that takes millions of mistakes along the way. The prospect of making such mistakes and sounding like an idiot is often the most daunting obstacle for learners and hinders them from speaking the language as much as they could.
During my first few months in Madrid, I was also intimidated by this predicament, hesitant to speak Spanish and often cutting conversations short in order to prevent myself from making mistakes. This is obviously not productive for advancing my language skills, but thankfully a few simple realizations helped me get over this anxiety and made me more willing to speak to others and improve my conversation skills.
The principal objective of language is communication, not proficiency or perfection. The entire point of picking up a new language is to be able to talk to people and not simply sound good speaking in a foreign tongue. In any language, people just want to know what you have to say and once you’ve communicated the intended message your interaction is successful, all pronunciation and grammar mistakes aside.
In many metropolitan cities, you’ll be lucky to find yourself in a type of Babel as is the case with most major European capitals. With the ease and capacity to traverse across all the countries of the European Union, many Europeans have the basic gist and ability to speak multiple Western languages. An Italian friend I met in Lisbon told me he speaks Italian, English, Spanish, Portuguese and German. But he didn’t mean that he speaks all of them completely and perfectly. It just means he’s able to talk to people in these languages and communicate his thoughts and get around. Our conversation often changed from English to Spanish and was liberally sprinkled with Italian phrases, as is the case with most conversations I have with Europeans. Like my talented friend, all you need is a working knowledge of the language and that’s enough to kick off your interactions and do what you need to do. The minor improvements come with the multiple interactions you have along the way.
Just as English speakers—particularly Americans—deploy a cascade of grammatical errors in our casual conversations unknowingly, most native speakers of any language don’t speak with the perfect grammar new learners aim for. For example, bringing to light the constant struggle of whether to use the preterit or imperfect past tense experienced by all newbie Spanish speakers, my friend and I asked our Spaniard friend which one we’re supposed to use when talking about a specific situation. We were pleasantly surprised when he told us that he personally doesn’t know either and he needs to think about it, thus alleviating our trivial preoccupations and perpetual confusion around the past tense. We realized that most people, especially our peers, don’t particularly care about specific conjugations or other minor grammatical issues as long as they understand what we’re trying to say. They just want to talk to us and have an exchange, a realization that is incredibly liberating and should make you more inclined to keep talking. Often, if your friend is nice, he or she will courteously correct your instantaneous mistakes to keep in mind for next time.
No one expects anyone to speak perfectly, other than yourself. Everyone you talk to just wants to know what you’re trying to say. This simple epiphany has helped many of my friends and I get over much of our nervousness when it comes to speaking a foreign language. Concentrating on technicalities often makes you lose the chance to express your thoughts or opinions at the appropriate time. Don’t focus on conjugations or multiple tenses, just work on getting your point across. With practice and the linguistic details you pick up along the way, you’ll find yourself throwing foreign slang terms and colloquial phrases without even thinking about it, just like a native.