7 Tips to Supercharge Your Second Language

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By Melissa Dedina
Photo credit: Christian Haugen

Language classes are fantastic. I know I could never have learned my second language without a textbook and a teacher to go through it with me, because that’s just how my brain works.

However, I did eventually get to the point where the classroom setting couldn’t teach me much more, and more importantly, if I had to memorize another list of words (and make example sentences from them!) I was going to poke my eyes out.

I have known people who were disciplined enough to literally sit down with the dictionary and memorize vocabulary from it, but along my language journey I made an essential discovery: I am a slacker.

What follows is a list of some of the things I did next, all of which I found more entertaining than sitting down with my arch-enemy, the dictionary. They helped me leave the entry-hall of “intermediate” and actually join the (in my case) Czech-speaking world.

Many of these suggestions aim to increase cultural competency as well as language competency. It’s hard to fully appreciate one without having the other – no matter how well you know the words and structures of the language, if all your cultural references are to your home culture, people will still have trouble understanding you! Plus, no matter how much you know about the culture, if you don’t speak the language well, you won’t understand its heart.

This series of articles will appear on Multilingual Living in conjunction with Language Refresh 101, which is all about how to strengthen a faltering language.

Below is the third in this series of posts on how to improve a second language, this time supercharging it in fun and fascinating ways:

1.    Do your hobbies in your second language: join a band, read knitting articles, whatever.  I know a couple of people who moved to a new country and joined a band and they were conversational incredibly quickly, because they had to be! Play a computer game in the other language (make sure it is actually in the language and not the English version in local packaging – it usually says on the box). Read blogs, not about language, but in the language. Learn to cook the culture’s food from a cookbook in the language. Whatever you enjoy, find a way to do it in your new language.

2.       As a corollary to that, if you don’t enjoy something, don’t press yourself to do it! Don’t enjoy reading?  Don’t knock yourself out trying to read a novel if you aren’t having fun.  Go rock climbing with some friends (and preferably instructor!) speaking the second language instead.

3.       Learn nursery rhymes, folk/children’s songs, fairy tales. Useful if you have kids, plus extra points for cultural references.

4.       If you really want to learn a list, learn idioms.  I haven’t done very well on this point, frankly, but I do remember the pleased comments from a friend when I used “jednou za uherský rok” (lit. once in a Hungarian year, fig. once in a blue moon) in a sentence.  I gained some credibility with him that day.

5.       Learn about your language’s sense of humor and try to adapt to it. Slapstick humor in a society that values sarcasm and black humor might not get many laughs.  Does the national sense of humor tend toward the earthy or the cerebral?  Knock knock jokes or puns?  Self-deprecation or self-promotion?  Listen to the types of humor people use and learn to use them, too.

6.       Banter and make silly jokes (good place to practice some of the above points, for example) – look for openings for even one-word jokes based on timing and context. This is good for your self-esteem especially as a beginner and reminds people you have a personality hidden under the language barrier. At the same time try to avoid your inadequate language making your joke come out sounding harsher or more offensive, etc., than you intended.  See above re: adapting to that culture’s sense of humor.

7.       Learn and make plays on words! This is really good for helping you learn the infinite possibilities of the language, and it also helps convince people that you really do speak it.  This may be more of an issue with some languages than others.  Also, learn which words have double meanings, negative or not, so you can use them or not as you choose.  A deliberate pun capitalizing on a word with a double meaning is one thing – accidentally saying you’re pregnant or talking about inappropriate body parts without realizing it is quite another!

I hope you enjoyed these 7 tips for how to supercharge your second language in fun and enjoyable ways. Stay tune for the next post in this series!

Have you implemented any of the suggestions listed in this post? How did they work for you? Do you have additional tips and suggestions for how we can improve our languages with the help of fun resources? Share it in the comments section!

Melissa Dedina is an American married to a Slovak, based in Prague, Czech Republic, raising a 3.5 year old daughter with English, Slovak and Czech. Melissa speaks English and Czech and understands Slovak, her husband speaks Slovak and English (and Czech, French, Hungarian and some Russian), and their daughter K speaks English and Slovak-Czech. You can follow their language learning and language mixing experiences at Where Going Havo?

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