4 Attitudes to Cultivate in Your Second Language Learning

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By Melissa Dedina
Photo credit: MrsMinifig

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

What follows is the fourth in this series of posts on how to improve a second language, this time taking a look at our attitude:

1.       Do learn to work around things you don’t know how to say, but don’t get so comfy with your workarounds that you forget to learn the real way to say them! This actually happens to me.  I get so used to “my” way of saying something that I sometimes forget that it’s not the real way!

2.       Perfectionists: get over it or life will pass you by! This is easy to say and hard to do if you tend to perfectionism or self-consciousness.  It took me probably a year (maybe more) before I opened my mouth without planning it out at least five minutes in advance – by which time the conversation had usually moved on.  I could only take so much of that before I realized how unlike me it was!  I have a personality, opinions to share, jokes to make, and none of it was coming through because I just sat around smiling instead of talking!  What if I never got any better?  Would I live my whole life keeping my thoughts to myself?  Because that is totally not my style!  So I swallowed my pride and stumbled through conversations for a while, until I really did get better and didn’t have to feel so embarrassed.  We all have to go through it; it’s just part of the process.

3.       Realize that most people believe deep down that their home is the best place on earth.  Even people who complain endlessly about their home still think this.  Convince yourself that it is, too, and if you can’t, at least have the respect not to criticize it in front of them.  Several years I mentioned to a Prague friend that I’d like to go to Vienna, and he asked, “Why would you want to go there?  Prague is better!”  I was surprised and answered that I’d never been to Vienna and I’d heard it was nice and I’d like to go, but it underscored for me how natural and logical he felt it was that Prague is, in fact, the most beautiful city in the world.  In a conversation about European cities with another friend a few years later, when I was more at home in Prague, I mentioned in passing that “Prague, of course, is the most beautiful, but other cities are also lovely…”  My friend couldn’t keep the grin from her face as she said, “I love the way you said that!  It’s so true!”  I gained some credibility that day, too, and I know it affected how she sees me and my place in her country.

4.       Develop an appreciation for the beauty and complexity of the language: word plays, poetry, beautiful prose.  Try to figure out what makes it beautiful.  Just as everybody thinks their own home is the best, in my observation, everybody thinks their own language is the hardest/most beautiful/most complex.  Try to come to a place with your language where you start to really see the beauty and complexity and all its possibilities.  It seems to me that this is an aspect of language that takes a very, very long time to develop fully, perhaps the very last thing that you acquire.  I can see it off in the distance, but I can’t reach it fully yet.  Maybe one day.


I hope you can find as many ways as possible to cultivate these four attitudes into your second language mastery. 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 cultivating good attitudes can help in second language mastery? 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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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Marta May 16, 2011 at 3:56 am

Hi! A very useful post. My favourite tip is number 1, “don’t forget the real way to say things” :). I’ll recommend this article on my blog. Best regards from Barcelona,


2 Anna Maria Moore May 30, 2011 at 4:45 am

Hi Melissa!

I absolutely love your language series and am devouring each one of them. I love learning languages and am working on my 7th, Norwegian. But I find myself getting stuck on so many points that you bring up, such as attitude, relying on your partner, memorizing idioms, etc. I’m tweeting and posting and blogging all of these to share with my readers and fellow expats. Thanks for putting it all out there in a very clear, honest, fun way. Your tips are concise and useful!

Best of luck on your continued language learning adventures!
Anna in Oslo


3 Melissa May 31, 2011 at 8:34 am

Anna – Thanks! I’m really glad you’re finding them useful. You just brightened up my day a bit. 🙂 I know what you mean about getting stuck…I do practice what I preach, but on some of these points it’s very much “practice”, because I haven’t mastered them yet. My husband probably thinks I still ask him too many questions – although these days they’re less “What does ‘monkey’ mean?” and more “What does ‘insert complicated legal term here’ mean?” (I’m a translator.) He really loves that.

Marta – yeah, that one’s a killer. I am really gifted at on-the-fly workarounds, but not so gifted at looking it up later to figure out how REAL people say that. 🙂


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