My Personal Top 10 Tips for Learning a Language

Learning a foreign language: By many, especially English native speakers, seen as either a “hopeless endeavour” – since you’re not going to speak it like a native anyway, why even try – ¬†or as “pointless”, be it because they don’t intend to live abroad anyway or because they believe nearly everyone speaks their language anyway. Personally, I sincerely enjoy learning languages, and find it very useful too (more concrete reasons why I love languages in a post to be followed…). By now, at age 21, I’m fluent in German (great, that) and English, and very good at both Spanish and French. In case you’re also aiming at improving one or more of your language, or learning one from scratch, I’d like to share some tips to you that have proven most useful over the years to improve. These are to be seen apart from very obvious things like taking a language class or buying a book that teaches you how to.

language1.) Read Рbut according to your level! 

You’re former language teacher at school might have told you this: Reading is great for improving a language, for increasing and consolidating your vocabulary, and improving your feel for the language. However, what teachers often miss out on, is that it’s indispensable to base the choice of your reading material on your personal level. It is no wonder that people feel resigned and frustrated when trying to digest some sort of sophisticated magazines after having learned the language only for a few months. It is much better to read books for children, for example, or books especially written for learners.

2.) Read out loud

While reading, it is also very to useful to actually read out loud. Once you have learnt how the consonants and vowels are pronounced, what you need is practice – and practicing in the safe environment of your room gives your mouth the opportunity of getting used to the new sounds.

3.)¬†Write words you can’t remember on post its

It should be clear that it’s a good idea to write words you don’t know down – I’ve also found it really useful, however, to write those persistent words that keep reoccurring anywhere but in your mind on post its. Post them in front of your desk, on the door, the mirror, pretty much anywhere – if you keep looking at them, you will be bound to remember them (some day).

4.)¬†Write a diary/story/blog in the language you’re learning

I guess this blog is the best example of how writing a diary/story/blog or whatever in the language you’re learning can help you. While my English hasn’t improved massively in the two weeks or so that I’m writing this blog, I do look up words every now and then or check the grammar, and that is after having learned it for 10 years! In the beginning phase, you’re most likely not going to feel confident enough to start a blog – write a diary instead! You will find yourself getting much more used to the language, learning more words and consolidating them straight away.

5.) Try thinking in the same language or inventing conversations in your mind

Quite similar is the idea of trying to think in a foreign language. It might seem like a strange idea, but it is possible if you remind yourself not to let your mind wander back to your own language. Again, look up words you don’t know in the dictionary, and try to write them down if they’re common. If you don’t know what to think about, just make up conservations in your mind. The good think is: It’s for free and you can very conveniently use it to kill some time in the tube or waiting or whatever.

6.) Watch movies with subtitles in the same language

Watching movies is probably one of the most enjoyable ways of learning/improving a language. However, many people make the mistake (in my opinion) of turning on subtitles in their own language. That way, you’re much more likely to read along the subtitles than actually listen to what’s being said. My advice: as soon as your level is at least intermediate, choose the subtitles in the original language!

7.) Actually live in a country where the language is spoken

This is probably the ultimate, and most obvious, tip for learning a language. While it is possible to bring your language up to quite a high level by using all the other tips, and taking language classes, really mastering a language is, in my opinion, only possible if you actually live in the country. That is, if you actually talk to locals and immerse yourself in the culture (see my older post: https://strollingtheworld.wordpress.com/2013/12/29/5-personal-tips-for-living-abroad/ )

8.) Do a language exchange/meet-up

This is useful both if you do, and if you don’t live in the country where your aspired language is spoken. Language exchange, are one-to-one meetings, whereas in language “meet-up” people learning different languages can meet and practice. Both are great for practicing, and also a great way for meeting new people.

9.) Give yourself an incentive

Without incentive, why learn a language? Make sure you know why exactly you’re learning the language, and write down the main reason so that there are readily available to you as a reminder. If you can’t live in a country where the language is spoken, at least book a holiday to it so that you have a short-term incentive for learning it!

10.) Don’t give up!

Learning a language isn’t easy and takes a lot of time, but it’s a great feeling when you realize that you can actually watch a film and understand it, or have a conversation with a stranger when on holiday!

PS: Do you think these tips are useful? What are your tips for learning a language?

Why Living in London Isn’t as Great as You Might Think

When I received a confirmation for a place at a renowned university in London two years ago, to say I was excited is an understatement. London. Described by many as the “most exciting city in the world”, second only to New York, maybe. Before packing my bags and leaving to London for good, I had only been there once, years earlier, with my parents. At the time, I was a teenage girl from a small village, in expedition to the “big city”. I loved every moment of it. The people from all over the world, the beautiful buildings and skyscrapers, the typical double-decker buses, the red phone cells. I felt like an extra in my beloved Harry Potter movies. At least that’s the way I remember it now – we all know memories start to shift and get distorted and look all rosy in hindsight.

Two years into my three years degree, my rose-tinted glasses have disappeared, the thrill of the “big city” had gone. I’m not trying to say that I don’t enjoy my time here, or that I regret going to university here. But I also think that London isn’t a city for everyone, and that there are many things to take into careful consideration before deciding to live here.¬†

London is expensive

I know this is a generally well-known fact, and something that (I thought) I was well aware of. However, what most people don’t realize is just how expensive London is, and what sort of impact this has on your day-to-day life. While my friends were staying in beautiful rooms in the centre of metropolitan cities like Berlin or Hamburg, I was paying two to three times as much for a tiny room (more like a box room, one might say) in the basement of an old, run-down building 40min away from uni, right next to a noisy road. And I actually spent these 40min walking back and forth to university because the travel card is so expensive.¬†

The nightlife isn’t as great as you might think.¬†

Speaking of money: you can easily spend 15-20 pounds only to enter a common night club – it is best to not even think about buying drinks there. The common solution therefore is to get drunk before going out – at which point you will realize that British tax regulation make that it isn’t possible to come by a bottle of red wine for less than ¬£5, for example. To top it off, most night clubs will kick you out at 3am, pubs even at 11pm during the week.

 

Expensive prices don’t mean higher salaries

A common misconception about London is that, as everything is so expensive, the employers are going to make up for it by increasing salaries, too. While it may be true that manager salaries in London are sky-high, this does by no means apply to any type of “unlearned work”, e.g. in hospitality or retail. Most employers merely pay the minimum wage, which is set incredibly low at ¬£6.31.

I lived with an Italian couple last year. Both had a good degree from a good university, but both didn’t get a “proper” job, so ended up working in a restaurant. What did this mean? They lived together in a tiny room, consisting of a bed and a bed side table, in a shared apartment in Zone 3, working 6 days a week and hardly able to afford anything. Does living in London really make up for that?

London isn’t big. It’s¬†huge.

London is the biggest city in Europe, more than 10 Million people live there. While most people are aware of this, what does it really mean? It doesn’t only mean that there are endless sights, museums, and areas to explore. It also means that you will, usually, not be able to even live one day without using the tube, or bus, or taxi. You will take the tube to work, to go out, to meet friends, to go shopping. Personally, I love getting to places by foot. In London, however, this is impossible: Even if you live in the centre, your friends, colleagues, acquaintances, family members will be scattered all over town, and you will spend your time getting pushed and stepped upon by hundreds of sweaty people hundreds of meters under the surface of the earth.

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As said above: I am still in love with and excited by London, its internationality and diversity. I’m just trying to convey the message that it isn’t all as bright and shiny as sometimes conveyed by media or friends, and that moving to London isn’t for everyone. After my graduation, I can say without doubt that my way is going to lead me somewhere else.

All the things that can go wrong when travelling solo…

…. Combined in one journey, from Mexico to Costa Rica. This is probably the ultimate blog to discourage anyone who intends to travel alone from actually doing it. Just the intention of my blog, right? But, on the other hand, people seem to love hearing about people’s horrible stories rather than the fun ones. I do, anyway.

anger

(how I felt during, and after, the journey)

¬†So, where to begin? It all started in Mexico City, in Mexico (who would have thought that). Well, my journey didn’t start there, but the trouble definitely did. So I was in this huge, gigantic, loud, nerve-racking city for a couple of days before heading to Panama. Better to say, I was heading to Panama, but taking the detour via Costa Rica because the flight was much cheaper.

IMG_0718¬†¬†So there I was: A 20-year-old girl from Germany with a huge backpack, a ticket to San Jos√© (Costa Rica) and a ticket from Panama to Germany in the airport of Mexico City, one of the busiest in the world. Of course, I arrive one hour rather than the recommended three hours prior to departure. Standing breathlessly in front of the counter after sprinting through half the airport, a very kind man explains to me that the only way I can enter a plane to Costa Rica is by having a ticket that proves I intend to leave the country, be it by plane, bus or boat. Apparently a ticket from Panama back to Europe isn’t sufficient (right, I really wasn’t going to use it…). And ¬†my explanation that buying a bus ticket from Costa Rica to Panama isn’t possible online doesn’t cut it either. No, the friendly man insists, I need a ticket before he can check in my luggage. But hey, why don’t I buy a return ticket to Mexico? Right, I’ve already got a ticket back to Germany, but no, it doesn’t matter whether I actually intend to use it.

So, I’ve got 15min left. Rather than giving in and buying a pointless return ticket to Mexico, I decide to find Internet to buy a flight ticket from Costa Rica to Panama (makes more sense, right?). After realizing that there really isn’t wireless internet everywhere in the airport, I eventually find it downstairs near the exit. Incredibly self-conscious of my brand new MacBook, I sit down and hectically type in random words related to Costa Rica, Panama, buses and flights. It’s been far too long before I realize that my 15min are more than up.

Back with the friendly man, I find out that unsurprisingly it’s way too late to check in. But, he assures me, I can buy a ticket for the next day. And, how cheap! (sarcasm) But apparently my Spanish is excellent, at least. That really cheers me up, thanks.

So I do that, head back to the city, return to my hostel, book another night, and realize:

Take the recommended “prior to departure” time seriously. There is a reason for it.

and:

Google entry requirements for a country you’ve never been to. Your wallet will thank you.

So I go online, book a flight ticket from Costa Rica to a small island in Panama. In one of these super-cute, super-dangerous planes where about 20 people fit in.

The next day, I’m allowed on the plane (hurray!). When I arrive in San Jos√©, the next ordeal begins. Despite having booked a hostel and having written the address down (a mile stone in terms of organization, I thought!), I have no idea how to find it. Someone explains the really interesting street system with odd and even numbers in ascending and descending order to me. While my mood is slowly getting better as my odds of actually finding the place are going up, I decide to stop on the way to get some money. After all, I’ve only got 10 dollars left. All the greater my disbelief when something like this shows up instead of my money: “Su tarjeta est√° inv√°lida” (Your card is invalid). At the next 20 cash points, this message alternates with “Este servicio no est√° disponible” (This service is not available).

During another 30min uphill to the hostel with my 20kg backpack and empty stomach (I was saving my money for the hostel rather than food), it comes to me:

Bring a credit card when abroad. Your debit card will not always be sufficient. Bonus: This simple trick will save you from sleeping on the street.

As 1,035,353 people have told me since then, that’s common sense. Thanks, now I know that too.

Finally in the hostel, I use Skype to call my bank in Germany to ask them why on earth my debit card isn’t working when it’s supposed to. Oh, apparently it has to be “unlocked” for certain countries/continents. After a 10min discussion of whether Costa Rica belongs to Central or South America, my debit card is supposedly “unlocked” and I head back to the city. Maybe you can guess the message I get trying the first cash point (“Su tarjeta est√° inv√°lida.”). Great. The messages I get at the next 20 cash points don’t serve to making me anymore hopeful. At the verge of freaking out, I try, without much hope, yet another one. And yes, the miracle happens! Money comes out!

Saved from sleeping on the street, I joyfully stroll the streets of San José and enjoy some fast food.

The next morning, it is yet again time to get up early to get a flight (third time in a row, if I count right). As it’s still dark outside, I decide to order a taxi. After having spent my last money on the taxi fair (speaking Spanish doesn’t always save you from getting ripped off), I arrive at the smallest airport I’ve ever been to. Merely bigger than my living room at home, it comprises a couple of benches and a “cafeteria”, basically serving coffee and scrambled eggs.

Happy about being on time for once, and thinking that I’ve definitely had too much bad luck the previous couple of days to have any more, I enjoy my false sense of security. Until I head to the check-in counter and learn that there is a 30 dollar fee to pay for entering Panama. No problem, I say, you surely have a cash point? You might be able to guess: They don’t. And I have, once again, only 10 dollars left. But hey, this once again friendly guys responds: “You must have a credit card on you, right?”. While I’m torn between hitting this innocent man and begging my fellow travellers for money, it hits me:

BRING A CREDIT CARD. DON’T BE AN IDIOT.

If nothing, I think this message really got to me in the end.

However, I was right for one thing: My streak of bad luck had finished. Finally. At watching my growing despair, the guy asks without much hope, whether I know my credit card details, even if I don’t have it on me. And, although I don’t even have a credit card, the miracle happens: I remember my mum’s credit card details. The credit card number, the security code, even the expiry date. Possibly a moment when I started believing in God again.

If you’re scatty enough to forget your credit card, at least remember the credit card details.

IMG_0819  To finally finish this (way too long) post, I safely arrived with exactly 12 fellow passengers in Panama, and most of the remaining journey went (relatively) smoothly. And, despite fearing for my life and safety quite a few times, and getting upset about my own stupidity, I definitely learned more than one lesson on my journey from Mexico to Panama.

PS: Did you enjoy this post? Have you had similarly troublesome journeys?