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Guest Post: Speaking a Foreign Language

Marina Guest Blogger

We are very excited to have Marina Khonina guest blogging for us. Marina is currently living in Istanbul, Turkey, where she is completing a graduate degree in Byzantine history.  She relocated to Istanbul after a three-year stint as an English-Russian conference interpreter for the U.N. in Kyrgyzstan.  She is determined to conquer the fear of speaking French, Modern Greek, Turkish, and eventually Brazilian Portuguese. Her languages of choice, however, are Ancient Greek and Esperanto (probably due to the limited number of native speakers). Marina shares a great story below.

The bus was about to make a turn, taking us away from the restaurant where we had been planning to have our lunch. My brother nudged me, “Tell the driver to stop!” It was raining in Istanbul–one of those miserable mid-January rains–and walking back to the spot we were now passing as helpless captives of our Turkish driver was not an enjoyable prospect.  I gathered my courage and begged the driver, timidly, “Can you stop here, please?”

“Yabancı! Foreigners!” his eyes flashed, yet he seemed to understand my plea and opened the doors.  Relieved, we stepped out in front of the coveted eatery in Ortaköy, a lovely spot in my beloved city.

While it is true that we are foreigners here, you would expect that after nearly two years in Istanbul I would be able to address bus drivers in their language.  Somehow, it rarely happens.  It is not that I never bothered to learn the language of this country.  Quite the contrary, I arrived enthusiastic about finally being able to delve into a non Indo-European tongue.  I have diligently (if somewhat haphazardly) completed several textbooks in Turkish.  I can follow a general conversation and, on my better days, even understand the news.  My love of cooking led me to learn the names of the most obscure ingredients and spices, and I can generally bluff my way through everyday interactions.  But I’m still terrified of opening my mouth and producing some gibberish.

It’s not that I’m afraid of being laughed at.  Turks are disarmingly easygoing about foreigners speaking their language.  When you make a mistake, they laugh with you, rather than at you.  What frightens me is finding myself in an awkward situation, not unlike the one I experienced in Greece some years ago.

Eager to try out my newly-acquired foreign tongue in Athens, I asked a shop-owner in impeccable Greek, “Poso kaneis?”  He gave me a puzzled look and suggested that we switch to English.  It was only on my way home that I realized that, by inserting the “-s” at the end of the word, I actually inquired the poor chap about how much he would cost!  Had I said “Poso kanei?” it would have been clear that I was referring to the blouse displayed in his shop.  I left Greece without a new blouse and with a reinforced awareness of the distinction between second and third person singular.  And with a reinforced fear of speaking, alas!

It would be appropriate to conclude this tragic tale by lamenting my self-imposed handicap.  Woe unto me, a poor polyglot who can learn any language but can speak none.  And then, can I claim to have learned a language if I had never used it in a real, extensive interaction?

Pity the poor language-learner, except… I seem to have found a cure!  The fear of encountering real native-speakers is, essentially, a self-delusion.  After all, we can be expected to make mistakes in a new language.  Awkward situations are part of the learning experience.  No matter how good your textbook, software, or teacher is (and there are truly excellent ones out there), thinking that you can reach the stage when you are able to flawlessly converse with the natives without any previous interaction is a delusion, and a dangerous one at that.

Since you are already misguided about your language ability, why not try replacing one delusion with another,  more productive one?  Why not pretend that you already speak the language?  If that is too difficult to imagine, place yourself in a situation where you would have no choice but maintain this pretense.  Make new friends among expats and tell them that you speak the local language.  You’ll be forced to interact with the waiters and ask for directions in the street.  Better yet, get a job or open a business in your target country.  Now, going jobless or finding yourself bankrupt is quite some motivation, even for the most hardened language perfectionists.

It certainly helped me.  In fact, this realization has been crucial for getting me out into the real world and helping me interact with the natives.

This was exactly how, seven years after my fateful encounter with the Greek shopkeeper, I found myself atop Mount Lykabettus in Athens one evening, speaking to a lone icon-seller.  In Greek.  The old man was delighted to encounter a Byzantinist from “Konstantinoupoli” (i.e. Istanbul) speaking his native tongue, and, while I’m sure I must have made a fair number of blunders while speaking, it was a thrilling experience!  I have a Greek icon of St George on my bookshelf to prove it.

Two weeks ago, quite unexpectedly, I found myself roaming the streets of Istanbul chattering in Turkish with concierges, maitre d’s, spice sellers at the Egyptian Bazaar, and, most thrillingly, phaeton-drivers and sellers of thermal underwear (don’t ask!).  Surely, some of these interactions had been quite awkward, but I’ve made plenty of friends along the way and my Turkish improved tremendously.  The secret?  I volunteered to show the best of Istanbul to a small group of Russian tourists and found myself forced to use Turkish in order not to lose face—and to be able to get to (and into) the places where I wanted to take these visitors.

Unfortunately (or, perhaps, fortunately), such extreme experiences as climbing mountaintops and guiding helpless tourists are few and far between.  Most days are far less exciting.  So how can a fearful language-learner get out of the shell and into the brave new world of communicating with native speakers?  You can start by speaking to yourself first.  Shadowing (listening to a recording in a foreign language while repeating, simultaneously, what is being said) is excellent for getting your vocal organs used to the movements needed to produce sounds in the new tongue.  Done frequently, it also helps you get used to hearing yourself produce foreign sounds.  Be bold!  Imagine that you’re an actor imitating the native speaker.  Don’t be afraid of overdoing it.  Emphasize each sound and intonation.  Have fun with it!

The next step is to start talking to yourself in the foreign language.  You may find that it’s best not to do this in public (although shadowing while walking in the park, as advised by Prof. Arguelles, may have more benefits to it than simply getting some exercise and fresh air).  Narrate your experiences while you go about your everyday tasks.  If you are looking for your socks, for example, ask yourself, in your new language, “Where are my socks? Could they be in this drawer? Or has the dog eaten them?”  Have you ever noticed how small children tend to talk to themselves while playing?  This is their way of “growing into” their native language.  Be like a child and play with the language, its various sounds and meanings.  If you’re uncomfortable with speaking to yourself, why not try talking to your cat or dog instead?  They’ll surely appreciate the attention.

Eventually, there will come a time when you’ll need to use the language without the “training wheels” of shadowing or solitary soliloquies.  If you’re like me, you’ll never feel quite “ready” to face the real world of native speakers.  Gently force yourself into it.  Take up a job that would make interacting with non-native speakers essential.  Sign up for a cooking class with the locals.  Join a sports team.  The best thing, of course, is to move to a remote village and try to integrate.  The latter can be a lot of fun, but is certainly not for the easily discouraged.  Whatever you decide, make a commitment to regularly step out of your comfort zone and use the language in increasingly diverse situations.  When it gets difficult, remind yourself, “I’m just bluffing it,” and enjoy the game!

You are likely to feel a certain amount of stress doing these activities, but this will only enhance your learning.  We tend to remember things better when they are linked to emotional experiences.  What can be more emotional than telling the coachman to get the horses to slow down, lest you fall out of the carriage and down the cliff into the raging sea?

Most importantly, remember to have fun.  After all, one of the best things about learning to speak a foreign language is the outrageously funny stories you’ll be able to tell your friends back home.  So start collecting yours today!

Do you have any stories you want to share? Please comment!

Meet the Author

  • View 6 Comments
    • Hi Marina ,
      this is a quite encouraging post of yours.
      My experience on the subject is quite different , though I am almost bilingual , but not really.
      I spoke Russian as a native tongue…but that was too many years ago. Since then I have been in Russia two times. The first one I managed to refresh my speaking capacities…Actually I was motivated to start leaning it again. After a year with private lessons , I visited again St Petersbourg …This time I could speak for the basic needs of communication, but not fluently though.
      The problem is that my teacher was trying to follow standard courses and not focusing on conversation. The lessons were conducted almost in Greek …Today I think that the only way to reach fluency is to get with russophones , but I really do not have many chances in the city I live in Greece….Until then , I hope to try having a conversations in Russian via Skype with my friends there…

    • Dear Marina,

      I agree with you totally: putting yourself in a situation where you have to speak and talking to yourself in the second language. When I was in my late teens I lived in Taiwan and had to speak Mandarin Chinese to get my job done. I was a teacher and had a set of 45 minute lessons to present. Each time before I would give a lesson, I felt like I would die of embarassment but found that people were quite willing to work with me and made me feel that all my hours of self preparation were worth it. My version of talking to myself occurred (and still occurs to some degree or another) when I would reherse what I would say when I would be doing X, Y or Z and what the people I would meet might say, and then what I would then say in return. I would reherse and reherse these imaginary conversations right up until I needed to speak. Of course things never happened exactly as planned, but I had much more confidence than I would have had otherwise. Now, nearly 40 years later I am living in Hong Kong where everyone is trying to master the national dialect. Since I alreay speak it, I shine most of the time. I continue to love to learn and speak Chinese.

    • Would you please translate your website into Italian because I’m not so comfortable reading it in English? I’m getting tired of using Google Translate all the time, there is a handy WP plugin called like global translator which will render all your posts by default- that would make reading posts on your great blog even more enjoyable. Cheers dude, Kendall Bulter!


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