Earlier, we looked at the importance of finding an interpreter when you’re doing business in another culture. You’ll want some knowledge of the local language when you’re ordering food at a business lunch or participating in a meeting. Knowing the language makes day-to-day life much easier if you spend time in the new country (perhaps even living there).
But who has time to learn a new language when starting to run a business in a new country? You do. Make time, because it’s not as hard as it might seem at first. Here are some tips for becoming fluent faster.
First, understand “fluency” vs “accuracy”
When you are striving for fluency, it’s important to distinguish between fluency and accuracy. Fluency is the ability to make yourself understood and to understand others in your chosen language. It means using the language smoothly in real-time.
Accuracy is the ability to use just the right word in precisely the right way. Accuracy is correct and precise. It means communicating without any grammatical, vocabulary, connotative, or other errors.
Most people find that accuracy comes after fluency. Many people do not use their native language with perfect accuracy. Focusing too much on accuracy can make you sound stilted and academic. Worse, it slows your learning. You can get your meaning across, and understand others, even if you make mistakes.
Children learn a language easily and naturally because they’re not afraid to make mistakes. Just as we expect children to make mistakes, so are you as a new language learner—try to become a little less self-conscious. Mistakes can be a powerful way to learn to “do this, not that” in a new language. Resist shaming yourself or feeling embarrassed.
Avoid serious mistakes by focusing on the most important aspects of a language first.
Learn the most important things first
In every language, some words, and some grammatical rules, are more important than others. The most common words and phrases are the ones to learn first, as are words specific to your business or industry. Verbs such as “to be” and “to have,” correct article usage (“the,” and “a,” especially in a gendered language), and words for foods you like (or are allergic to). Of course, “please,” “thank you,” and “excuse me” can smooth over many awkward situations.
Learn the most common and serious mistakes that people make when learning a language, and phrases to avoid. A teacher, formal learning program, and similar aids can help, but so can simply listening to native speakers.
Immerse yourself as much as possible
Fluency comes more quickly if you surround yourself with your chosen language. Read newspapers and magazines in that language. Watch short videos, first with subtitles, then without. Spend time in a neighborhood coffee shop, simply listening. TuneIn’s website can help you find live feeds on the internet for radio stations in dozens of languages.
At first, you will not understand. That’s all right. Listening to native speakers and reading publications by native writers will help you identify common words and phrases—the “important” words mentioned above. It will train your brain to hear and understand the language. When you combine this with formal language lessons, you will advance much more quickly.
Learn the hardest parts, and practice them
Every language has aspects that are difficult for speakers of other languages. These might be words, grammatical rules, or even certain sounds. For example, a common sticking point for non-English speakers is the way English uses definite and indefinite articles (“the book” or “an item”). English speakers have difficulty with certain sounds in other languages, such as the Spanish trilled “rr” and long vowels in Japanese.
French has different verb forms for polite use with strangers and familiar use with friends. In Russian, the same syllable is pronounced differently depending on whether it is stressed or unstressed. Spanish has two versions of the verb “to be” (Japanese has three), which are used in different ways. These can be very confusing to native speakers of English, which doesn’t have these forms.
Identify the parts of your chosen language that are difficult for you, and practice them as much as possible. Flashcards, a friendly native speaker, or a learning buddy can help with that.
Ask for help
There are many sources of help to learn a new language. Language study sites online can connect you with learning buddies, tutors, and clubs for almost any language. Of course, there are language apps such as Rosetta Stone and Duolingo. Friends and co-workers in your new country will help you understand tricky aspects of their language or culture. Don’t be afraid to ask them for help if you’re not sure about something.
Ease with the local language has real value both in your business and in your everyday life. Fluency isn’t hard to gain with the will and the right tools, with a high return on investment for your time and money.