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Tips for being a non-native speaker

By Noemi Reyes

Going to another country for the first time can be both an exciting and unsettling experience at the same time. When I was seven years old, my mother was presented with the opportunity to move to the US to be close to her mother and pursue a degree. At that age, my siblings and I watched and wondered what it would be like to be in one of the planes dashing across the sky. The curiosity my siblings and I felt overshadowed our reluctance to move to a strange place. Fortunately for my mother, it wasn’t hard to convince us to make such a drastic change.

The day finally came. We boarded the plane and after take off, I stared out of the airplane window overlooking San Juan - the beautiful rich blue waters and sandy beaches. As the waves crashing on the rocks got smaller and harder to see, I felt a sense of adventure, wonder and sadness. I knew it would be a long time before I would take a swim and build castles on my favorite beach again. When we arrived in Chicago, the plane was filled with an overwhelming celebratory applause and after the pilot made his announcements in Spanish, there was a long, monotone announcement in another language – English. They lost me at “Good evening…” The extent of my English was what I picked up in school; “lapiz , pencil; pluma, pen; gallina, chicken; puerta, door. Clearly, I was ill-prepared.

Compounding travel to a foreign land with not knowing the language spoken there can be quite un-nerving. When I first arrived in the US, I was amazed at how unfamiliar everything was. It was quite a shock to not hear my language as often as I did previously, and hear so many other languages spoken by so many others. It can be a thrilling experience and yet, feeling isolated isn’t uncommon.

I learned a few tricks along the way that helped me learn the language and feel connected:

Tip #1 - Listen to the radio.

There are many internet radio stations online from all over the world.

Choose a station that is as close to the destination as possible. The reason for this is to be able to understand the local dialect. It may take some research, but it will be worth it. If it isn’t easy to find a regional station, a citywide station will be just as useful. Practice saying some of the words you hear – out loud. Let your brain and your mouth build some familiarity with the sound and with speaking the words.

Also, never underestimate the power of a good love song. I still remember learning English singing along with Stevie Wonder and Madonna.

Tip #2 - Read the paper.

Quite often regional newspapers are also available online. As with radio stations, look for the news source closest to the destination and read one article a day. Start with headlines and work your way into the article itself. Understand what is going on in the headline and the article will make reading street signs and store signs much easier. This is also a great way to get a feel for what is going on in the region you are visiting. The sense of familiarity will provide a greater level of comfort during your visit.

Tip #3 - Take some time to Google a few things.

Start with “restaurants in ______” (name of coutry or city you will visit)

Although it can take some effort to find, take a look at a few menus from several places. Try image searching the names of the dishes offerred. An image search is a great way to see what you might be getting and reading the descriptions along with using your translation dictionary is very helpful. You will start to build a bank of regional restaurant words that will flow out when it’s time to order. Practice by looking at the image and pronouncing the name of the dish out loud. You will surprise yourself with how much you will learn and you might even impress your server.

Another helpful tip is to Google the hotel, lodge or home you will be visiting. Along with becoming familiar with the area, there will also be location hot-spots that include customer reviews and ratings. Take time to read the reviews and become familiar with where the locations are relative to your home away from home.

Tip #4 – Find someone to practice with.

Online communities are a great place to start. There are many discussion forums and online chats available for free. Also, consider a text pal or email pal. Try sending messages using common phrases you really want to grasp before your travels. Also, try calling someone and practicing these phrases. Proper pronounciation takes time and patience. Have fun with this part of the process; having a few laughs when you make mistakes can take the frustration out of the process.

Tip #5 – Subscribe to a language PodCast.

This is an excellent way to fit full lessons into a tight schedule without carrying a book around. There are many languages to choose from and a majority of the podcasts are free. Some podcasts are provided by universities and include hand-outs and study guides.

Learning is an integrative process. Remember, be kind to yourself as you are learning. Give yourself time and be patient. Be willing to ask for help. There are many friendly faces willing to help, and that is how I learned the first and most important language lesson: you will inevitably find someone who will understand you and give you helpful information. My best suggestion: spot the uniforms and don’t be afraid to ask for help. Airport personnel quite often wear uniforms and identification badges that make them easy to distinguish from other travelers. Also, information desk personnel are multi-lingual and are a gold mine of information. Some destinations have “city ambassadors,”security officers, and law enforcement stationed at popular destinations to help travelers navigate the city

Practice as often as you can, and listen to the language as often as you can. Remember that listening to the radio, reading the local paper and learning more about the food are wonderful ways to connect with the language as well as the local culture. The more you learn as you practice and listen to lectures, the more comfortable you will feel as you start to interact with your new friends abroad. Immersion is the best way to learn a langage - these 5 tips will are just a starting point in the immersion experience.

Happy travels y mucho exito!

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