What is the best way to learn a language? I figured this out one day while in Russia when I was watching my youngest daughter play with her friend. We had parked the van in a garden, but this scene in front of me at that moment wasn’t a new one.
I had watched her play like that in Italy, Malta, New Zealand, Croatia, Malaysia. Bali, India and many more (she is 3 years old and has visited 37 countries already and lived in about 8!). She has played often with kids, she doesn’t share a language with.
But on this particular occasion, there was a huge difference. Something I really noticed, and it brought my attention to something else I hadn’t thought too much about…
What was the difference? This time she was speaking Russian. Not just a word or two, but really speaking Russian. Saying what she wanted and understanding what was being said to her.
Without us noticing it, she had been learning to speak Russian, without taking any lessons, without giving away that she was absorbing it. But she had been.
My Biggest Drive Ever
We have been in Russia for the last 3 months… We went to Russia after deciding one night in La Spezia to drive from there to Siberia. Ok, yes, we had a few glasses of wine before we made the decision, but even in the morning, it seemed like a great idea, if rather daunting due to the distance!
Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think I would do such a drive or that it would help me to understand the best way to learn a language.
But there I was, sitting in Chita, 12,000km later and the penny had just dropped. I understood how she had done it. How she has taught herself to speak Russian
Ok, so there is a proviso, Vero is Russian, so that helps with the baby learning it. But to be fair, Vita has been very resistant to speaking Russian, up until just a few days earlier. She has always insisted.
“I don’t speak Russian, I Speak English”.
She held fast to this premise for as long as she could talk! It also doesn’t write off the fact that her Indonesian is still good. She understood a lot of what our Indonesian friends were saying to her when we saw them recently in Italy and almost 2 years after we had left Bali to live in Europe.
In those few days, something shifted in her. She stopped saying she didn’t speak Russian and instead, just started speaking it.
So. what was it, what triggered the shift?
When I look at how I deal with languages, I believe I understand what she is doing. She was learning to understand the language first. She hears the words, words like ‘hat’ and watches the person saying it while they make a gesture to symbolize that word or put one on their head, or just point at one.
They might say ‘hat’ while they mimic putting a hat on their head. She sees the intention in their gesture and ‘gets’ what they mean and learns their word for ‘hat’. The word is then stored in her head and she moves on… It’s probable she was repeating the word in her head, to solidify it as a memory, but she didn’t mouth it out.
I don’t know how many words she learned this way, but it is a lot because 3 months into this trip and she is now telling me what people are saying to her.
Yep, that’s right, my 3-year-old is translating Russian into Engish for her Dad!
Yet, even while she was translating Russian, she was insisting that she doesn’t speak Russian…
So, It seems to me that she was learning it the whole time we were here, listening to people, figuring out a word here and a word there and storing them away in her memory all the while.
Building up a Bank of Knowledge
She was building up a huge bank of words quietly without letting on that this was what she was doing. And claiming she wasn’t.
We arrived in Chita and met with her grandpa and grandma. Both of whom don’t really speak English, not any more than a few words (much like my Russian!).
We drove out to their Dacha (lakeside cabin) and suddenly she was surrounded by them and a whole bunch of kids her age who only spoke Russian and
Within two days, she is speaking Russian. And this is probably the best way to learn a language!
Even I have learned more Russian words in those days in Chita than I did in the last year! Why? What is the best way to learn a language?
Dive into a place where you have little or no option to understand or be understood in your own language and flounder around in there until it starts to all make sense! It also helps to have someone close to you to translate a bit while they define specific words for you. Watch the gestures and the word for ‘what’ or ‘what is’ so you can mimic their gest while you say it and they will give you that word again. Most likely a few times while you repeat it and until you get it right.
She was actually doing this inside her head the whole time. Just repeating the words over and over. I know I do this and guess I am trying to perfect it before I utter them in public… I get as shy as anyone else about this stuff.
It would be better to say them out loud, even if you are mispronouncing them, people will help you to get the pronunciation right, just keep reminding yourself that they think you pathetic attempts are cute. And you give them something to have a good giggle about too, which is never a bad thing.
The best way to learn a language is to speak it! You should be where it is spoken and learn as many words as you can as fast as you can. Before you know what has happened, you WILL be speaking to people.