How to Master a Foreign Language
“What does it take to learn a foreign language?” Advice-seekers ranging from Ph.D. students learning German to missionaries learning French often ask me that question. In my opinion, a person needs two qualities if he or she is to master another language.
The first is determination. In my library is a conversational grammar that I used when teaching myself German many years ago. A week into my studies I wrote the following words on the title page: “Ich will sprechen Deutsch.” Now in German the verb “will” is not the future tense marker that it is in English. It means “want to” or “desire to.” I was, in effect, saying, “I want to – I am determined to – speak German.” What was behind my determination and drive, you ask?
In 1978 I had been invited to play trumpet on Greater Europe Mission’s “Eurocorps” brass octet. We would spend the summer in Germany playing evangelistic concerts. The music would attract the crowds, while our German-speaking director would share the Good News. However, I wanted to do more that “toot my own horn,” as it were. I hoped to share my personal testimony during the concerts and to engage in conversation with the audience afterwards. And thus I purchased my grammar book and began meeting regularly for conversation with a native German-speaker. When we arrived in Germany in June of 1978 I could hold an intelligible (if simple) conversation in German and could even share my faith, in a very limited way, with others. I was thrilled!
Are you a motivated student? Are you determined to succeed? Without determination you won’t get very far in language learning.
The second essential quality needed to master a foreign language is lowliness of mind or humility. It is the opposite of pride and hubris. Take, again, my week-old German sentence, “Ich will sprechen Deutsch.” As anyone who has studied German knows, the syntax of my sentence was backwards. In German the object comes before the infinitive: “Ich will Deutsch sprechen.” I had gotten the words right but the word order wrong. And that was hardly the last mistake I made. But if you want to learn a foreign language you must be willing to actually use it, even if it means making mistakes and even if others have to correct you.
Allow me another personal anecdote, if you will. By the time I arrived in Basel, Switzerland in 1980 to begin doctoral studies with the Swedish New Testament scholar Bo Reicke, I had acquired a fairly good working knowledge of German with (I was told) a slight Prussian accent. I immediately began speaking German whenever I could, even though I knew my speaking ability was far from perfect. The Swiss, I soon discovered, were quite willing to correct you when you committed a verbal gaffe. This is as it should be, of course, but it takes some getting used to. Being corrected in public is never pleasant but it is essential it you want to master a foreign language. Becky and I were never too proud to use our German in public, and our efforts were always warmly appreciated.
But back to my story. On my very first day in Basel I had gone to the university library to seek out Professor Reicke. When I found him in the stacks, what language do you think we conversed in? Here I was, a fledging student from Kailua, Hawaii, meeting with a famous Swedish scholar. Naturally we spoke the language of the university – German! When Dr. Reicke mentioned that he was thinking about getting a cup of coffee, I asked him, “Darf ich Ihnen begleiten?” (“May I accompany you?”) “Darf ich Sie begleiten” was his gentle corrective, and off we went to a local café. (Note: he did not switch to English.) So it was throughout my stay in Basel – me speaking German at every opportunity, and others correcting me until I reached a high level of fluency in the language, even preaching in it numerous times.
How many people do you know who have had three years of high school Spanish and cannot utter a single sentence in the language? Even when they are among Spanish-speakers they are too proud to open their mouths for fear of being laughed at or corrected.
Friend, do not be afraid to make mistakes. Do not fear correction. Swallow your pride and speak out!
August 14, 2006
David Alan Black is the editor of www.daveblackonline.com.