Chapter 13: Taking your new language for a test drive

Practice with Native Speakers

Although books, cassettes, and other study materials are all quite helpful, they are less demanding than active conversation. A conversation with a live human being requires you to simultaneously listen, process what you hear, and formulate responses. In order to become truly skilled at listening and responding “on the fly” in a foreign language, you will have to seek out live, unscripted conversation opportunities.

You should develop a network of native speakers of the language you are studying. These relationships might be structured as mutually beneficial “language exchanges.” Perhaps you can meet a native speaker of your target language who is himself studying English. Suggest that the two of you work out a deal: you will help him improve his English, if he will serve as a sounding board for your Russian.

These informal study exchanges can provide an invaluable boost to your independent study efforts. During one summer in college, my Japanese language abilities improved by leaps and bounds thanks to two women named Yuka and Sakiko.

Yuka and Sakiko were the wives of two graduate students at the University of Cincinnati. I was introduced to them by Donna, my aforementioned American friend who was herself studying Japanese. Throughout that summer, Yuka, Sakiko, and I met in the University of Cincinnati library practically everyday. One day we spoke only English, and the next day we spoke only Japanese.

These sessions gave me my first experiences using the Japanese language for extended periods of time. Prior to that, my use of the language had been limited to mini-conversations that consisted of introductions and exchanges of simple information. By the time I left the library on one of our “Japanese days,” my head would be aching, and I would have a notepad full of new Japanese words, or words in English that I couldn’t yet express in Japanese. Yuka and Sakiko gave me a tremendous incentive to advance in my Japanese studies. By the end of the summer, my Japanese skills were on par with their abilities in English. 

If you recruit a native speaker who is already living in the United States, Canada, or Britain, she will likely speak English better than you speak her language. Therefore, your initial exchanges may consist of you answering detailed questions about English usage, while she struggles to understand your stumbling attempts at basic communication. Don’t worry—you will erase this linguistic capability gap soon enough, if you are willing to hit the books (and the tapes, CDs, etc.) in between your practice meetings.

Although your practice meetings are informal study sessions, you should nonetheless introduce a bit of structure. Make sure that you don’t spend all your time discussing linguistically lightweight topics such as what you each ate for breakfast. Prepare a list of reasonably challenging topics to discuss, and do your homework before the practice session. If you have decided that you are going to discuss currency trading on a given day, you should learn the words for “floating exchange rate,” “monetary policy” etc. before the practice session.

Ask your practice partner to try to stump you (and do the same for her). It might be helpful for you to think of yourselves as athletes in training. When athletes train together, there is an element of friendly competition, and they thereby push each other to new levels of skill. You should each use language that you think might be just beyond the other person’s current repertoire, without overwhelming him.

Conversations that are made deliberately difficult can benefit you even after you have reached advanced levels in the language. I recently participated in a Japanese language “benchmarking” activity that was conducted by several Japanese Studies professors in the United States. The professors interviewed various Americans who had studied Japanese, and rated their abilities to describe physical objects, convey abstract ideas, and respond to complex arguments.

Even though I had been studying Japanese for more than a decade by this time, I was surprised at how intense the language workout was. To cite one example, the professor who interviewed me asked me to give a synopsis of the American Revolution, and the respective British and American positions (in Japanese). Then she asked me to compare the American Revolution to at least one other political upheaval that had since occurred somewhere in the world. That would have been a fair challenge for me even in English! 

Talk Your Way through the Butterflies

Although you will get a lot of benefit from conversing with a native speaker with whom you have entered into a mutual study arrangement, you will soon want to test your skills in an unstructured situation. This is especially true if you make regular visits to a country where the language is spoken.

The first time you address an unfamiliar native speaker in his or her own language, I can guarantee that you will be nervous. This is simply because it represents a new experience for you.  For all your life, you have communicated from within the safety zone of your native language. It is only natural for you to feel jitters when you take your initial steps into another language.

You may fear that the other person won’t understand you, or that you won’t understand his response. If you are still a beginner, then this may indeed happen. Trust me, the world won’t end. Learn whatever you can from the situation, and continue to study. The next time you visit Japan, the man working behind the ticket counter will probably understand when you ask about the train schedule in Japanese. In the meantime, let someone interpret for you so that you can get your train ticket, and move on.

You may even have fears that someone will laugh at your mistakes. This is rare, but not unheard of. After all, there are English speakers who make fun of foreigners’ mistakes, so it is only reasonable to assume that there are a few bad apples on the other side of the fence. In all my years of language study, however, I can only remember one or two occasions when this has happened to me. If by chance someone is derisive when you attempt to speak in their language, don’t let their reaction impede your progress. Most people you meet will be considerate and helpful.

Some people continue to experience butterflies even after they have developed a functional level of skill in another language. The duration of your nervousness will depend on your personality, your current capabilities, and the frequency of your opportunities to speak the language. As you gain experience, skill, and confidence, these feelings of anxiety will gradually diminish, and eventually disappear altogether.

Remember, this is a challenge that everyone who masters a foreign language goes through to some degree or another. Butterflies ultimately can’t hurt you—so just talk your way through them.

Learn your “Crutch Phrases” Early On

The beginning language learner will occasionally need to ask her listeners to slow down, repeat themselves, and restate what they have just said in simpler language. Before you take your first trip to Mexico, it would be a good idea to make sure that you know how to say the following in Spanish:

“Could you please speak more slowly?”

“Would you mind saying it once more?”

“Is there a simpler way to say it?”

“I’m sorry. My Spanish is not very good yet.”

Some people have more experience than others in using their own language with nonnative speakers. During my years in the international automotive industry, I noticed that some Americans have learned to filter their English for Japanese and German listeners. They stick to basic sentence structures, use slow pronunciations and clear enunciations, and restrict themselves to basic vocabulary. Americans who have less experience working with nonnative English-speakers typically talk too fast, use arcane vocabulary, and pepper every other sentence with slang.

I was once in a meeting at a Japanese automotive company in which half the Americans were veterans of the Japanese corporate environment, and the other half were from a company that had never before dealt with a Japanese firm. Also present in the meeting were two Japanese men who had been in the United States for about three years each.

The two Japanese spoke passable English, but they were used to interacting with Americans who used deliberately simplified language. Not surprisingly, the Americans from the visiting company constantly used words and cultural references that only a native speaker of  American English would understand. As a result, the two Japanese businesspersons needed repeated clarifications and restatements of what the visitors said. One of the American coworkers of the Japanese finally resorted to “translating” everything the other Americans said into simplified English.

This incident illustrates the degree to which the linguistic habits and consideration of the other speaker can affect your ability to understand a foreign language. Most people—no matter what language they speak—realize that they need to deliberately choose their words when talking to non-natives so as to minimize confusion. If you encounter someone who is inexperienced in this regard, try one of the above crutch phrases.

Don’t despair too much over fast talkers and the like. After a few years of regularly speaking the language, you will be able to handle even the most fast-mouthed, wordy, and roundabout speakers.

Facing Up to the Telephone

The telephone is a device which strikes fear in the heart of every foreign language student. The telephone can be intimidating even after you have established a fair degree of confidence using the language in face-to-face situations.

Face-to-face encounters provide a lot of assistance to communication.  You can watch a person’s lips as they pronounce their words. The other person can read your facial cues, which might indicate that you are having trouble understanding. If a particular language is closely associated with a single ethnic group, then the other person may immediately realize that you are not a native speaker. (In Japan, for example, this would be true for anyone who is not of East Asian descent.)

The telephone, however, offers none of this helpful assistance. You cannot see the other person’s face; and the other person may not realize that you aren’t a native speaker until several complete verbal exchanges have transpired.

Conversations that take place over the telephone are perhaps intrinsically more prone to misunderstandings, regardless of the language factor. Nonetheless, the telephone is a mainstay of business communications. Despite all the new communications technologies of recent years—email, web conferencing, video conferencing, and phones with video screens—some version of the voice-only telephone will probably be with us for years to come. Therefore, you will have to overcome any aversion you may have to using your new language across Ma Bell’s wires.

One preemptive measure is to practice speaking over the telephone in casual, non-business situations. This is an area in which your language exchange partners can help you. You might consider conducting every third or fourth language practice session over the telephone.

Another technique is to use the double blindness of the telephone to your advantage. In face-to-face communications, you would lose credibility in a heartbeat if you pulled out a cheat sheet or a dictionary. When using the telephone, however, there is nothing to stop you from writing down key words and phrases on a notepad beforehand. This will help you if you should get stuck—and the other person will never know the difference.

Become an Active Eavesdropper

In most situations, eavesdropping is considered to be impolite. However, if your motivation is language study, then you may permit yourself a bit of discreet monitoring of other people’s conversations. In airports, restaurants, and other populated venues, you will have many occasions to discreetly intercept fragments of conversations.

I would encourage you to take advantage of these opportunities to intake doses of unscripted, realistic conversations. Since you will not be under pressure to respond to anyone, you can concentrate on listening. You can turn such a listening situation into a miniature self-quiz. See how much you can understand, and try to anticipate what one speaker will say in response to the other.

Be sure to capture any new or unfamiliar words or phrases that you hear in passing. You may be surprised to emerge from lunch in a crowded café with a long list of new words. For the proactive language learner, casually overheard speech can be a goldmine of linguistic information.

If You Don’t Know—Ask, if the Circumstances Allow

In the beginning, you will be able to answer most of your own questions by referring to your dictionary or textbook. At this level, most of your inquiries will still be limited to straightforward items that can be easily answered, such as, “What’s the Russian word for ‘air compressor’?” 

In time, though, your questions will become increasingly complex. Let’s assume that you already know the Russian word for “air compressor.” Now you want to know how you can delicately tell the Russian distributor of your company’s air compressors that there will be a slight adjustment to the pricing arrangement—but it is really to the long-term advantage of both sides.

You could perhaps assemble your own version with the aid of a dictionary. For questions like this, however, a native speaker is really a better resource. A native speaker can help you with nuance, which is something that you won’t get from most dictionaries.

Accept Criticism with a Smile

I remember reading once that when a jetliner flies from New York to Los Angeles, it is off-course about half of the time. However, the pilot makes countless navigational corrections during the trip, so most flights bound for Los Angeles don’t end up in Seattle or Portland.

As you study and practice your new language, you will make innumerable little mistakes. Most of these errors will not irreparably damage the comprehensibility of your message. Nevertheless, mistakes are mistakes. Perfection is your goal, even if you never fully achieve it.

Some learners are content if they can just make themselves understood. Since their abilities in the target language are sufficiently advanced to allow them to “get by”, they see no need to progress any further. I would advise you to resist this temptation.

Consider the opposite situation: You have probably struggled through at least one conversation with a foreign speaker of English who uniformly ignored certain rules of our language. You may recall that you understood the basic intent of what the speaker was saying, but there was something fundamentally unpleasant about the experience.  It was rather like listening to a beginning musician practice with his instrument—you could not avoid an occasional involuntary cringe. (Many years ago, I studied guitar; but my performances never progressed beyond the level of mildly torturing my audience.)

In the beginning, such cringes are unavoidable, but you should be able to reduce these reactions as you gain knowledge and experience in the language. Persistent study is one method for honing your skills; deliberately exposing yourself to criticism is another.

Most speakers of your target language will be hesitant to correct you when you bungle a word or a grammatical rule. The vast majority of them will ignore the mistake, especially if it is not an impediment to comprehension. Every once in a while, though, you will meet a native speaker who takes it upon herself to correct even the most minor of mistakes. She will call you out on the carpet when you misuse a word, incorrectly conjugate a verb, or leave out an article.

Such individuals are worth their weight in gold.

When someone stops you in mid-sentence, points out your mistake, and then indicates what you should have said, she is handing you the language learner’s equivalent of a five-dollar bill. The lessons that you learn in such moments will stick to you like superglue. The mistakes that you make when speaking usually involve elements of the language that you haven’t fully grasped from study alone. Constructive critics therefore are like teachers who explain a chapter in a textbook to make sure that the class really understands the material.

When a person corrects you, don’t let your ego get in the way, and complain that she should cut you some slack because you are, after all, a nonnative speaker of her language. Realize that the person is doing you a favor, and say in her language, “Thank you for making me aware of my error.” 

I have actually asked speakers of a foreign language that I was studying to make a point of indicating my mistakes. (It is usually better to make such requests of social acquaintances rather than of business contacts.) It is preferable to be criticized once for a mistake, rather than to allow the error to become a permanent habit.

Impress your Listeners with Proverbs

In English, sayings like “The early bird gets the worm” have an air of triteness. But proverbs are a deeply respected element of some languages. In Japanese and Chinese, for example, nothing impresses listeners quite as much as an appropriate proverb casually delivered at exactly the right moment. Spanish, too, is rife with popular sayings that can be dispensed in a variety of situations.

For most languages, there are books available that are dedicated to proverbs. Most of these include explanations about the situations in which each proverb should be used, and the cultural subtleties involved. After you reach a basic level of communication skill in your target language, you should purchase one of these books, and memorize the proverbs that strike you as especially useful.

An additional advantage of learning proverbs is the insights that they provide into the culture in which a language is spoken. One of the most commonly circulated Japanese proverbs is deru kugi wa utareru—“the protruding nail will be hammered down.” While an entire culture cannot be encapsulated in a single proverb, this adage does make a statement about the Japanese emphasis on conformity and social harmony.

Often you will discover proverbs in a foreign language that perfectly match the meaning of well-known English proverbs. In other cases, you will come across proverbs in the foreign language that are radically opposed to prevailing attitudes in the English-speaking world. These realizations often provide insight into behavior that doesn’t outwardly make sense from an American or British perspective. 

Use Colloquialisms Appropriately, Use Slang Sparingly

In most languages, there are distinctions between the written and the spoken word. To use a familiar example from English, consider some of the expressions commonly used in written contracts and business documents. If you were to use a phrase like, “the aforesaid parties” in a conversation, most listeners would understand you. However, it would be far more natural to say, “the people whom I mentioned previously.” When written language is employed in the conversational mode, the effect can be overly formal, and might even be interpreted as arrogance. The person who talks like a contract or a formal business letter will alienate many listeners.

In some languages, the use of written speech in a conversational setting can even render your message incomprehensible. Japanese is a good example in this regard. The language makes extensive use of Chinese characters. Although every word has its own pronunciation, there are many homonyms (words that have identical pronunciations but different meanings.) This abundance of homonyms is one of the more challenging aspects of Japanese.

When two homonyms are written down, they are easily distinguished by their Chinese characters. In speech, however, it may be more difficult to tell one homonym from the other. If you use a formalistic written-language word in a conversation, your listeners may mistake it for a more colloquial homonym. They may also assume that you have simply made a mistake, and question your grasp of Japanese.  Therefore, it is important for you to acquaint yourself with conversational language as well as the language that you will need to decipher legal texts and articles in the financial press.

However, it is important to distinguish between colloquial speech and slang. These two categories of language are not identical—although they are commonly confused. “Colloquial”, per Webster’s dictionary, refers to language that is “used in or characteristic of familiar and informal conversation.” On the other hand, “slang” means “language peculiar to a particular group.”  For any given slang expression, the “particular group” might be teenagers, the criminal element, or another sector of society with whom you may not wish to explicitly associate yourself.

If a person tells you, “The cops are coming,” you will probably not assign any particular group affiliation to his choice of words. “Cops” has a neutral connotation, but it is clearly colloquial—intended for conversation rather than written texts. In a newspaper article, the term “law enforcement personnel” would probably be used. While not offensive, “cops” is not suitable for most formal written situations.

Just as a newspaper editor would never allow “cops” to appear in an article, most people would not use the more formal written language term in a conversational setting. When your coworker tells you about the wild party next door that kept her awake last night, she is not going to say, “law enforcement personnel came and broke it up.” She will say, “the cops came and broke it up.”

However, if she were to say “the pigs came and broke it up,” she would be making an indirect identity statement. The term “pig,” as a reference to law enforcement officers, is a usage that is limited to street hoodlums and other criminals. If you use this term, you lump yourself in with that group.

Similarly, “that’s great” is a neutral colloquial expression to convey approval. It suggests no age, class, or group affiliations. Little old ladies, schoolchildren, Wall Street attorneys and teenagers can all say “that’s great.” The following expressions, though, have been closely associated with the under-twenty crowd at various points in recent decades. You may recognize some or all of them, depending on your age (and how many old movies you have seen).



“Totally rad!”

“Cool, man!”

“Totally awesome!”


“Far out!”

There is of course nothing wrong with being a teenager—but you don’t want to go around saying “that’s groovy,” etc. if you happen to be forty-five.

Keep these issues in mind as you learn your new language. For nearly every language, there is an assortment of slang and “street talk” books that you can purchase. Before you use an expression from one of these books too freely, make sure that you are aware of the age and social group with which it is associated.

Learn Profanity—but Never Use It

Just as there is a definite distinction between colloquial speech and slang, there is also a difference between slang and profanity. Relatively early in the study of your new language, you will make a discovery: there are bad words in foreign languages, too. Just in case you have spent your entire life under the supposition that English speakers are uniquely profane, it may be comforting to know that Chinese, Germans, Japanese and others have their share of four-letter words.

Adding a smattering of profanity to a conversation may seem like a way to make your speech seem more authentic. There are dangers associated with this practice, though. First of all, you may not be sure about the potency of a particular word. As is the case with English profanity, the bad words used in other languages carry varying degrees of offensiveness. Dictionary entries often contain watered-down translations of swear words. As a result, you may make what you think is a mildly salty remark, only to be faced with a room full of aghast listeners a few seconds later.

Moreover, profanity from the lips of a nonnative speaker always comes across as particularly crude. If a native speaker swears in his own language, he can always claim that he slipped in the heat of the moment. When a foreign speaker swears, he cannot lay claim to the involuntary reaction excuse. No matter how well you learn Italian, you will never bang your shin on a piece of furniture in the middle of the night and spontaneously swear in Italian. If you curse in a foreign language, your listeners will know that it was premeditated. This has obvious implications concerning their impression of you.

Nonetheless, profanity is an area which interests many language students. We talked earlier about the slang and street talk books published for students of foreign languages, and the dangers of throwing those expressions around. There are also many books on foreign profanity—in every major language, from Spanish to Indonesian. It is not a bad idea to pick up one of these books and familiarize yourself with some of the entries contained within. But this area of study should be for defensive purposes only, so that you can understand what’s going on in the unlikely event that a Chinese or a German speaker begins casting aspersions on your ancestors.

One final word on the profanity issue: When you speak a foreign language, you are a playing the role of a guest in another culture. You might look the other way if your Uncle Harry puts his feet up on your coffee table, asks if you’ve forgotten how much he likes beer, and lets loose a loud belch. But you don’t expect the same behavior from social and business guests who are invited into your home. The same rule applies for profanity. It might be permissible for a native speaker, but it’s not okay for you, as a guest speaker of their language.

Reading is (Comparatively) Easy, but Writing is Hard

I have been through the process of learning a language several times in my life, and I have had innumerable conversations with others who have learned foreign languages. Despite the varying backgrounds, native languages, and target languages of all these people, there are two statements that everyone seems to agree on:

  1. Understanding the written word in a foreign language is easier than understanding the spoken word, and
  2. Speaking in a foreign language is much easier than writing.

Rule #1 might not apply if you are learning Chinese or Arabic, but it certainly applies to any European language you might decide to study. You will achieve basic reading competency long before you have full confidence in your listening comprehension skills. There are several possible explanations for this. For one thing, printed words on a page do not move. If something is a little confusing, you can go over it several times before making a final judgment about what it means. On the other hand, the meanings conveyed in the spoken language are constantly moving targets. You only have a few seconds to grasp the gist of what someone says—and then the speaker moves on to the next idea.

In addition, written mediums tend to favor standardized language. Most people pay more attention to the rules of grammar and syntax when they write.  Few individuals exercise the same discipline when they speak.  As a result, the spoken word is full of slang, shortcuts, and regionalisms—all of which make the message more difficult to comprehend.

Speaking is easier than writing because your mistakes are more easily hidden in a conversation. Your words hang in the air for only a few seconds. When you write, however, your words remain on paper for future posterity to see and critique. A poorly written memo or email will definitely attract more notice than a poorly worded verbal explanation. The fact that writing is more demanding than speaking was probably apparent to you before you ever began to study another language.  In your native language, speaking is often effortless, even involuntary. Meanwhile, composing a simple personal letter can require a monumental amount of mental exertion.

You can ease your way into writing in your foreign language. You don’t have to start out with a twenty-page report or a highly nuanced piece of business correspondence. Until you are a competent writer, it is helpful to compose in the “bullet point” format rather than in fully developed paragraphs. For instance, if you write a business letter, compose an introductory paragraph and a closing paragraph, then list your main points as bulleted items in the main body of the letter.

The bullet point style is acceptable for most business situations. In fact, many businesspersons prefer this style, because it is often easier to read than the traditional paragraph format.

Pay Attention to the Details when Writing

Even if you write in bullet points, there are some errors that you should do your level best to avoid from the beginning.  Mistakes in the areas of spelling, punctuation, and capitalization seldom prevent your written message from being understood, but they immediately peg you as someone who does not know the language well. With a little bit of effort, you can avoid mistakes that will make your writing stand out as “foreign.”

It is especially easy to make spelling mistakes when writing cognates in foreign languages. When working with languages such as Spanish, words like condición, minuto, and microfóno are so close to their English equivalents that caution is needed to avoid the inadvertent use of the English spelling. (Incidentally, speakers of Romance languages have to watch out for the same mistakes when they write in English.) You should also remember to add accent marks to the vowels where needed.

The subtleties of spelling will increasingly become second nature as you continue to practice reading and writing in the other language. You will speed this process along if you resist the development of bad habits from the beginning.

Punctuation rules in foreign languages don’t always seem to make sense. For me, the Spanish placement of an upside down question mark (¿) at the beginnings of interrogative sentences has always been particularly maddening. My patience has been similarly tried by the rules governing the usages of commas and quotation marks in Japanese.

Every language has a different set of rules for capitalization. In English, we capitalize the names of languages. In Spanish and French, the names of languages are not capitalized. When you write a memo in French, no one is likely to scream bloody murder if you capitalize the word for “English” (anglais), but this would not be correct French. Romance languages typically do not capitalize the words that refer to religions or nationalities, either. In Spanish, the name of the Catholic religion (católicismo) begins with a lower case letter.

A Critical Milestone

Once you reach the intermediate stage in a language, you will be able to put together reasonably correct sentences and comprehend most of what others say. At this point, you will be having real “conversations.” For a long while, however, communicating in the other language will require a deliberate act of effort. This is a struggle, because your concern for the mechanics of the language seems to detract from the content that you are discussing.

Persevere. Initially, everyone has to give as much attention to the nuts and bolts of the language as they do to the content being conveyed. Although you will often feel like you are trying to run a footrace in your wingtips or high heels, the awkwardness goes away with time and practice. Progress on this front is measured through a series of gradually increasing victories.

You will begin by having simple conversations in which you can focus solely on content. Then one day you will finish a lengthy, detailed conversation in your new language, and a few minutes later you will have an exhilarating realization: you were finally able to divert your attention from the language and focus on content. You will be recalling the particulars of the conversation, and you will be unable to remember at first if you had been speaking English or the foreign language—although of course, you will know that you had been speaking the foreign language the entire time.

This major milestone builds the conviction that you “speak” a language which you had formerly just been “studying.”  When you achieve this milestone you are well on your way to being able to use the language in a business context.

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