Language Learning Tips from a Wannabe Polyglot (Part 1)

This year’s Her Campus team at UCL boasts a wide range of polyglots, speaking a variety of languages including different dialects of Arabic, several of the Romance languages (French, Spanish, and Italian), German, Hindi, Urdu, Balochi, Gujrati and Turkish. In this article, Amal shares her top tips for language learning success!

In an increasingly globalised world, I think one of the best ways to gain a better understanding of a foregin culture is by learning its language and exploring the origins and customs associated with particular phrases. A lot of this article will contain some strategies I’ve picked up to make learning a new language less overwhelming, with some anecdotal examples to illustrate comparisons between different languages.

First and foremost, the best way to learn a language and put your classroom learning to the test is to put yourself in situations where you can’t pivot your way out of having to speak your target language. However, if you live in the middle of nowhere, travel is too extortionate for your student budget or Covid-19 has shut borders and made travel virtually impossible for you, why not capitalize on your digital resources through some of these suggestions?

1. Ditch your textbook

If you’re looking for outdated expressions and slang that would make you the laughing stock of your target-language-speaking friend group, use that ancient textbook that your 80-year-old French teacher keeps forcing on you. 

Use textbooks for grammar and maybe comprehension exercises. Otherwise, use other media – the news, literary works (settle for comic books or children’s books if you’re an absolute beginner), music, Netflix and anything that accurately reflects the current state of the language.

Whenever you’re reading, don’t touch your dictionary. You want to try to decipher as many unfamiliar words as you can through context. Read the piece 3-4 times and once you’ve struggled as much as you can, pick up the dictionary and try to match the word to the scenario. Word Reference is a really great resource because it explains words in their correct context. Please don’t use Google Translate, it could give you words or meanings completely out of context!

2. Watch Youtube videos to pick up on slang and more colloquial expressions

When I studied French in elementary school and middle school, I was told that comme si comme ça was the best way to express apathy or ‘feeling okay’ when someone asks how you are. BUT, does anyone in France actually say that? No, lol.

There are so many YouTubers also struggling through an unfamiliar language, as well as native speakers who break down cultural issues and common mistakes that foreigners make. Learn from their mistakes and keep an eye out for slang and more familiar language (Damon Dominique is my FAVE for French for anyone interested).

3. Roman Alphabets

Although I am a huge advocate of pushing through the cumbersome grind of immersing yourself into reading a new alphabet, to save time and still delve into some of the more complex literature, Romanising (if that’s a word) is an effective cheat.

Luckily most of the languages I speak use variations of the Roman alphabet. Sadly, this isn’t the case for Urdu, which uses the Arabic alphabet, and it’s painful how bady I suck at reading and writing it. (In my defence, becoming savvy with a whole new alphabet – whether it’s Slavic, Arabic or Mandarin characters, requires WAY more classroom attention and practice, which I lack). However, in spite of this deficiency, I’m still fond of Urdu poetry and I hate relying on other people to have to orate it for me. Reading Urdu poems written with Roman alphabets is an effective way of avoiding having to read translated Urdu poetry (you lose a lot of the textures, sounds and nuances when translating Urdu into English).

4. Join societies at UCL and connect with native speakers of your target language

There are several societies – Azerbaijani, Pakistani, Israeli, Francophone, Spanish and Latin American (you name it, it’s there) – that represent particular countries or regions of the world. Join them, reach out to other members of that society and practice speaking the language with them as much as you can. Even if it’s just texting, the immersion is great. Plus, some of these societies offer events for further immersion such as book clubs, food tastings, movie nights and even offer lessons themselves (PakSoc, I’m coming for those Urdu writing lessons you guys promised!)

5. Make use of the languages you already speak (even if you’re monolingual)

Due to colonisation, historical conflicts, and intercultural mingling, you might be surprised at how much the language you speak has in common with your target language. Look up common words, etymologies and similarities between your native language and the one you’re trying to learn and get a quick history lesson in the process.

As a Turkish speaker, I was really surprised to find certain words that were identical to French words. When Turkey abandoned the Arabic script for the Roman alphabet (a move towards secularism and more Western practices under Atatürk’s reign) it turns out that a lot of Arabic and Persian loanwords were substituted with French and Italian ones. 

Using a list of shared vocabulary from both languages saved me a lot of extra memorisation. This linguistic blending was also apparent between Urdu and Turkish, as Urdu is fundamentally a combination of Abarbic, Persian, Hindi and Turkish, whilst  formal Urdu (although somewhat antiquated in Pakistan today) is essentially Farsi. 

6. Expand to languages similar to your target language (if applicable)

Another thing that I picked up through travel is that you can find strong elements of your target language in other cultures and communities. Azerbaijani is extremely similar to Turkish, which opened up a whole new avenue of people for me to practice speaking with. Since Azerbaijan was colonised by the USSR, a lot of Azeris can speak Russian (convenient for those of you in SSEES learning Russian). Similarly, for those of you keen on learning Urdu, watching Bollywood films that are in Hindi isn’t a bad shout either.

7. Use any opportunity in your current location to practice immersion

Before Covid-19, I used to work a retail job at Abercrombie and Fitch. One of the ways I managed to engage with customers was by forcing myself to speak Urdu, Turkish, French or Spanish (even if I was really rusty). Even if it was daunting initially, you’d be surprised at what you can come up with when you’re put on the spot. Instead of translating word for word in your head, you’ll end up coughing up a phrase stored in your subconscious that you haven’t used in nearly a decade that fits the context. Ultimately, the key here is to put yourself out there and challenge yourself.

During lockdown where you have even fewer opportunities to mingle with peers and put yourself into immersive situations,  try online platforms that are designed to achieve the same purpose! Duolingo hosts live events with speakers of a particular language so that you can practice. UCL societies similarly host immersion events. Capitalise on all that’s digital and you might make as much progress as you would’ve wandering around in Beijing or Ankara! If you’ve found any of these tips beneficial, stay tuned for part 2!