A Finland Swede in Bavaria

Monday, 27 October 2008

Four practical ways to learn a language: On the road, from a girlfriend, for the police, getting lost

Dumela!

That's hello in Sotho, the native language of George Swahi Moleko, the taxi driver who took me to the hotel today. It's hello also in the very related language of Tswana.

George speaks 8 of the 11 official languages of South Africa. And given that background, I asked for his advice on how to learn languages. He had four hot tips.



George Swahi Moleko's Tips for How To Learn Eight Languages

1. On the road. Meaning: On the street, in the township. For example in Soweto, people speak so many different languages that you pick it up from friends, when you grow up. That's how George learned most of the languages.

2. From a girlfriend. Some of the South African languages are difficult to learn for a Sotho speaker. Then, George asserts, you need more motivation, and more intense exposure to the language: You need a girlfriend. George mentioned having used the girlfriend method for learning at least Venda, Tsonga and Nguni.

3. For the police. While having to do with the police might not directly teach you so much, it indirectly motivates you. George means that Venda speakers are hugely overrepresented in the South African police, and they're likely to just reply "It's the law! The fine is 500 Rand. Everyone has to follow the law." if you complain in Sotho. But if you swap to Venda and say "My brother! It's not my own car. I'm so sorry. I was in a hurry. Anyone can do a mistake, my brother!", the policeman will be more understanding.

4. Getting lost. Not finding your way out, and having to rely on your environment, is a high motivator just like the previous item.

George's tips are fairly universal. At least they've applied to myself. I learned some Finnish according to method #1 (although not in Soweto). I clearly improved on my German according to method #2. And, although I nearly always insist on using my native Swedish with government officials in Finland, I'm clearly more willing to use Finnish if I'm the one having caused the trouble (such as speeding) and am at the mercy of a Finnish speaking policeman in Finland (George's method #3). And whatever bits and pieces I've picked up of languages like Russian, Japanese, Spanish, and Portuguese originally started from finding my way when immersed in places where few people share a common language with me.

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