How Learning a New Language Can Set Your Theme for the New Year

Every year, I make New Year’s resolutions.  Resolutions to exercise more, pay off my debt, watch what I eat and save more money.  I know some people who make resolutions and some who do  not.  But at the end of the day, don’t these resolutions end up sounding pretty generic? They are more like declarations of values versus something new and exciting.  Last year’s resolutions blur into the previous year’s.

So instead of making resolutions, why not pick a Theme for the year.  Project Based Learning is all the rage now in early education.  PBL is a teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to an engaging and complex question, problem, or challenge.  Cool.  Here’s how you pick your 2016 Theme PBL style.   Pick a country where they do not speak your language, pick a language and plan a trip.  There you go, you have a theme.  For me, my theme for 2016 is half Croatian/ half Vietnamese.  Kinda sounds like a San Francisco food truck.  The plan is Croatia in June and then Vietnam next year.

So now that you have a theme, here are all the fun things that you can spend your year doing.


Number One – Learning the Language

Learning a language is not a last minute afterthought.  I am not talking about cramming by reading a Lonely Planet phrase book on your international flight to your destination.  Learning a language requires time, committment and advance planning.  Whether you purchase an on-line course like Rosetta Stone, Pimsleur’s audio CD to listen to during your commute or you hire a private tutor, you need to start at least six months in advance.  Set out twenty to thirty minutes every day to practice your language.  Make sure that you have chosen a method that gets you talking.

My personal favorite is Rosetta Stone.  I have used it for French, Spanish, Italian, Greek and Mandarin.  My first experience with Rosetta Stone began when I decided to learn Greek. For Christmas in 2009 my husband gave me Rosetta Stone Greek Level 2. I loved it. Immediately I became a Rosetta Stone junkie. That was 7 years ago and Rosetta Stone has evolved. Rosetta Stone is a great way to learn to read and write in Greek because all of the lessons are written in Greek.

Today you can buy an online subscription which gives you access to all levels. The online subscription also gives you access to what I think is the best part, the studio sessions. These studio sessions are thirty minute on-line sessions led by a native speaker. The native speaker takes you and two other learners through scenarios based on the different lessons at various levels. It really helps cement your understanding of the vocabulary. I also like Rosetta Stone because it teaches you whole phrases to use in situations you will likely find yourself in while traveling. Unlike memorizing a stack of flash cards, with a catalog of sentences committed to memory, I can walk up to a stranger and say “Με συγχωρείτε. Υπάρχει ένα εστιατόριο κοντά; (Excuse me? Is there a restaurant nearby?) Rosetta Stone is also great for perfecting your pronunciation by giving you feedback during the speaking exercises.  You should know that in order to make Rosetta Stone work for you, you need a computer, wi-fi and the headphones with a microphone.

If you want a more portable learning experience, Pimsleur is a good option.  I just finished all 30 lessons of Pimsleur’s complete Croatian course.  I pop the audio CD’s in my car and, during my commute, I do my lesson.  It does require lots of verbal repetition, so I look pretty crazy talking to myself in the car.  The down side to this method is the lack of visual reading and writing activities.  Also, there are only 30 lessons, not enough, in my opinion, to reach the level of fluency I want.

Which brings me to the third option, tutors.  This option may not be as pricey as you might imagine if you get creative.  I once traded legal advice for Greek lessons.  Often times you can find someone willing to offer low cost tutoring by joining a Meet Up in your area.  The Greek Meet Up in San Francisco has a Greek conversation group that meets monthly.  The organizer of that group is going to  Skype in Greek lessons by her mother from Greece.

No matter what you decide, make a committment to start learning.


Number Two – Make It a Family Affair

Yes, I bribed my son to learn Spanish.  I signed him up for the Spanish club at school.  He moaned and groaned and informed me he was the only third grade boy in the group.  I guess it will be another few years before he graspes the benefits of this situation.  I had to buy him Messi cleats, a Ronaldo Real Madrid jersey and an Xbox 360.

Look, it work for a living.  I do not have a story in my “About Me” that says I quit my day job, gave up being an attorney and started traveling the world.  I wish.  I live in San Francisco which is getting really expensive of late. I have a mortgage, a daughter in college and a young son who is convinced he will be the next Messi.  I got bills.   I work hard for my money as a public defender.  But for four glorious weeks every year, I am a carefree, adventurous, silver-tongued traveler.  And yes, I drag everyone with me. I firmly believe that one day, my son will thank me that I forced him to learn Spanish.  It was pretty cool to watch him go up to the locals in Costa Rica and start a pick up soccer game by saying “Quieres jugar futbol conmigo?”   So I get creative. I got the Xbox 360 for free from a co-worker.

So whether you plan your trip with you kids, your partner or your friends, rope them into learning the language too.  They may groan, but they will thank you in the end.

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Number Three – Explore Your Local Cultural Connections

This part is perhaps my favorite.  Living in San Francisco, there are so many different cultures and communities right under my nose.  Some of those communities are well known like the Italians of North Beach or the Asian communities in Chinatown and Japantown.  However,  researching the language and culture you are learning sometimes uncovers some unexpected facts.  For example, I learned that the oldest restaurant in San Francisco, the Tadich Grill, was started by a Croatian man.  I also learned that the style of California cuisine in which the restaurant has a kitchen open to public viewing is of Croatian origin.  Apparently, a huge wave of Croatian immigrants flocked to San Francisco in the 1840’s during the Gold Rush era.  There is also a Croatian Cultural Center in San Francisco which hosts an annual Croatian festival and other cultural event.  Attending some of these events and dining at Tadich Grill will be on my list of things to do in 2016.  Maybe I will even get to practice Croatian.

Explore the cultural connections in your area.  Go to a restaurant and order in the language you are learning.  Find a cultural center and crash their festival.  Adventures in fluency can often happen without even leaving your home town.


Number Four – Watch the Movies

My family always knows where we are going when the Netflix envelopes start arriving.  Perhaps my favorite part of learning a new language is going through Netflix and finding all the movies I can in that language. It is not only a great way to train your ear but also an educational way to learn about the culture.  Before going to Venice, I watched the Fellini classics, La Dolce Vita and 8 1/2.   I saw the streets of Venice in Silvio Soldini’s Bread and Tulips before I saw them in person.   Before France, we watched Claude Berri’s Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources.  Prior to Barcelona, I saw the Palace of Catalan Music in Pedro Almodóvar’s All About My Mother.

Many places also have international film festivals.  In San Francisco in 2016, we have the International Film Festival in April, the Greek Film Festival in October, and New Hong Kong cinema in November just to name a few.

So whether you like to go out to the movies or snuggle up at home, watch some foreign films.

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Number Five – Let Your Language Inspire a New Hobby

So much of culture is experienced not only through language but also through movement, through music or through cooking.  Before I went to Spain, I studied flamenco for a year with La Tania.  I have always enjoyed watching Flamenco, but to learn to dance it was different.

Flamenco is a dance of protest, of anguish, of deeply held frustration.  I felt the guttural feeling of the dance one night after a particularly difficult day at work.  I was a trial with a young client.  He was facing more years in prison than he had been on this planet.  I was feeling overwhelmed, helpless and defeated.  We started the footwork warm up.  As I started stomping my feet and pounding my heels, I felt the anger and frustration rising up in me like a sob.  The frenzy built as I stomped harder and harder.  The feeling of anger that knotted in my chest flowed out of my feet into the ground.   I imagined the gypsies of Spain releasing their anguish and frustration at the oppression they experienced by day in a nightly ritual of music and dance.  This is not a dance of joy.  It is a dance of catharsis; a release of passion, anger, frustration and tension.  It is a reclamation of power by the helpless and the oppressed.  It is the dance of those wishing to overcome injustice.  Only by studying this dance could I truly understand.

So let your language guide you to a new hobby for 2016.


Number 6 – The Trip, Of Course

Finally we come to the climax of this project, the journey, the adventure in fluency.  You have learned the language, you have picked up a new hobby, you have seen the movies, learned about the cultural connections in your community and you have perhaps inspired or bribed your co-travels to join you.  You step off the plane, your ears fill with the sounds of those around you.  At first, it is like listening to a radio that is not tuned in.  The words are hard to make out.  You panic.  But be patient.  Soon, as if by magic, the words will pop out at you.  You will start to understand more and more.  You will be speaking, and maybe even dreaming, in a whole new language.  And that is the best part.

Life is an adventure not a destination.   What will be your Theme for 2016?


9 thoughts on “How Learning a New Language Can Set Your Theme for the New Year”

  1. Elizabeth thank you for sharing all this rich and motivating information. I especially like how you shared about what we can do locally and tecniques you ues to get the family involved. I have suggested starting an after school Spanish club at the school I work at and this has motivated me to start it. If it doesn’t happen at work I will try a Small summer session. A co-worker told me she wished her children had a place locally to learn Spanish. Can’t wait to read your next post!!!!

  2. This is so great! I’m inspired by your writing. Planning a trip for my 60th birthday in a couple years and and will use these steps to get myself truly invested in the experience. Thank you!

  3. Its like you read my mind! You appear to know so
    much about this, like you wrote the book in it or something.

    I think that you could do with some pics to drive the message
    home a bit, but other than that, this is great blog.
    A fantastic read. I will certainly be back.

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