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How to avoid mistakes when learning a language on your gap year

The English has always been, for as long as I recollect, marred with the stereotype that they are terrible with speaking a different language when on holiday.

The writer P.G Wodehouse once famously wrote in one his novels that there is a noticeable “shifty hangdog look which announces that an Englishman is about to speak French.”

And it's sadly true. When we attempt to speak in a foreign tongue many of us start to look sheepish and unsure. The locals must see it coming a mile off. So if you are off on your gap year, and hoping not to just point at things to get by, here are some common mistakes that will help you gain a better understanding of speaking another language.

Pronouncing things like they are spelled

In some languages, this works just fine, like Spanish where written words often correspond to their uttered pronunciation. However, even the basics of a new language need to be researched properly or you may look a little silly when you try it out. For instance, I once ordered two beers in Amsterdam, thinking I'd done well as I'd read it in a phrase book. Instead, I was laughed at in a lighthearted fashion by the barman. This was because 'Two' in Dutch is spelled 'twee' but pronounced 'tway'. It's great if you have taken the time to memorise certain phrases, but it's even better to see how they are actually pronounced.

Be sure of how words are pronounced is key

Not considering the structure of sentences

So you've studied the pronunciation of words and you're starting to cobble together phrases. That's great, but it's good to explore how sentences are constructing in different languages. There are many languages that generally follow the English formation of subject-verb-object (like 'Gemma went to the bank'), especially those that are Latin-derived, which helps with learning. However, the Japanese go with subject-object-verb (like 'Gemma the bank went to'). Obviously, when looked at in English these sentences make little sense but are the correct order of wording in Japanese.

To combat this, don't always rely on using translation devices or converting what you want to say from English to another language without research. A phrase book will help when wanting to work out construction by yourself by looking at the examples given.

Working through sentence construction is an enjoyable way of learning

Not practicing enough

It's great if you've just spent the best part of an hour messing about on Duo Lingo, but you have to keep going beyond that. Some of it may stick in your head, but our brains do have a habit of forgetting stuff that hasn't been exercised in a while. To remedy this, be sure to go back to phrases you had trouble with and say them out loud in the house - that way, your head will learn to bring up any new words or phrases that you have learnt.

Not finding a real person to converse with

Like in many scenarios, nothing beats the real thing. So be sure to go out of your way to speak the language with a native speaker. Maybe there is a society at your uni, or a class you can go and attempt conversation. It will help with everything, be it how certain words are supposed to sound, how sentences work and also, general quirks of a conversation that are unique to that language.

Just get chatting away with someone else

Most importantly: try not to get worked up about failing and accept that you're going to mess up once in a while.

Some have a crippling fear that they'll mess up, but at the end of the day, unless you're speaking to a bad person then most people will be happy you've had a pop at speaking their language. With English being so universal, too, the recipient will usually be more than willing to help you out. Just remember to try and remember your mistake and overcome it next time.