How To Learn A Foreign Language

Tips, Tricks and Resources to Learn A Foreign Language Faster

First let me briefly explain where my qualifications for this particular article come from. Way back when I went to school, I was terrible with languages. I went to a school in Germany where English was a compulsory subject, and as a second language one could either choose Latin or French. And I was absolutely useless! In fact, I had to repeat two grades because of my miserable grades in English and Latin. I threw in the towel when I was just about to repeat another grade and run the danger of ending up in the same class with kids that were three years younger than I.

Now, at the age of 52,  I speak a total of three languages fluently. In fact, it went almost up to four, but the first foreign language I learned to speak was Greek, and that I don’t speak right now, since it was at the beginning of the eighties that I spent a couple of years in Greece. If I would go back now it would take me probably three month to speak it again, since you never forget a language. They get stored away when not used continuously, and it’s like a file that has been hidden away somewhere on your computer.

I started developing myself as a language teacher in 1989 in Mexico-City, and that’s what I’ve been doing ever since. I work freelance, because that’s where I’m best. I don’t approve of most language teaching methods as applied by modern language schools, and it will become more transparent why in the course of this article.

Let’s start with the basics.

We don’t think in words, but in images or concepts. A toddler who gets too close to the kitchen stove and touches it will experience immediately the meaning of what is called in English ‘hot’. It’s through his physical pain that he learns that particular reality. And the concept of ‘heat’ has been literally burned into his mind.

A totally different, and at least in this context, secondary issue is his mother’s reaction to the approaching toddler. She cries out in panic ‘ Be careful, it’s hot!’ For the toddler the word ‘hot’ is nothing more than a sound that comes out of his mother’s mouth. Mind you, it’s not a word for him yet, he doesn’t understand at this stage what a word is. And it’s  this sound that he will henceforth associate with the physical pain he experienced. He knows what ‘hot’ means!

A German mother would have cried ‘heiss’, the Mexican mother ‘caliente’; it doesn’t really matter for the toddler, since again it’s just a sound to him. Our parents teach us our mother language through different sounds (words) that we learn to associate with certain aspects of our environment and our experiences.

I remember my and my siblings’ disbelief when our father told us that German was not the easiest language, that in fact it was one of the more difficult ones to learn. Of course we were young then, but it shows you the state of mind children have when dealing with language.

So it’s important to understand that we associate sounds with meaning, which might be an objective meaning (a table is a table is a table….) or a more subjective meaning when using the word ‘friend’ or ‘love’. Both words are  colored on the one hand by our culture (their  use in English is far more common as in German, for example, I’d think twice before I’d call somebody ‘friend’ in German, whereas in English or Spanish it’s far closer to the word ‘acquaintance’).

If you have already learned a foreign language, or you are in the process of it, you will inevitable feel that you are translating one language into the other. And that’s the fundamental mistake most people make. They confuse the process of taking the word ‘cold’, if English is their first language, then rummaging in their files for its meaning (which is obviously not necessary) and then allocating to that meaning the sound (word) that corresponds to it in the foreign language they are learning. An understandable process, but useless, it seems.

It’s precisely this process the language teaching technique of ‘total immersion’ tries to avoid. And it makes sense. Why use words of your mother tongue in a learning experience when you can just put a corresponding word to your concept or experience in the second language you are learning? In total immersion translation is to be avoided, students are confronted with the new language through real life situations.

How To Avoid A Divorce

My feeling is that if you are reading this article you are concerned. It might be your own marriage that’s pretty rocky right now; it might be the marriage of one of your children or a friend’s marriage. I will address here one of the most fundamental reasons why relationships break up or why people get a divorce. And I will try to describe a technique with which relationships of all kinds, but in particular marriages, can be saved.

I will not go into detail about specific problems a marriage might be having, be it the children, the money or sexuality. The scope of this article simply doesn’t provide for it. I will, however, talk in detail about communication problems. Without an effective communication no problem that is shared by two or more people, as is the case when a divorce looms on the horizon, can be solved.

Have you ever felt that you simply can’t get through to the other person? You try to tell and explain, but whatever it is that you say seems to fall on deaf ears? You talk and talk, think about ways how to say what it is you want to explain, and it just doesn’t work? And you have this real negative feeling of impotence, because if you can’t even make yourself understood, how on earth can you solve the problem which has to be solved?

Might it be possible that your spouse feels exactly the same way? He or she can’t get through to you? My hallucination is that this is precisely the case, even though you might have not seen it this way so far.

Let’s step back for a second and do some imagination. Imagine that you stand in a container, visualize a barrel, an aquarium, whatever. You stand in that container and the space within is shared not only by your thoughts, but by your emotions as well. It will be obvious by now that the more emotional we are, the less space we have at our disposal for our rational thoughts.

If we are only slightly ‘charged’ with emotions, let’s say they come up to our ankles; the more space is left that allows us to act on a rational level. Imagine now that the level of emotions goes up to our waist – it is becoming more and more difficult to move, isn’t it? We literally have to wade through that mass of emotions, and we begin to say stupid things or act foolishly.

Let’s take this a step further, you have it up to your neck. You’re fighting for survival, your emotions run the show, and there is next to nothing left for rational thought. That’s when we go crazy, which might lead to verbal abuse or violence.

In order to lower this dangerous level of emotions and regain space for our thoughts, there is only one way – we have to feel understood. But we don’t have to feel understood on a rational level. That’s pretty easy, your next door neighbor, if you would talk to him or her, would probably understand the facts of your problem.  We have to feel understood by what the problem at hand is doing to us, the other party has to understand how it makes us feel!  

And once we feel understood, when deep down in our guts we feel that the other person is understanding us completely, not just the facts but what the problem at hand is doing to us, then we are on our way. Because, then, and only then, a magic valve opens at the bottom of the container we stand in, all those emotions and confusions can run out of the container, thus giving us space again for rational thought.
Now, here is the bad news. You are the proactive person, you’re reading this article, you are looking for solutions, and you want to save your marriage. And you have to take the first step.

Because remember what I said above? I said that you are the one who doesn’t feel understood. But I said as well that your partner is feeling most likely exactly the same. So you have to forget yourself for a moment (or for some long moments) here and initiate the process by trying to really understand what your spouse is going through. You will need some strength of character for that, but my hallucination is that you have it.

Talk to him, and try to find out what the situation is doing to your partner, how she is feeling. It won’t be easy, in fact, you might find resistance, depending on how far down the road the relationship has progressed so far, and your partner (particularly if he is a man) might even get suspicious.

Go on, anyway, and explain what you are trying to do. Invite her to tell you in detail not what’s bothering him (you know that anyway), but what’s it doing to her on an emotional level. Put yourself in his place, wear her shoes, see and perceive reality as he perceives and feels it.

You might not get it in the beginning. So give feedback, ask questions. That gives him a chance to elaborate, maybe correct you. And do that until you feel exactly the way she feels. And once he perceives that, then she will feel really understood, because he can sense that you are on the same emotional level as she is.

By all means, ask for reciprocity, just don’t do it there and then. Give it a day or two, mull things over, and then ask your partner to listen to you. Bets are he will, because she probably still loves you and wants you to feel as nice (meaning free from negative emotions) as you made feel her.

Remember, us humans being rational beings is basically a fallacy. We are only rational when we are not emotional. Sounds absurd, I know, and it doesn’t only apply to negative emotions. Have you ever been blindly in love and done some stupid things? My guess is that yes, and here you go. So let’s work on getting rid of these negative emotions, make space for thoughts and this way find a rational solution with which both of you can live, and not only live on a rational level, but on an emotional as well.


The more you complain the longer God makes you live

Things are different down here in Mexico. 

I arrived here not by design, but because I was hitchhiking in the U.S. And some truck driver dumped me near the Mexican border. I thought, well, check it out. That was in 1989…..

I started to notice that ‘things were different’ when I set up a language school in the heart of Mexico-City. I did it all legally and officially, a lot of red tape, and a huge learning curve. And I was continually complaining, about this, that and the other.

Let me say in my defense that I was ‘only’ thirty at the time, a lad having a ball, having a go at striking it rich.

However, the emotional energy I wasted by complaining about things which I couldn’t change still surprises me.

Nowadays I don’t complain anymore (well, almost never). First of all, I got in a rut, after 22 years I know which way the wind blows.

Secondly, and more importantly, I’m simply too mature by now to complain. The order of the day for me now is to work around the problems I cannot solve – and I got pretty good at that.


The Practical Value Of Faith

Let me start this entry with a curiosum. As far as I know, and I was born and raised in Germany, I am, in fact, a German, there is no exact equivalent to the English word “faith”, or indeed the Spanish word “fé” in the German language. I have elsewhere written about the pitfalls of translation, but here it is clear, “faith” and “fé” mean exactly the same, mainly the evidence of things not seen. And that paradigm, that concept does not exist in the German psyche. Unless I just haven’t come across it, which I find hard to believe.

Whatever, this entry is about the kind of faith even an atheist or agnostic can have. We tend to associate faith mainly with one or another religion, a deity, you name it. But it is basically an inner attitude of hope and believe, a certainty that things will turn out all-right. And of course, that inner attitude lends itself readily when associated with belief in God, a life thereafter, etc.

I personally have been a disciple/practitioner of various religions over the years, but faith has eluded me. But I’m working hard on getting it. Why? Because it hit me kind of recently, and it’s very simple: people with faith are having a better time!

I don’t want to fall into clichés like ‘cup half empty'  or 'cup half full’ and stuff like that. That was pretty cool in the nineties, but it has kind of worn itself out. But at this stage of my life I have come to realize that it absolutely doesn’t matter how I see the future.

Things happen the way they happen, good and bad, bingo, it’s called life. And I have to invest the same emotional energy for expecting good things to happen or bad. And since it doesn’t make a difference, I might as well go for the good stuff – at least I’m having a better time on the trip.


Leadership On-The-Rocks

For a couple of years I gave German classes to a gentleman in the chemical industry. When I started with him he was head of the marketing department of a multinational concern here in Mexico.

Let’s call him Fernando S.

You know those people you meet for the first time and you just feel okay? I consider it a major characteristic of effective leadership, having this special gift of making people around you  feel comfortable. It’s the emanation of an attitude that  recognizes that you can’t lead without followers and that every follower is a potential leader.

Fernando S. began to have major problems with his boss, a classic clash of personalities. I never met his boss, but by then I knew that he, Fernando S., wasn’t particularly skilled in following orders which just didn’t make sense to him.

But he lost.

For the next 6 months our meetings took place in an obscure, last century building, 10  blocks removed from the corporate offices of the company he worked for. Fernando S. was now technical consultant to a department nobody had ever heard of,  working in an office which used to be a meeting room, and had to do without a secretary.

And he still made me feel good.

To make a long story short, Fernando S. is now in charge of the most lucrative product line his company sells, working both from corporate headquarters in the U.S. and Mexico-City, supervising production, sales and marketing worldwide.

And he still makes me feel good.

It sounds like a cliché, but life is full of up’s and down’s. And we all have to deal with  mood-swings  and negative emotional states. But a leader can’t afford  to take his people with him on that roller-coaster ride. It’s relatively easy to be excited one moment because targets have been met on time and depressed the next because the world economy is going for a downturn. It takes skill to maintain (at least outwardly) a balance, where the glass  is neither half-empty nor half-full, but just is.

A leader reflects objectivity not only when dealing with production quotas, but by managing and influencing his/her own emotional states.


Advice For Intermediate Students Of A Foreign Language

Tips, Tricks and Resources to Learn A Foreign Language Faster

First of all, the fact that you are reading this post probably means that your are learning a foreign language, or are at least about to. Let me congratulate you, learning (and eventually speaking) another language requires stamina and discipline, but the rewards are well worth it.

I’m not referring here to a specific language, but any language that you might be learning, and the advise I will give here applies to all of them.

There are two main blocks in a language – vocabulary and grammar. Put in another way, you are building a house, and the grammar you are dealing with is like the metal and concrete structure, and the vocabulary are the bricks you put into that structure. This post is concerned with the bricks, the words you have to learn.

As the title suggests, you have already built a strong fundament, you have a basic understanding of the language, and you are eager to talk – but you feel that you don’t know enough words.

Let me help you by telling you about my personal experience. The second foreign language I learned was English (and I seem to have done well LOL). I was exactly in that position, feeling like chatting away with my friends, but always groping for words. Until I started reading English books…….

Now, I obviously didn’t start with Shakespeare, but I got hold of some cheap novel about Adolf Hitler (of all people…). Somehow, in this novel, they deep-froze his head and surgicaly put in on another, younger body back in the eighties – total crap, obviously, but can you imagine how I felt when I finished the book? Absolutely on top of the world, because it was my FIRST English book, and I understood the story.

Remember, at that time I was on an intermediate level, and I didn’t understand half the words – BUT IT DIDN’T MATTER, I got the story, I understood the plot, and I had fun.

And, something very important, I didn’t TRY to understand every word. I didn’t read the book with a dictionary at my side, looking up a word every 5 minutes – that would have taken the fun out of it, and it is important that you have fun. Again, I understood the story line.

But here is what happens if you do the same. You might come across a word you don’t understand at this point, in a specific context. You continue reading, and a couple of pages later you find the same word BUT IN A DIFFERENT CONTEXT. You are beginning to get the idea, and, after a couple of pages, you find it again, yet again in a different context. See what I’m getting at?

Applying this technique you will learn new vocabulary without being aware of it. It’s kind of contextual learning, very akin to total immersion. And, as in total immersion, do not translate into your mother language unless it’s absolutely necessary. More than anything, it would slow down your efforts.

So, go and grab yourself some cheap paperback and have some fun.


Computers are useless. They can only give you answers

That quote, attributed to Pablo Picasso, touches on a fundamental subject. And it ain’t about computers.

Science hasn’t come up yet with a conclusive answer to the question on how we humans think. But looking at it from a practical point of view Anthony Robbins for example defines thinking as a series of questions we constantly ask in our minds.

Makes sense to me. And from that follows that the quality of our thinking is determined by the quality of the questions we ask. Ask a dumb question and you get a dumb answer. Ask a smart question, get a smart answer.

“Why is this always happening to me?” belongs to the first category, particularly when taking into consideration that our mind comes up with an answer to ANY question that’s asked on a consistent basis. And it doesn’t matter how absurd the question is, ask it often enough, your mind will find an answer.

Which in the above example might be “because you deserve it”, “it’s God’s punishment”, or “it’s because you’re ugly and smell”.

Seriously now, I can’t really come up with an intelligent answer to that particular question. I can think, however, of a smart substitute. How about “How can I turn into advantage the things that are happening to me?”


The Case For And Against Christ

Even though I’m not a particularly religious person, I am very much interested in all things pertaining to the beyond and a higher power (if it is only one, that is). I have read widely, practiced religion myself, and continue to meditate on a consistent basis.

Now, take the question of whether the gospels are a true, historic account of the life of Jesus Christ, his crucifixion and resurrection. A very intriguing subject, at least for me. So I shopped around and got a couple of books.

I read ‘The Case For Christ’, where the author, Lee Strobel, interviewed a series of eminent historians on the matter. Finishing this book, I was impressed. It was so well written, with so many historical facts and scientific evidence, that I was convinced: Of course, it’s all true, exactly as the Bible says.

I read as well ‘Holy Blood, Holy Grail´ by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln. What a treat! All three of them distinguished journalists with years of experience in historical investigation and analysis. And it turned out that the whole thing was a hoax, the gospels an arbitrary compilation of what the early church fathers wanted to be put in it.

My point here is, you find well documented evidence either way, and it’s basically just a question of what answer you are looking for.


Why Do People Fight?

Remember the phrase ‘And they lived happily ever after’? Of course you do, because you heard and read it hundreds of times in your childhood. The sad thing is, you didn’t read it in a newspaper, but in a fairy tale. Reality is different, and it doesn’t even come close to fairy tales.

I’d like to reflect in this article a little bit about human reality, the way life really is, and how we can deal with it. To me it seems that wherever there is a group of people that live or work together, you will find arguments and fights. 

Fights are not that common in a team that works together on a project in a major corporation. But that’s only because it would look bad to the other departments, here a lot of politics are involved. But that doesn’t apply to a marriage or a family, where most of the time is spent outside the limelight.

I believe that first of all we have to accept the fact that fighting is the norm; it’s the normal thing that happens between a couple or in a family. Look at your own situation, your own marriage. Look around you, listen to the stories your friends and relatives tell you about their lives.

And it just doesn’t seem right. But the fact that we don’t like what we see or experience doesn’t take away the reality of it.

One way of escaping this situation is to live alone and, if possible, work alone. That’s definitely a solution to the problem. The drawback here is that we don’t like that, either. Many people who have tried it prefer to argue and fight with other people than to put up with this miserable loneliness that comes with living alone. As humans we need contact with other humans, we need to inter-act, talk and listen. It’s like catch22, you just can’t win.

It might help to realize that we are on this earth in order to learn how to solve problems. It might seem unfair, but as soon as we’ve learned to deal with and solve one problem, another one comes up. That might be by design, some higher power having a ball with us, or by accident, it doesn’t really matter. Life, at least as I see it, consists of a series of problems to be solved in order to make space for new problems. Agree with it or disagree with it, but just look around you and count the number of people you know who are truly happy and live in harmonious families. Life is meant to be difficult.

But once we accept that life is difficult, that this is a universal fact, that it’s not something that’s only happening to us, that basically everybody is unhappy and striving for happiness, then, in a certain sense, life ceases to be difficult. At least it becomes more bearable.

Another fallacy inherent in human nature, besides the belief that life should be easy, is that on some deep, unconscious level we believe ourselves to be the center of the universe, the axis around which everything moves. And if we don’t believe that, then we believe that it at least should be that way. It’s the human ego that continuously cries out ‘My Will Be Done’. But you see the difficulty arising from this, since everybody believes it.......

Fights, particularly within a marriage or in a family, do always have a very strong emotional component. And our emotions range from fear on one end of the spectrum to love on the other end. All other emotions we find within this range. And I can tell you, the louder a fight is, the more aggressive or violent, the more fear is involved.

It might help to find out first of all where our fears are situated. Remember, fear used to be a very helpful tool for survival in pre-historic times. But in modern times we find that most of our fears are simply irrational. Finding a couple of spare minutes to be with yourself and reflecting on your own personal fears might show you just that – that they are grounded not in reality, but in some perceived threat that doesn’t exist.

In a quiet talk find out what your partner fears most. You will find that that will open up a whole new dimension. It will show you the motivating factor, why your spouse is acting the way he or she is acting. Try to allay these fears, but don’t be too pushy, these attempts of getting to understand your partner better are easily misunderstood.

It’s extremely difficult to show strength of character when in the midst of a fight. But that is precisely what we need in a situation like that. We have to make the attempt to understand our opponent. ‘Opponent’ might be a strong word for your spouse or one of your kids, but that is at least how we feel about that person when arguing, don´t we?

Try to find the strength and put yourself in the shoes of your opponent, try to really understand him or her. It’s difficult, I know, and it gets worse. Because intellectually you probably understand him/her, but have you ever tried to emphatically feel with that person? It is one of the main reasons for fights getting out of hand or even violent – it’s not the disagreement, but the simple fact that one party feels that he/she doesn’t even get his/her point across. He/she doesn’t feel understood on some deep, emotional level. Never mind of not winning the argument, first things first.

I have to try to understand what the other one FEELS about the subject at hand, and through my feedback either let that person correct my perception, or, and that’s the trick, make him/her understand that I get the point he/she is making and, most importantly, what it’s doing to him/her emotionally.

When we are emotionally charged it’s like our reason gets clouded. We might on a rational level even be able to agree with the other one, but our emotions make us literally blind. Once I feel myself really understood, that emotional constipation more often than not just dissipates, and we can get back to a rational level. Be strong.


Living as a Foreigner in Mexico

If you’re thinking of moving to Mexico to live there, this article might interest you. It is particularly tailored to those who want to live down here on a limited budget.

After having traveled the world extensively for 10 years I settled down in Mexico in 1989. In my case it wasn’t really intentional, I basically just got ‘stuck’. I found work as a language teacher, tried it out, found that I liked it, and developed myself along that path. Later I set up a language institute in Mexico-City, which I ran for about 5 years before moving to the province. I now dedicate myself to teaching German and English, and I like it just fine.

I’m telling you this so that you can see that yes, it can be done. You can actually start off with very little resources, and by working hard. Mexico is in many respects still the land of opportunity, but you have to know your way around.

If you are a person approaching retirement age and are looking for a place outside the US to live so that your pension would give you more purchasing power, I wouldn’t recommend Mexico per se. Yes, the cost of living is lower in Mexico, but not that much lower that it would justify leaving the US. Unless you want to while away your time on a beach in the south of Mexico, sleeping in a hammock, enjoying the sun and the sea. But that’s only enjoyable for so long. In fact, it wears off pretty soon.

But if you’re a writer, let’s say, or you are developing an online presence in order to make some profit through your online businesses, then moving to the south of Mexico would definitely cut down on your overhead. You can find simple, clean housing maybe close to the beach. If you can do without cable tv and shopping malls, that would be the right thing to do. Just stay away, or better don’t get even close to holiday resort towns like Acapulco and Cancun, to live there would turn out to be more expensive than anywhere in the US.

There are plenty of undeveloped strips of beach along the west coast, between Acapulco and the Bay of Huatulco, for example. As long as you stay away from the mainstream tourist sections, you should be okay.

I would suggest that you at least try and learn some Spanish. You should manage the basics. You have to be able to go to a grocery store and buy your stuff. Many Mexicans in and around the big holiday destinations speak English, but remember I’m advising against moving to those places. Outside these areas English is not very common, and if you move to a small town or village you won’t find hardly anybody who speaks English. He or she that does will find YOU to practice their English. But you still have to go to the drugstore, pay the electricity bill, hire a taxi, etc.

If you fit the profile of the type of person I am describing here, you’ll find a pretty large expatriate American community in Oaxaca-City, for example. If you are not used to living in a foreign country, and you, at least initially, have problems with the local language, you will find that you soon start yearning for some good old American company. As humans we need to talk to other humans, like it or not, and there are many people who have returned to their home country because they couldn’t cope with the loneliness. It’s simply not enough to say ‘Hi’ to a Mexican neighbor every now and again. And if there are two of you it doesn’t really solve the problem, because most likely you’d get on each other's nerves pretty soon because there is no one else to talk to. So either learn Spanish, get some of your friends to come down with you, or find a place where other Americans live.


When the world says “give up”, hope whispers “one more time”.

I’ve dealt in one of my blog posts with The Practical Value of Faith. This is basically an extension of it.

First of all, I’m not sure whether faith is an emotion. I believe, however, that, if it is an emotion, it is one of a very special kind. It seems to involve both mind, soul and emotional body.

Be it as it may, emotions are a fundamental part in the lives of us humans. I’d like to go as far as to say that it is them that make us human.

A very common human emotion is that of frustration. It belongs definitely into the class of negative emotions, for the simple fact that it feels bad.

However, that doesn’t mean that it is a useless emotion, far from it. Being frustrated means that you are not making the progress you are expecting to be making, and it doesn’t really matter whether you study for an exam or are setting up a business.

Frustration simply means that whatever you are doing feels like you’re doing it not fast enough. A frustration is basically the emotional reaction to an obstacle in our way.

Now, compare that with disappointment. Disappointment means that you have given up trying, end of story, it doesn’t work, I tried long and hard enough, can’t do it - you know where I’m getting at.

So not withstanding how frustration makes us feel, it is essentially a positive emotion. It means you’re still hammering away……