How to Help Someone Learn Your Language

After learning one of the hardest languages in the world

Photo by Annika Gordon on Unsplash

Once, I was in Georgia, on a masthruska (local bus), on my way to the forgotten, decrepit town of Chiatura. Behind me, sat a man who introduced himself and asked me where I was from.

“Portugal”, I replied.

“Cara bonita!”, he said, with a smile.

It turned out he had lived in my country for a few months and someone taught him to say “beautiful face” in the local language.

We all have done it. Teaching a foreigner how to say something in our native language. Many times, we go down the lane of swear words. Other times, it’s just random stuff. Some of the first words I learned in Hungarian were “paradicsom fej” (“tomato face”). I got sunburnt and really looked like a tomato. I got baptized by my Hungarian partner at the time.

But that was just the beginning of my adventure with Hungarian. Eventually, I moved to Budapest and I have called it my home for the past 1.5 years. I’ve also decided to learn the language — one of the hardest in the world.

During this journey, I have had the help of many people. And not only did I learn the language, but I also learned what works and what doesn’t when you try to teach someone your own language. So here’s my advice to all of you who are helping language learners— be it your significant other, friends, co-workers, or a tandem partner.

Photo by author. My “paradicsom fej” on holiday in Greece.

1. Use Simple Words

The English language has around 170,000 words, as published by the Oxford English Dictionary. However, if you know only 2,000 to 3,000 words, you understand 90% of everyday English conversations.

It means that any language learner who values efficiency will learn those useful core words first. It also means that they won’t understand what you say if you use more complex, advanced words.

Maybe, as a native, you see “exceptional” and “great” as equally simple words. But they’re not. Make it as basic as possible. Use “excited” instead of “ecstatic”, “hungry” instead of “starving”, “car” instead of “vehicle”. Even if they don’t mean exactly the same.What you lose on the accuracy of the meaning, you gain by making yourself understood.

Another thing to keep in mind is the different forms of words. English doesn’t work that way but in Portuguese, for example, we use suffixes to express a feeling of care for what we’re saying. It’s more tender, more familiar. For example:

“Cão” (dog) becomes “cãozinho” if we are talking about a little dog, or if we care about the dog we are talking about.

While this comes as absolutely normal to a native, for someone who is learning the language, “cão” and “cãozinho” sound very different, and using the latter will only add complexity to the message. Stick to the dictionary form of the nouns

2. Speak Slowly

This must be the #1 challenge of anyone who is learning a new language and has reached an intermediate level: native people speak way too fast.

For example, when I recently reached level B1 in Hungarian, I started focusing on my listening skills. But it was incredibly frustrating. I couldn’t understand what people were saying. I could understand the general idea and a few sentences, but that was about it.

It all changed when I started watching YouTube videos of foreigners speaking Hungarian. I was impressed that I could understand 90% of what they were saying. The reason: they were speaking slowly and using simpler words.

So, if you’re helping someone study your language, always keep this in mind: pace yourself. Of course, don’t speak too slowly if the other person can already understand the language at a faster speed. But don’t speak faster than they can understand. Ask for feedback. You’ll easily find the right rhythm.

3. Don’t Expect Them to Understand Every Single Word

In my experience of learning Hungarian and interacting with natives, I started noticing patterns in how people speak with language learners.

There are those who speak to you as if you were fluent, and the only adjustment they will make to their speech is to speak louder — that way you will definitely understand, right?

But most people do the opposite. They talk to you slowly and expect you to understand every single word they say. This will rarely be the case though. You won’t understand everything but if you understand 60 or 70%, you’ll already have a good comprehension of the message being conveyed. Also, you might not understand one word but might be able to figure out its meaning if you hear the rest of the sentence. Or the sentence after that.

So, if you want to help someone practicing your language, provide some natural rhythm to the conversation. Don’t stop at every word. Say a few sentences in a row. If your interlocutor seems lost, then revise. But, if not, keep it going.

If you’re getting answers back, and they’re not too far off, that’s a very good sign. This kind of conversation is incredibly helpful to anyone learning a foreign language.

4. Motivate Them

This doesn’t even have to be part of the language learning interaction itself. But it plays a major role in helping someone learning a language.

In my Hungarian learning journey, there was a time when I lost my motivation. Until a colleague at work started sending me a Hungarian song every day.

During our lunch breaks, she would also talk to me about Hungarian TV shows, or other elements of the national culture. We spoke Hungarian sometimes, but not that much. But those little pushes helped me more than any Hungarian conversation could ever have. They inspired me to keep going.

If you want to help someone learn your language, immerse them in your culture. Show them the music, the films, the books… anything that makes them want to learn more. That makes them see the language not as the ultimate goal but as a means to an end. I want to learn Hungarian because I want to understand the culture and be able to interact with locals who don’t speak English. It’s a major shift in motivation, and one with impressive results in the long-term.

Learning a new language is incredibly rewarding in the end, but can be very tiring and frustrating during the process. If you have a language learner in your life, show them your support, adjust to their rhythm, and motivate them regularly. Consistency is key. And don’t forget to celebrate the little wins. Cheers to that! Or, the first word I learned in Hungarian: “Egészségedre”!

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