You can open doors, spiff up your résumé, prepare for emergencies, and, in general, make life easier on yourself in a world that is rapidly growing more cosmopolitan.

Look, learning, really learning, another language as an adult is hard to the point of being almost impossible. But there is some great news. You'd be surprised at the doors that swing open wide with just a few words. When visiting Quebec City, we returned to our hotel. The doorman said "Comment allez-vous?" And my ten-year-old daughter turned and answered "Très bien, merci, et vous?" In that instant, he knew she was anglo and knew she was trying. I was stunned what a difference it made. The entire hotel staff suddenly seemed to know us as if we were VIPs. It was a pleasant and enlightening experience.

Learning another language requires no particular intelligence that I can tell. Some people say a gift for music helps. I don't have that gift. But there's this wonderful magic effect. Speak a few words to someone in another language in the presence of friends or family, and they think you're Einstein. Let me give you an example:

A waiter in a Mexican restaurant comes over and starts to take our orders. When he comes to me it goes like this:

Me (in Spanish): (You get hungry!)
Waiter: (Say what?)
Me: (I mean, me hungry).
Waiter: (OooooKay. What does Me want?)
Me: (Am theenking mebbe – how you say burrito in Spanish?)
Waiter: (Last time I checked, it was burrito. You want anything to drink?)
Me: (Beer?)
Waiter: (Light?)
Me: (Shady.)
Waiter: (Right, one burrito and one shady beer coming right up.)

But the family sees two men talking in a foreign tongue and smiling, and I get what I ordered. They think it's incredible. You tell them the absolute truth, and they think you're being modest. They do wonder what happened on Monday. In Mexican Spanish, "What?" or "Come again?" is "¿Mande?", and it sounds an awful lot like Monday.

The foregoing example is contrived, of course, and I'm not really quite that bad in Spanish. If you are very much worse in Spanish than they are in English, they will just respond in English to save time.

I once read a funny story where a waiter in a restaurant had bragged for a long time that he could speak Gaelic. A famous guy who was known to be able to speak Gaelic came in, and the other waiters pushed the hapless braggart toward him. Miserable, he began with the only thing he actually knew in Gaelic: "Our Father, which art in heaven". By what must have been true divine inspiration, the celebrity instantly picked up on what was happening and replied, "Hallowed be thy name". The clouds abruptly parted. The waiter continued, and after a minute or so, turned and triumphantly walked back to the kitchen amid looks of astonishment.

With one tiny exception, you cannot get a language by mere osmosis. You have to learn by doing. Don't even begin to think you can tune the television to a Spanish channel and absorb it. To you, it will be nothing but noise, and you cannot learn from noise. And similarly, if you are sitting in a class with 20 students, you are not going to absorb much because you are not really taking part. I had five years of German in a standard class setting. I can't speak it. I'd also think that $500 spent on a course on DVD would likely be wasted. I'm not saying learning won't be expensive. It will cost plenty, but mostly in time, not money.

Get an inexpensive CD to introduce yourself to the language. Heck, go to the library or used book store and look for a used set for a couple of bucks. As long as you have something to play it on, they don't go out of style. You can do a lot with just the numbers up to 20 and the common polite phrases. You have to hear the phrase, know what it means, and repeat it. Do this twenty times, and the phrase will be yours. The numbers and polite phrases can be recited in about fifteen minutes – that times twenty makes it a total of five hours. That's not much. It will give you a valuable tool that will change your life for the better. Yes, I suppose you could do it in a single day, but don't. You need a regular habit of 15 or 30 minutes every day for this. Never say you don't have time. The habit is where it's at. If you can't do 15 minutes, do five. What really works in your favor is that once you really know what the CD is saying, that tiny exception to osmosis takes effect. You can play the CD in the background while you drive or do something else. What really works against you is that after about ten times, it will start to drive you nuts.

One similar way to learn that is not quite so irritating is singing. Get a CD of songs in the language you are trying to learn. Get the lyrics off the internet and be sure you know what they mean. Then let it play while you drive.

When you first start from zero, you cannot repeat the sounds any more than you could repeat the sound of a squeaking door. It's OK. For romance languages, you need your tongue further forward. Even a T in Spanish is different. The tip of the tongue touches your front teeth instead on the roof of your mouth just behind your front teeth. It's a tiny distance, but it makes an important difference in sound. V's are sounded between the lips - not between your upper teeth and your lower lip. It makes them sound more like B's. Just shift everything a little further forward. Germanic languages are further back.

Some far-sighted parents will get a nanny who does not speak English well, and ask her to speak only her native tongue with the children. If their brains learn the sounds when they are one to four, even if they forget every word, they can pick it back up later much more easily.

I managed to choke down French, Spanish, and Russian, but of those, I normally only have reason to use Spanish. Like most areas of the United States, I can hear Spanish any day in Wal-Mart. That is the only language, other than my native language, that I am going forward with. I can use it at work, and anyone in a very large part of the United States needs it in the event of an emergency – that goes quadruple for public servants, teachers, and medical professionals, and double for insurance adjusters and clergy. I did also do German and had a need for it in Europe. Note that what I used in Europe was the German I got from my recorded lessons and not from the five classroom years. Those classes were nearly wasted. Hey, I made good grades!

So how do you go forward? Again, you learn by doing. The CD or DVD will only take you so far. You need someone to practice with. The best situation is an exchange: 30 minutes of your English for 30 minutes of a native speaker's Spanish or other language. You can find those people by asking a teacher at the local community college or even high school. One session per week is about a minimum. If too much time passes, you begin to lose it. If you can't find someone to exchange with, you may have to pay.

The quickest way is total immersion. Here's where things get interesting. Nearly anyone in business in the United States can use French or Spanish for monetary gain. Business expenses are deductible. There are schools set up in, say, Mexico to teach you, even starting from scratch. So you can take a vacation and make it deductible. It's a demanding task requiring dedication. If you can't make yourself muddle through a single CD, don't bother. It's better just to lose the five bucks you spent on a used set. Should you decide to do it, you might give the spouse or significant other a choice not to go. You're going to be in school and in the community trying to talk another language. Unless your spouse or S.O. is into it too, they may feel left out.

Spanish Class

I went to the school Encuentros in Cuernavaca for a single week. It cost $1000. Half of that was airfare. The remaining $500 took care of the school, lodging (which the school arranged with a family), ground transportation, meals, souvenirs, everything. So what can you do in one week? Well, I went from speaking strictly in the present tense to being able to use the past and future. I tell people, now I have a past and future. That was really a huge step. There was only one other student in my class as you can see in this picture that I took of the teacher and other student. (The balcony was pleasant, but they also have plenty of conventional classrooms). The difference between twenty students and two students is that in the large class, you have no opportunity to talk, but in the small class, you are required to talk. And, of course, there were cultural discussions and tours, as shown here.

Class Tour

When you are required to talk in a language you are just starting in, your brain rebels after about ten minutes. It turns to mush. You can't say anything. Do not give up. That is when it is getting rewired. You are learning at top speed even while you feel you can't think at all.

Can't get away? Can't find a helper? You can do it online. You wear a headset and have the equivalent of a blackboard on your screen. Again, I use Encuentros for online courses. It isn't really total immersion, but it's close. I currently pay $10 per hour for a group of three or $20 for private lessons. If you are in a larger city, there will be a language school that can provide a tutor. The cost will certainly be much higher than the other options, but your company may well be glad to pay for it. You must not accept a tutor that speaks the language you are trying to learn as a second language. Nope. Only a native speaker will do. Don't even worry about the accent your helper may have just as long a he or she is a native speaker. It will be a long time before you can hear an accent. Any reasonably educated person from any country that speaks the language you want to learn can help you. Do worry about your own accent. Watch your helper's or teacher's mouth and try to shape your mouth and tongue similarly.

How long does it take? The rest of your life. Just like your native language. You just keep picking up one tool after another to make it easier to tackle specific jobs in your new language. I've watched dentists do an exam using just a handful of words. I have heard stories about people who are transplanted into a country with a different language. I understand they need ten years to become completely proficient. Even then, they are going to have an accent unless they arrived in grade school. I teach English as a second language to people who speak Spanish. I've decided the big thing is to hit the accent first. You can't really understand it unless you can say it. That means the tongue has to automatically jump into a different position.

Because I work on Spanish daily, my tongue touches my upper teeth when I even start to think in any other language. I had a strange encounter once with a Russian in the United States. When exchanging basic pleasantries in Russian, he suddenly said quite seriously that I did not have an English accent. He was not complimenting me. In fact, he seemed suspicious. That happens in Spanish. A gringo speaking Spanish? Hmmm. Possibly immigration. If you are able to convince them you are not the authorities, they suspect you are a missionary.

Well, I guess in some sense I am on a mission. If you have people in your community who speak another language – and who doesn't? – learning their language is just being a better citizen. It doesn't hurt that it glows like a light on a résumé.

(February, 2011)