Any adult who makes a decision to learn a foreign language knows the road will be perilous, long and often frustrating. We pore over books, listen to audio CDs, take classes and commit to memory dozens, if not hundreds, of vocabulary words to make the process quicker and easier. But we all known it isn’t easy and even after years of intense study, we still may find ourselves questioning our own abilities and repeating the same mistakes. But this is okay! It all comes with the territory of learning a foreign language and, as cliché as it may sound, the journey is the reward.
For this post, I decided to interview my lovely wife, Natalya. A native of the Ukraine, Natalya came to the United States at the age of twenty-two accompanied by her mother and younger brother to begin a new life. I wanted to share with you her experiences as a foreigner trying to learn English and some of the challenges she faced and still faces today. Here is her story…
How much English did you known when you first arrived in the United States?
Just a few words, almost nothing. I knew how to say “Hello,” “Thank-you,” “Sorry,” very basic words and phrases just to get by. I took a couple English classes in the Ukraine but they taught me very little.
How did you learn to speak English?
I carried around a dictionary when I first arrived and asked friends and family how to say certain things if I didn’t know how to say them. I took an ESL class (English as a Second Language) at the local college for three months along with my mother and brother where they taught us how to say and write very simple phrases, write our address, etc. I then began working but I worked with other Russians and Ukrainians so my foreign language abilities did not improve very quickly at all. Five years after I arrived in the United States I began taking university level English courses and saw my English improve dramatically. So for the first five years, I learned enough to get by but I wanted to become more proficient, to the point where I could speak fluently with any native English speaker.
How long did it take you to become fluent in English?
I’m still in the process of learning and, although I can communicate freely with any native English speaker, I don’t think I will ever become completely fluent.
What did you find most challenging about learning English?
The rules of the English language are not always clear. There seem to be a lot of exceptions and I find it difficult to remember them all. Pronunciation is easy, but it’s the exceptions that still confuse me at times because my native language has very few exceptions.
Do you feel you still struggle with English?
I still do, especially when speaking to someone on the phone. When I can’t see the person I’m speaking to, the fear of not being understood kind of paralyzes me so that is something I still struggle with quite often.
Do you think in your native language or in English?
It depends. When I’m at work, I think in English because I earned my nursing degree in the United States and my nursing education was in English. If I’m thinking about things I learned while in the Ukraine, then I automatically think in my native language. So it all depends on the topic.
What advice would you give someone who, like you, came to the United States from a foreign country without knowing how to speak English?
Don’t be afraid to speak up or to make mistakes. I think a lot of foreigners who are trying to learn English hold back because they fear being rejected or humiliated if they don’t speak perfectly. Try to surround yourself with native English speakers as much as possible and you will improve quickly. Go to school and take classes that will challenge you and force you to learn English. You’ll be surprised by the results.
What were some of your experiences learning a new language in a foreign country? Share your comments below!