Learning Languages in Manipal

Manipal is one of the most diverse places you’ll ever have the pleasure of living in. In just my very first week here, I met students from Botswana, the US, Canada, and from all the Indian states I knew about and even some that I’d never heard of (sorry Tripura). My crewmates in MTTN tell me the same story: Kazakhstan, Mexico, Dubai, Qatar, Malaysia, Singapore and countless more countries have a presence in Manipal. One of the ways you can take advantage of this fact is by learning a new language.

 

If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart. -Nelson Mandela

 

‘That’s all fine Vishnu, but why bring this up? A laptop and an internet connection are enough for me to learn a new language.’

Alright, let’s think about language for a second. Try to remember the last time you had a conversation. Did you struggle for words and think about what language you used? Did you consciously think about grammar? Of pauses, intonation, predicates, conjunctions and pronunciation? Or did you evaluate the sentence structure of the person you were speaking with? My guess is that you probably didn’t do any of the above; it just came to you naturally. You have something to say, and you say it, the language centers of your brain take care of all the processing and the ugly details. Language is not a logical thought process, but this is what most language courses, both online and in the real-world, make it out to be. It is something that you acquire, that you internalize.

Let me convince you further, ‘No, that’s not really necessary Vishnu…’ Please, I insist. Have you ever met a cousin (or any kid really) when they were around five years old? Think about how they talked to you in their native language. Great vocabulary, check. Basic grammar, absolutely. What about idioms and slang? Surprisingly yes. How do these kids skip years of study? I couldn’t take the suspense and asked one of my little cousins.  ‘What’s your secret kid? You take a Harvard course when I wasn’t looking? Maybe you downloaded the Rosetta Stone? There’s gotta be something that you did!’ Sure, he just stared at me like I had something on my face (which made sense since I wear glasses), but suddenly, I was in on the secret:

 

Kids learn languages so well because they’re not afraid of sounding stupid!
-Me, circa 2016 AD

 

It doesn’t matter to them how awful their sentences are, or if they’re using the right tenses, they need to communicate and they end up doing exactly that! They don’t care that their vocabulary is small, they have body language. And over time, they acquire the language, they listen to their elders speak and emulate them, without self-doubt. And there lies the elusive secret, you could spend months memorizing hundreds of words of Spanish or learn to read and write Hindi for 6 years of middle school, and never learn to converse. ‘Ek gaon mein ek kisan rehtha tha’ doesn’t help you ask for directions to the local mall.

‘Ah, but we all knew that already. Children learn languages quicker!’

No, that’s a myth I’m afraid. I won’t delve into the science of it, so as to not bore you (and myself), but studies show that children have an advantage only when it comes to native level pronunciation. Adolescents and adults actually learn languages quicker and more thoroughly when they do it the right way. And the correct way according to many linguists and polyglots (multiple-language speakers), is immersion in the language. Where you use the language, think in the language, and become one with the language. (Be like Yoda.)

I searched the internet, and sure enough, there are examples. There was a project by Scott Young and Vat Jaiswal, ‘The Year Without English’, where they traveled to various countries and immersed themselves in the local culture and had to make do with a few words of vocabulary initially, and they sounded awful. But we get to see as their conversations in their target language, even tough ones like Mandarin and Korean, improve drastically over a period of just a few weeks! Another example—The famously effective Middlebury Language Schools have all their students pledge to use only the language they are studying for the entire duration of their program, even warning them about expulsion should they fall back on their native tongue. And this, forcing yourself to speak a new language, makes sense! Biologically, since you’re using the language centers of your brain directly and not depending solely on logic, and intuitively and behaviourally, since practice makes perfect. Here’s one of the most important things I took away from my research (a.k.a poker-faced googling):

You don’t need to be good at a language to be fluent at it!

Our approaches are usually to buy a ‘Learn X in 30 days’ book, cross our fingers and hope for the best. But it’s not going to work unless we actually begin speaking. Language study is good for us, undoubtedly. But it has to supplement your speaking, not comprise it. So if you want to learn a language, start babbling! Many people, including me, believe that speaking a language poorly to a native speaker might frustrate them. But the opposite is true, most people are flattered that you’re making the effort to learn their language, and will be willing to help you learn it. ‘What’s in it for them?’ Well, think about what language you’d rather have a conversation in, native or learned? Your native languages will always be a part of you, regardless of how fluent you might become in others.

 

Languages of the world word cloud illustration. Word collage concept.

So, Immersion, now that was interesting, but most of us can’t afford to jump on a plane and travel to Paris to learn French! Luckily, this is where Manipal comes in (saving our money, now that’s a first). With a population of more than 25,000 students, I’m willing to wager that there are more than a few native speakers of the language you’re trying to learn. Couple that with the influx of foreign interns from all over the world, and you’ve got a melting pot of cultures, set against the backdrop of academic interest, making Manipal one of the best places in the world to learn a language.

‘Great, I want to learn a new language right now, what do I do?’

  • Start speaking from day one, don’t wait to get better or to gain confidence. Babble!
  • Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. In fact, I encourage you to make them! (In Tamil, for example, you only have to confuse motham and mutham once, for you to never forget it. Ever.)
  • Find like-minded people. Manipal is a ridiculously well-connected place, use it to your benefit and try talking in your target language whenever you get the chance. Use FB to network smartly; try searching ‘People from <insert country or state> in Manipal’.
  • Join an online course to kickstart and supplement your speaking. Don’t depend solely on the course. Try Duolingo, Rosetta Stone, Fluent in 3 months, or any of the countless services out there.
  • Join one of the many language courses offered by the Department of European Studies in Manipal, some being: Spanish, French, Italian, German and Japanese. Contact them at 0820-2923053.

And last, we’ll leave you with a cleverly disguised yet completely true marketing pitch: Stay tuned to MTTN! We might have something in the works for you language learners in the near future.

-Qais Akolowala and Vishnu Deva for MTTN

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