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Pandemic restrictions have left many of us with unexpected pockets of free time, and some are determined to make it count by learning new skills, including being able to speak a new foreign language. While expanding our linguistic horizons is a noble goal, it can be difficult to stick with something when every day is a new roller coaster. So how can you persevere? We asked Marike Korn of LinguaLinkDC to give us some top tips for staying on track:

Hi Marike! First off, could you tell us a little bit about yourself?

I run a company called LinguaLinkDC offering customized English and German coaching, and U.S. cultural and intercultural communication training. I work with people who come here from abroad and help them advance in their careers and adapt to life in the United States in English. It is very important for me to not only teach English, but also American history and culture. I am extremely passionate about helping my clients with their language skills and with becoming culturally fluent so that they can feel they are a part of the society they live in. 

The fact that I am bilingual in English and German has been such an integral part of who I am and has unlocked so many doors for me in life. I strongly believe that an inclusive worldview allows us to look beyond our cultural expectations of what is “normal”. It can bring people together, put our own societies into perspective and help us empathize with each other to truly connect. The spot we occupy on this planet is really small. Working with people from all over the world really puts that into perspective.

Besides my work, I am vegan and love veganizing recipes from all over  the world. Food brings people together, and I love nothing more than creating a family, a community of people who support each other. I am really bad at making German food, but my tiramisu is famous among my friends. International relations and politics in general fascinate me. I guess my passion for politics makes me very D.C. Before the pandemic, I used to also go and see bands play a lot. My husband runs a record store, so music is a constant in our lives. We are very connected with a music scene that was born in D.C. and has produced bands like Minor Threat, for example.

How many languages did you speak pre-pandemic, and how many are you working on speaking now?              

I certainly upped my own language game with the start of the pandemic. Before I had basic knowledge of Spanish, Russian, Greek, French, and Turkish; and had already started to work on my Italian with a teacher. When the pandemic started, I decided to make it my goal to be able to say that “if the pandemic gave me one positive thing, it is going to be improved language skills in at least two languages” so I looked at my language-to-do list and decided that I wanted to focus on my French and Italian. I would say I have improved a lot following my own strategies and also by forming a language support pod with one of my really good friends. Since then, we have been studying French and Italian together keeping each other motivated and pushing each other to do the work.

There are obviously a lot of languages out there to choose from; do you have any recommendations for how people can narrow down their options?             

Find a personal connection. What draws you in? What kind of literature, movies, and music do you like? What about family and friends? Where do you like to travel? What languages do you find beautiful? What about similarities between a language you already know that could help you learn another one? Is there a language that would help you advance in your career?

Are there specific methods you’d suggest to help people learn a new language?

1) Watch TV with subtitles in your target language (even if you are watching something in English).
2) For more advanced learners, watch TV in your target language with subtitles in that language.
3) Watch TV actively, take a notebook, dedicate it to your practice, take note of vocabulary you come across. Revisit that vocabulary on a regular basis.
4) Work with a highly trained language coach. It makes a huge difference when you work with a professional who can support you and keep you motivated.
5) Listen to music in your target language and translate the lyrics.
6) Start a diary in your target language. Look up new words to increase your vocabulary.
7) Skip group lessons unless you want a grammar overview.
8) Translate articles.
9) Talk to yourself in your target language.
10) Read, read, read. Talk! Talk! Talk! As much as possible!

Are there specific apps you would recommend?                                                   

Apps can help when you want to build up your vocabulary from zero to something. I like Duolingo and Memrise. They are not that useful for people who are more advanced though.

Once people have the tools they need, what are some sustainable ways to get learning that can help prevent burnout?

Your language journey should always be joyful and never feel like a chore. Nowadays, a lot of people suffer from anxiety because of all the pressures life has in store for us. Learning a new language should never cause you stress. Look at it as a form of self-care for the mind instead. A beautiful practice that will enrich your life. Your attitude towards the process can make a real difference. Laugh at your failures. Take it easy! I always tell my clients to be gentle with themselves. Allowing ourselves to go slow despite our fast-paced societies can create room to grow and open up space in our minds. This is certainly one of the secrets to sustain language learning.

If someone does start to feel a level of burnout, or frustration, or boredom, or etc., what are your main tips to help them stay on track?

Most language coaches skip over the psychological component of language learning. I, however, feel it is essential to prevent any kind of negative feelings that might inhibit your progress or might even make you give up all together. Here are some tips for these negative feelings that sometimes creep in:

Fall in love with your target language, and always stay positive. Don’t focus on failures. Focus on successes. Visualize and emotionalize your goals. Imagine situations where you will use your target language successfully. Try to picture these situations, try to feel the positive emotions you would be feeling if you could speak that language. Ask yourself: what would it feel like and look like if I could use my target language in different situations? Imagine what you can achieve not what might limit you.Don’t be afraid. Focus on the journey. Learning a language is a process. It is one of the most difficult things you can learn because it is about human communication, but it is also one of the most rewarding.Don’t take yourself too seriously. Laugh about your mistakes. Don’t overthink it. Just do!Make sure you don’t feel overwhelmed. That can lead to frustration. Follow your own pace. It is ok to go slow. Remember – this is about self-care, not a marathon. 

In terms of real life experience, obviously travel is off the table for a while, which would be the ultimate immersive experience, but are there other practical ways that people can work on their conversational skills? 

Dive into your target language headfirst. Focus on experiential practice. Go on socially-distanced hikes with your fellow language poddies. Have a picnic! Create your own TikTok documenting your language practice. There are numerous ways you can make this fun. It all depends on what you love and then combine that with your practice.

What other advice might you give to someone who’s just starting out?

Start building up your vocabulary with basic sentences. One step at a time. Have fun! A new language is the most beautiful thing you can learn. It will change your life, and open doors you never thought were there, and you never thought you ever wanted to walk through. It really all boils down to a positive can-do mindset. Get excited!

Lastly, what’s a language you haven’t tackled yet but that’s on your list to eventually learn?

I have dabbled in Turkish and Greek and got some basics, but I want more. I love the sound of these two languages. I also really like the music of Selda Bağcan, Mazhar ve Fuat and Mikis Theodorakis. I grew up in Germany so Turkish is especially dear to me. Turkish speaks to my heart in a special way evoking memories of a unique cultural mix only found in places like Berlin. I love Berlin, especially Neukölln and Kreuzberg. When I hear Turkish, I am reminded of these places. I also want to learn Japanese and Russian. NYC pales in comparison to Tokyo. When you go to Tokyo, you realize that fashion and design, for example, take their cues from Japan. With Russian, I find the history of the country fascinating; and am especially interested in some of the art that has come out of that context throughout history, Soviet Rock, for example, like Kino but also more contemporary music. There seems to be an interesting scene in Novosibirsk with bands like Ploho. I also like the Belarusian band Molchat Doma. I can’t wait to understand the lyrics. You see it is all about finding joy in the process.


Featured photo by Farah Skeiky