‘The best way to learn a language is to immerse yourself in it’

Learning new languages has opened up a world of opportunity for these Irish abroad

Learning a new language can seem like a mammoth challenge, but for those who are really intent on developing fluency, nothing beats full immersion by moving to the country where it is spoken day-to-day. Ahead of European Day of Languages on September 26th, readers living around the world share their experiences of the frustration and joy of learning a new tongue.

Aidan Walsh, the Netherlands: ‘I insisted on only speaking Dutch in social interactions’

Ever since I can remember other languages have fascinated me. Many English-speaking Irish people complain about learning Irish, but my best memories of growing up in Ireland are linked to the language. Activities like Irish debating at school and summer courses at the Irish college in Carrigaholt helped make speaking a second language easy and natural. French was my favourite subject at school, but the bleak atmosphere of the 80s led me to choose an engineering degree.

I took a year out from my course at the University of Sheffield to do an internship at the Philips Research Centre in Eindhoven. It was the first time I spent an extended period of time in a non-English speaking country. During the nine months in Eindhoven I did try to learn some Dutch but the tolerance level of Dutch people was (and is) extremely low. They generally don’t want to speak Dutch with you if you are not reasonably fluent.

After graduating and returning to Ireland I kept learning languages. I took courses in French and German through the Alliance Française and the Goethe Institut. Examinations like DELF/DALF and the ZDF helped to give me focus and motivation. In 1997 I started learning Dutch again and spent a month studying at the University of Amsterdam.


In 1999 an opportunity came up to work in IT in the Netherlands and I wanted to take the chance to come back here and to finally live in a place where I could become really fluent in another language. I insisted on only speaking Dutch in social interactions. I took out a subscription to Elsevier and read newspapers every day. Dutch is a relatively easy language for English speakers but getting fluent takes a lot of will power because it is not uncommon for Dutch people to tell you how terrible you are at their language, and how good they are at English.

After a few months my work seconded me to Düsseldorf. I was glad that I had spent time learning German because I was able to acclimatise quickly and I adopted many of the same language practices like reading a daily newspaper in German.

After I returned to the Netherlands in 2000, I met my wife Agnieszka who is Polish. As things got more serious I started classes in Polish and started to visit Poland more often. Dutch started to become a second language to the point that words would come to me first in Dutch. My Polish got to a reasonable level but I can´t read advanced texts like newspapers or novels.

We have three daughters now - Luna, Daisy and Nadia - and we have brought them up as trilinguals. Their strongest language is Dutch but I only speak to them in English, my wife only uses Polish and they speak Dutch to each other.

I have also learned Spanish, Japanese and Italian to reasonable levels. My father always encouraged us not to go anywhere without learning at least some of the language and I took the guidance very literally. Right now I am taking internet classes in Korean because I am visiting there for the first time in November with my youngest daughter who is a big K-Pop fan. We were in Slovenia in the summer and on a given evening in our house we could be listening to pop songs in Korean, Slovenian, French or any of our languages.

Experiencing so many languages in my life has given me tremendous joy. The only regret I have is that the level of my Irish has deteriorated so much. It’s something I hope to fix in the coming years.

Brian O’Connor, Vancouver: ‘It was one of the most mentally draining times of my life’

I moved to Montlucon, a small city in central France, in 2010 as part of a year-long Erasmus program with IT Sligo. All courses and classes were completely in French. It was one of the most mentally draining times of my life. I was completely immersed in the language, with month after month of mistakes, corrections and embarrassing social situations. But through it all my classmates and teachers were supportive. Very few English speakers choose to go there, so they wanted to help me succeed. Eventually I turned a corner and found myself getting more fluent, picking up colloquialisms and making more friends.

What people don’t tell you about learning a language properly is that you must completely immerse yourself in it and be prepared to make mistakes over and over until you find your feet. You must get out of the head-space of translating everything directly, and gradually understand how people in that language communicate. Books and podcasts are great but nothing beats getting out and being around it 24/7.

After that year I returned to Ireland and soon got a job in customer service with a large multi-national tech company. They hired me because I was an Irish person who spoke French. This job led to other promotions with the company, and eventually took me down a path of a rewarding career in eCommerce. While I now live in Canada and don't use the language as much these days, there's no doubt it helped me get my foot in the door of the industry, which led to other opportunities.

Patrick Conway, South Korea: ‘Awkward silences with my in-laws leave me with regrets’

Describing my Korean level is both complicated and, after 11 years working here, embarrassing. I can read a restaurant menu and order, I can navigate buses and trains and I can greet my wife’s parents. But I can’t string a number of sentences together and if people speak at native speed I’m doomed to stare into space with glazed eyes.

I didn’t have a lick of Korean before I landed here in March 2007. My first job was at an English village in Seoul where one could easily get by without speaking a word of Korean. My Korean coworkers were all great at English and took every opportunity to practice. But perhaps the final nail in the coffin of my Korean learning was my marriage to a Korean two years ago. Effectively she is my babysitter when interacting with locals. Despite my sporadic Korean forays with Duolingo or textbooks I’ve picked up, the long, awkward silences with my in-laws leave me with many regrets.

Michelle Walshe, Morocco: ‘Languages opened not just doors for me, but countries’

The language barrier is a double whammy here - French and Arabic. I began learning French in primary school in Dublin at the age of seven, where I also did extra Irish classes, followed by Latin and German at age 12. I went on to do honours levels in all these languages, and English, in my Leaving Certificate. After school I went to Switzerland, where I studied French and continued to practice German and took up Spanish, Italian and Russian. The more languages I learnt, the more I realised that commonalities exist between them, that words have roots, buried sometimes as far back as Latin, that words cross borders, jump nations, coalesce, separate and re-join again.

Par contre, as they say in French, I was allergic to numbers, so I poured all my energy and concentration into words. Languages opened not just doors for me, but countries, letting me travel confidently, overcome acute shyness by having to physically speak and practice a new language, and make friends in different countries in a time before social media. The ability to speak in another tongue gave me job opportunities I never would have had, let me read books in other languages, discover music of other cultures, watch movies without subtitles.

Multilingualism meant when I went to European countries and spoke their language I immediately bypassed the tourist layer of the experience by meeting local people who gave me a deeper sense of what the country was about. Thankfully I have fluent French, because Arabic is hard!

Lia Quigley, Madrid: ‘We have been met with openness, patience and encouragement’

We have moved to the Spanish capital and life is good. Having come here from Dublin with my English husband in May, we have had different challenges language wise. I am a self employed designer and work in a shared studio space, I also have a recent diagnosis of fibromyalgia, so have had to navigate the Spanish healthcare system. Harry is working in a bilingual office and has limited Spanish. It’s been a steep learning curve for us both but we have been met with openness, patience and encouragement from the madrileños. I believe I am at an advantage as Spanish is my third language having been partly brought up in Brussels. I already understand that there is no such thing as direct translation. There is still a bit of a way to go to integrate but fluency is definitely on its way and friends are being made.

Patrick McKenna, Montreal: ‘I just got on with learning it mostly through osmosis’

In grammar school in Belfast, my profound ineptitude in “foreign” languages got me the strap every day. At GCE O Level, having squeaked through French with an E, I bid adieu and bon débarras to it, as sure as I could be of anything, that I’d never use those other languages ever again.

I was wrong. Thirteen years later, at age 29, I landed in Montreal to start a job which required French and so I just got on with learning it mostly through osmosis: watching TV and movies, listening to songs, reading newspapers and novels, all in French. After three years I was functionally fluent and enjoying my second language experience so much I thought a third would be even more fun, so I signed up at the Goethe Institute. After two years I got my Kleiner Zertifikat Deutsch als Fremdsprache. Many years later I'm back to the language of Goethe, with some undergrad courses at Concordia University in Montreal.

Looking back, if I'd known about my foreign language aptitudes - which we all have, I think - I'd have emigrated to Europe instead of Canada, which never was a cultural fit for me. But je ne regrette rien...I'm so glad to have discovered that I can communicate in more than one language.

Eric Moroney: ‘I enjoy languages as a hobby’

I was born in a small village in Co Limerick. I went to boarding school for two years in the north of France in 1955 at the age of 15. It was an uninterrupted two years so, by the age of 17, when I returned to Ireland my French was already fluent. This was followed by summer jobs in Lyon every year from the age of 22 to the age of 26. I got a degree in Economics and French in UCD in 1966 and was lucky to be offered a job in Paris where I lived for three years.

I married a Chilean girl in 1971 and from her I added Spanish to my fluent French. I enjoy languages as a hobby, among other reasons. I have a passing knowledge of German. I can understand Italian. Every new language makes learning the next one easier. I now live in Dalkey and continue working as a company director mainly because at the age of 78, it keeps my mind active.

Megan Wright, Réunion Island: ‘The best way to learn a language is to immerse yourself in it’

I'm currently living in Saint-Denis on Réunion Island, a tiny, volcanic island in the Indian Ocean, east of Madagascar. I'm teaching English here, so I use English for the most part of my day. But outside work, I need to communicate through French, which I studied as part of my degree, but really the best way to learn a language is to immerse yourself in it. I'm becoming more confident using French now as I was hugely self-conscious of my blatantly foreign accent at the beginning.

Moving to a non English speaking country alone can be daunting. But it also opens your eyes to how lucky we are as English speakers to rarely have the need to know another language. Almost all airports will have signs in English, most places you go the locals will have some small level of English. If a Réunionese came to Ireland and spoke in French, they would not be met with the same politeness and understanding.

Elizabeth O’Donoghue: ‘I’d sit there imagining this was what it must be like to be deaf’

I’ve been married to a Norwegian for over 20 years, and we spend time there twice a year. While the Norwegians love speaking English, they usually tire of it quickly enough. So before I learned Norwegian (at night classes in London), I’d be sitting there bored imagining that this was what it must be like to be deaf. People are speaking but you can’t get what they’re saying.

After moving back to Ireland, I took a short career break (I had been a midwife but was considering going back to nursing). I decided to give freelance translation a go, and it went well. As Norwegian, Danish and Swedish are very similar, I translate from Danish also, and a small bit of Swedish. So learning Norwegian was a bit of a “buy one get two free” deal.

Evelyn Harte: ‘After six months I was able to hold a simple conversation’

I moved to Madrid in 1981 with no knowledge of Spanish. I knew I wanted to work in an office as I didn't like teaching English, so learning Spanish was a must. This was long before internet or laptops so it was a case of knuckling down and learning on my own (I couldn't afford Spanish classes). Once a week I'd buy a Spanish newspaper El País and pick out an article each day to read with a dictionary. I'd ask Spanish friends about words I couldn't find, and little by little I built up my vocabulary. It was hard going but very few Spaniards spoke English back then so it was sink or swim.

After six months I was able to hold a simple conversation and go to the shops without much difficulty, after two years I was quite fluent and landed my first job as a bilingual secretary. From then on it was a case of practising, increasing my vocabulary and improving my spoken Spanish so I would sound like a Spaniard instead of sounding like a foreigner speaking Spanish. I spent two years reading exclusively in Spanish, then I listened to Spanish radio and watched Spanish TV. I also read a Spanish grammar book but the best way to learn is listening, reading and repeating. It was great fun and I really enjoyed myself. Now I’m back in Dublin I’d really like to get practising my cupla focal!

Emma Black: ‘I decided not to take classes in Swedish but learn by living there’

I learned Irish and German in school, but when I lived in Sweden for a year I decided not to take classes in Swedish but instead to just try and learn by living there, talking to locals and trying to go about my daily business in Swedish. I managed to get to a good level of basic conversational Swedish within the year and found this method of learning to be much faster than the methods used in school for both Irish and German. While my written Swedish was not very good, my ability to understand and to speak day-to-day was excellent for someone who had not experienced any form of formal education or classes in the language.

Eoghan Mac Éinrí: ‘Irish speakers brought a positive attitude to new languages’

At the end of two years working as Celtic lecturer in Uppsala University in Sweden, the professor of English Language told me, in Swedish, that he had noticed over the years that the Irish lecturers had all learnt good Swedish which he could not always say of his Anglophone foreign lecturers. The reason, we decided, was that the Irish lecturers had a background in at least one second language (Irish/English) and some multilingual aptitude which prepared them for learning a new language. But as well as an aptitude, the Irish speakers brought a positive attitude to new languages. Irish gave me a respect without borders for other languages which a generally monoglot, anglophone culture often struggles to accommodate.