How To Decode Your Way To Foreign Language Brilliance

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Foreign Language Brilliance

Learning to decode a foreign language is not only a fun process, but it’s good for your brain!

Garansi lebih cepat dingin atau uang kembali! 

We saw these words on the back of a taxi in Jakarta.

Our Indonesian friends will surely get a laugh out of this language-learning exercise. But I share it here as an illustration of how to go about decoding what previously seemed unintelligible to us.

How We Figured This Out

Immediately our language-learning interest was piqued, and we began to analyze and decode.

“We just learned the word ‘dingin’ when buying a green tea. The shopkeeper had asked us, ‘Dingin?’ We figured out it meant ‘cold,’” Caroline said.

“And I know the word, ‘atau,’ I added excitedly. It means “or.”

“The word ‘garansi’ looks like ‘guarantee,’ noted Caroline.

“I think ‘cepat’ means ‘fast’ because our driver said something about going somewhere fast.”

“So let’s see.  Guaranteed fast cold or something, something.  And what does lebih mean?

A quick look on Google Translate yielded lebih = more, uang = money, and kembali = back.

So we had it! Guaranteed faster cooling, or money back! We used our skills to decode this ad for an air conditioner!

Extending What We Learned

I wondered if the word “lebih” in front of an adjective (cepat) was like putting “er” after our adjectives. Sure enough, “lebih panas” means “hotter,” “lebih hebat” means greater, etc.

We began to play around with the words of the advertisement, saying them slower or faster and with different emotions. Maybe we could impress our friends at home by saying the words quickly to make us sound like impressive Indonesian speakers!

Later, as we walked around a mall, we saw the words “garansi uang kembali” a couple of times. Money-back guarantee!

One Reason I Love To Be In Another Country…And Some Tricks

This is why I love being in a country when learning language. I am surrounded by language-rich material to practice, and daily living regularly reinforces what we’re learning. It also sharpens my skills to decode and works my brain.

Exploring a new place makes me feel like a child again. Taking in new words, making inferences and generalizations, trying a phrase out, playing with language, figuring out what an oft-heard phrase means–it’s fun!

After I studied a language or two, it also got easier. I now know that I need to learn the basic sentence word order (S-V-O or S-O-V). Also, I need to know how verbs’ tenses and endings work as well as the pronouns (I, you, he, she, it, we, they). I must become familiar with basic words like go, come, eat, drink. I need numbers and question words. And I must master basic phrases like “How much is that? Where is the bathroom? No, thank you. That was delicious, etc.”

And then, I need sentence patterns. Phrases I can use again and again with different words. For example, “Do you have …?” “I want …,” “How do I say …?” etc.

The Key Ingredient

Finally, I need an attitude. I’ll call it the Mitali Mode. Almost 30 years ago, Caroline and I traveled in China with a group of good friends, one of whom was named Mitali. Mitali is a person who grabs language learning by the throat and doesn’t let go. She would learn a word or phrase, then rush out to the market to try it out. Sometimes her enthusiasm would outpace her understanding, but she was undaunted.

So I need to put on a “go-for-it” Mitali Mode. Rather than be shy, I need to be willing to extend myself beyond my comfort zone and try. The worst thing that can happen is that my listener won’t understand me. If that happens, at least I’ve learned how not to say something.

In the end, there is nothing more satisfying while learning a language than to come to the point where you have an extended, successful interaction completely in the other language. Afterwards, there is a wonderful sense of having entered into another culture and experienced it in a new way.


What works for you when learning languages?


Dale DePalatis

Dale DePalatis

Editor & Interculturalist at CultureWeave
The husband of the principal founder of CultureWeave, Dale is a high school teacher of English with an M.A. in English Literature from Stanford University. With a passion for language learning (including Italian, German, and Japanese), he loves the way the brain expands when studying overseas and experiencing new cultures. He also loves reading, traveling, running, and enjoying meaningful conversations about life’s deep questions.
Dale DePalatis
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The husband of the principal founder of CultureWeave, Dale is a high school teacher of English with an M.A. in English Literature from Stanford University. With a passion for language learning (including Italian, German, and Japanese), he loves the way the brain expands when studying overseas and experiencing new cultures. He also loves reading, traveling, running, and enjoying meaningful conversations about life’s deep questions.