“I think this language hates me, I can’t remember anything.”
“I’m giving up. Languages are just not for me.”
“Tell me the truth, am I just dumb? It seems like others can do this so well…”
For the last two years as a teacher I’ve heard it all when it comes to language problems. Students have cried in class. Students have insulted themselves, insulted the language, insulted the teachers and insulted their own mothers over not being able to conjugate a verb properly.
Some even got up at a certain point and left the classroom accusing me of lying to them – after all, I had told them they could learn a language…and they couldn’t (or so they thought).
Why Does Learning a New Language Feel so Hard?
Learning a new language – even as an adult, or perhaps especially as an adult – makes us feel like we are back to being children. We feel vulnerable, exposed, ridiculous and incapable. We feel dumb. So what is the answer? Waiting for years until you develop your confidence and then learn the language? Not quite.
Let me share my personal tips on how I inspired my students to continue their journey with English, and how I, a passionate and often frustrated language learner, deal with it myself.
10 Key Changes to Learn a New Language Once and for All
Enjoy being ridiculous
Few things in life can make you as humble as learning a new language. Ever since I’ve started learning languages, I’ve accidentally insulted my entire nation, had sweaty palms when meeting new people, gone blank several times during lessons and smiled back awkwardly when I had no idea how to reply. The lesson? You will be ridiculous. There’s no way around it. Don’t avoid it, don’t hate it, don’t fear it. Being ridiculous is one of many ways your brain has to remind you that you still care about your own development and that you still have room to be a better version of yourself!
Do whatever it is you need to do
How often have you heard that listening to music is a great way to become fluent? Or that memorising lists of verbs is what you need to be a better speaker? I used to promote these tips and even gave them to my students many times, until I’ve accepted that they weren’t working for me either. Here’s the truth: if you need to improve speaking, you need to start speaking. All else will undoubtedly help make you a better communicator, but it is only complementary and enhancing, not the core practice you should be following. The same goes for all other language skills, depending on your goals. Speaking of which…
Do not mistake reception for production
There is a difference between receiving language and producing language. Speaking and writing force you to produce language. Reading and listening are comprehension skills. They are intimately related and can help improve the other, but doing one exclusively means the other will necessarily suffer. It will then take longer to reach an advanced level. Decide which language skills matter the most to you (most people would choose speaking first, literacy later), and create a plan around those skills. If your goal is to learn a language overall, I always advise speaking first.
Make your learning as personal as possible
It always impresses me how my students can recite an entire list of jobs in a second language: “engineer, actor, teacher, singer, waiter”. But as soon as I ask them: “What’s your job?” or “What’s your mother’s job?” they come to the realisation that they had never thought about it or how to say it. I used to make the same mistake, but now I’ve learned that your learning should be all about you. I’ve stopped following the typical structures that force me to learn about directions I never ask for, and food ingredients I never use before they allow me to choose what topics I’m interested in. Flexibility comes first.
Create your own study materials
In the book “Fluent Forever”, polyglot Gabriel Wyner shows the more involved you are in the creation of your own study materials – whether that be texts, flashcards or songs – the more likely you are to remember the words. And isn’t that logical? It’s directly related to making your learning more personal. Choosing your own images for your flashcards, copying a text with your own handwriting, creating a collage of your favourite song lyrics or writing a short poem with new words you’ve learned is not only more creative, but more memorable overall.
Forget what they taught you in school
Well, not exactly “what they taught you”, but rather “how they taught you to do it”. See, school is a fantastic thing: it teaches us how to better memorise, be selective with our resources, be dedicated and discover more about the world. But it also teaches us to obsess over GPAs, midterms and lists of verb conjugations. It teaches us to worry about looking good. It teaches us to prepare for things that’ll come in a couple of months, when the real world is way more spontaneous, flexible and demanding. Most language learners keep self-sabotaging as grown-ups because their main focus is still competition, perfection, showing others how much you know and “being prepared”. That is not how real life works, especially not with language learning.
Create a sense of urgency
If you need to develop your language fast for any particular reason, it’s time to create a sense of urgency. Join a class with actual teachers who will keep you accountable, as this will force you to show up more often and give you immediate feedback. You can also commit to tracking and sharing your progress online by joining language communities on social media and participating in language challenges. Some of these include speaking your language every day for a month or joining a language marathon.
Understand what is useful and what is wasting your time
Avid language learners tend to love detailed journals, huge manuals, countless grammar materials and hanging out with other language lovers on Twitter (cough cough…me!). It’s alright to dedicate time to your community and materials you love, but be careful not to waste your time on things that aren’t…well…learning your target language! Sometimes we create the illusion of learning when we are actually just relaxing or asking for tips, which means staying in our comfort zone. Actual learning comes with practice and making lots of mistakes!
Learn chunks, not words
Language teachers often advise their students against memorising words in isolation. I agree. It is much better to learn how native speakers use these new words in context. In order to avoid speaking like Tarzan next time you have an encounter with a native speaker, use chunk learning, which focuses less on grammar and way more on expressions people use every day and how they use them.
Accept that it’ll never be over
My students often ask me “When will I be fluent?”. This is the million dollar question in language learning. What do you mean by fluent? B2? C1? Reaching a native-like level? Having a certificate by an important institution? If you are committed to learning a language, accept that language is a living being that has been developing for centuries and continues growing, shifting, creating itself and destroying itself. That’s the beauty of learning a language – it is never over, and millions of people before you have brought it to this point.
In the end, learning a new language is as much about vocabulary and pronunciation as it is about learning more about yourself.
What motivates you?
What frustrates you?
What are some habits and beliefs your educational system has placed upon you and that are holding you back (or, on the other hand, helping you)?
What small habits can you change to take you one step further?