Have you ever been in a situation(s) where you were making significant progress in the language you are/were learning and then suddenly hit a wall not knowing what happened? This happens all too often with language learners that many don’t know how to get off their learning plateau that it ends up crippling their motivation to the point where a multitude of people give up on the language(s) entirely. Their discouragement is usually followed with one of the following phrases:
“I just don’t have the language learning gene.“, “I don’t have the knack for learning languages” or simply put: “I’m just not good at languages.”
These phrases annoy me to no end because not only is it NOT TRUE but the people saying that are unwilling to devote the time and effort or simply expected too many results in small amount of time!
There are various tasks that you can do to make your learning experience much more enjoyable than just following one way. It’s safe to say that most of you reading this have used or are currently using a textbook (in a classroom), self-study course book (Teach Yourself, Assimil, etc), a website (LingQ, Language Pod 101, iTalki, LiveMocha, etc) or a computerised product (Rosetta Stone, Instant Immersion, etc).
If you are learning a classroom sitting there is a very high chance that your instructor has forbade you from skipping ahead or using anything that goes outside the framework of the course. They want you to follow each lesson chapter by chapter until you learn it throw rote repetition. Unfortunately what the vast majority of language teachers fail to realise is that foreign languages are too complex to be taught as simple school subject like maths or science.
Do things YOU like in the new language(s)
If it is something that you enjoy doing, it will no longer be strenuous and unattainable for you. You might even have fun in the language. This is the motivational boost that keeps me going when I’ve had enough and did not want to do anything else in the language. Such as watching movies, YouTube, reading blogs, etc in the target language.
I kept doing things I disliked doing in the languages that I was learning that it caused my motivation to fall to point of eventually giving up on the language. Once I started doing things that catered to my interests and hobbies that it increased my motivation considerably. It no longer became a chore and it was actually engaging for me to keep learning the languages.
What works for me might not work for you.
Everybody has their own way or method of learning (a) new language(s) and it is ultimately up to you what you do in the language that pushes you to make progress in the language(s). With that being said, if the traditional method works for you then by all means go for it. It does not work for me and so what I do what I can to avoid it. Find what works for you by testing out various methods until you find what does work for YOU. This could also mean using a combination of methods and products to get results in the language.
I was always discouraged from trying to deviate from the course and actually try to do self-study without the guide of the textbook and the teacher’s exact method. Most people kept telling me that if I wanted to learn a language fluently that I would have to take several classes in school and follow their coursework exactly. It didn’t work for me! I was left discouraged, unmotivated, and made to feel like fluently was an impossible task for truly talented people.
When I finally decided to learn on my own through what ever I could find people thought that I must be really smart, have the language learning gene or have some sort of alternative brain function that allows for multilingualism. [sarcasm] So my brain came from an alien from outer space and that is the reason I have a passion for learning languages? It all makes sense now! [/sarcasm]
Spend EVERYDAY in the language and devote as much DEAD TIME as YOU can.
So what do I mean by this? I mean spending anytime you have free (Waiting in line, sitting on a tram/train, on a break at your job, etc) in the target language. This could mean listening to podcasts in the target language while you do other things (ex: cooking, cleaning the house, gardening, jogging, etc). In fact right now as I am writing this post I am listening to a podcast in one of the target languages I’m learning.
Probably one of the reasons why I did not make significant progress in the languages I was learning was because I was only devoting maybe an hour or two for the entire day. Some days it is was listening to an odd song or two in the language and that was it. When I did devote time to the language it was listening to the CDs that accompanied my Teach Yourself book and doing up to 3 lessons in one sitting and then burning out from studying too much and then spending the rest of the day in my native language (well what ended up becoming my native language anyway).
Gradually spend more and more time with the language until you can spend most of the day (if not all day) in the target language. Probably something that I should have done so much at one time. Nowadays I do mostly listening but I still read, write and rarely speak. Unlike in the several language classes I had taken.
Speak when YOU are ready!
Everyone who has a taken a language class at school knows that the instructor almost ALWAYS tries to get their students to output (speaking and writing) immediately. When the instructor knows well that the students do NOT have the passive vocabulary to use to write essays and express what the want to say outside of the current chapter. The student is either forced to use the dictionary or try find a way to express the same thing without it.
This occurrence happened in EVERY language class that I have taken(Which were 3 courses in French, 1 course in Mandarin, 1 course in German and 3 courses in Japanese). This is what made me feel uncomfortable speaking with a native speaker (and my tutors when I took classes in college) because my vocabulary was so limited and I doubt they would want to hear about you talking about what colour of everything in your house is, how much you really like pizza or asking stupid questions you would not ask someone in your native language.
I am not saying that classes don’t teach you useful phrases. I am simply stating that most of what you learn will be unauthentic and make be the very thing that outs you as a foreigner.
But these phrases can easily be found in a typical phrasebook. I remember in one of my Japanese textbooks (Nakama) it had a section to “set up a bank account” in Japan. I remember the dialogues in that book being so unrealistic that I could not imagine saying those exact words to a bank clerk in Japan.Especially since setting up a bank account is much more difficult than the textbook would lead you to believe.
When I went to Japan a second time I felt like I could understand the signs at lot better than my time there and I could hold up a better conversation with the locals and say much more than could when I was there the first time. Most of this was from activating the passive vocabulary I obtained from input (reading and listening) prior to departure (No I did not cram just before I left although I continued to do things that interested ME in Japanese with whatever free time I did have.)
Credit driven classmates are discouraging
They exist everywhere in every single language class you will find them. When the teacher asks the class to practise speaking the language, they always seem to find a way out of it. Let’s face they are just there to get credits for their degree and to use it on their CV that they have “experience” in the language. Knowing full well that they will NEVER use it outside of the classroom. (If they do, they are meeting with the tutor to practically do the assignment for them so that they can get good marks. Nothing else!)
I found it extremely frustrating when I wanted to practise speaking and they didn’t even bother. It’s worse if they have (a) friend(s) in the class because now they have more initiative to NOT practise the language with you. Remember the only thing that matters to them are receiving good marks.
They are the reason why it is IMPERATIVE to supplement what you learn in a classroom outside on your own.
Many of these students caused my motivation for that language to plummet when I was in the classroom. In fact I was more willing to use the language outside of the classroom but there was usually the problem of finding a native speaker to practise with.
Nobody to practise with.
At some point or other you need to start outputting (speaking and writing) and finding someone who speaks your target language depends on whether it is easy to find native speakers in your area or if you have to either travel to the country or find someone off a site like Lang 8 or iTalki and use Skype (make sure you at least have microphone built into your laptop’s webcam, or have either a headset or microphone so that way you can practise speaking. Use can video (if you have a webcam) as well to simulate that you are in the presence of the native speaker.)
One of my biggest challenges when it comes to learning languages always stems from not having a native speaker to practise speaking the language. It was easy for me to find someone to chat with and get corrections of my writing in the past but actually getting someone to speak with you is quite difficult. Especially if you not in country nor have a local that is either studying or living abroad in your country.
Many people seem to choice popular languages (English, German, French, Spanish, Italian, Russian, Japanese and Mandarin) over languages that are less useful (Catalan, Danish, Dutch, Estonian, Finnish, Norwegian, Swedish) because they think that it going to be the most useful. Fair enough, especially if you go the Netherlands or Scandinavian you will find people who already speak English to such a high fluency that you can literally get back for decades not knowing the language and do just fine.
However, every language (excluding dying languages)has its usefulness whether you realise it or not. For example: In Denmark you will find that most of the signs are in Danish and not everywhere as an English translation for what it is. Even though you could get a local to translate what it is for you easily, not everyone is willing to translate every single thing for you. You may also find yourself isolated from the locals when they speak to each other in their native tongue.
I have had people ask me: “Why are you learning that language? Don’t you know that you can get by with English there?”
What they don’t know is that getting by and not actually thriving in the country. Some expats really make me wonder why they even bothered leaving their own country to be begin with because they have basically created a little “Australia”, “USA”, “Italy”, etc in the new country. They live in their own bubble and speak anything but the local language and often ignore important culture aspects and wonder why they got in trouble. Khatzumoto has a article on this topic with expats in Japan. There are certain amenities you can get when you do speak the language. Yes, even if they speak English.
A good example of this is when I was visiting family and friends in Scandinavia and used Danish and Swedish as much as possible. People were much more friendly with me and were happy that I was actually making an effort in their native language. Making friends is easier when they know you are genuinely making an effort to learn their language to fluency. (Note: I used to be able to speak both languages natively as a child but after growing up in an English speaking country, it significantly weakened my abilities in both languages. More so in Danish.)
Don’t let people discourage you from learning it because it doesn’t have as many speakers as one of the major languages or if you can get by only using your native language. If you want to work in place like The Netherlands, Denmark or Sweden you will need to learn the local language in order to get a job easier and be apart of their society. English may not be impressive enough and therefore you will not only need to learn their native language but another major language like French or German as well to even be considered.
Ultimately a language usefulness to you will depend on whether you plan on using the language(s) as part of your daily life. (In country, online: (Skype, forums, chat-rooms,etc), with customers that speak the target language as their native language, etc). A language is far from useless if you use it as a part of your everyday life.
Tell me about the failures you overcame/are currently overcoming in learning your target language(s) or what made you give up learning the target language(s) in the comments below!