The British are officially the worst language learners in Europe! According to a survey published by the European Commission, their bad reputation when it comes to learning foreign languages is totally justified. 62% of people surveyed can’t speak any foreign language. The average for people in the EU is 44%. So, if you are learning a language, well done – you are in the minority!
Learning a language is something humans are born to do. It’s an instinct we have. However, a lot of people say that learning languages is too difficult, or they just aren’t good at it, and they very quickly give up. It’s a constant battle trying to learn a different sentence structure, tenses, new vocabulary, idioms and verb conjugation. A lot of people try to memorise long lists of new words or try learning independently from textbooks. But this can get really boring very quickly and people inevitably lose interest.
When learning your first language as a baby, it’s highly unlikely that your parents just gave you plain, drab textbooks and bored you with complicated grammar. You probably started off just listening to people, and for the first year or two you would have repeated their sounds, but not anything that made any sense. But all of a sudden, with practice, things begin to fall into place. You would have started using new words and building sentences without understanding the grammar. Eureka!
This is how learning any language works. The sounds come first. You familiarise yourself with the sound and rhythm of the language before you start to speak it. It’s like a melody.
So what learning methods should we be adopting? From my experience of learning three foreign languages, the book and grammar approach is the slowest and the least engaging. Your motivation can disappear very, very quickly. Memorising huge lists of words and verbs with no context can turn learning a language into a chore and you just won’t enjoy it.
Studying in context rather than purely the language itself is a lot more effective. Learning about the culture behind the language first, then reading and (more importantly) listening to stories and conversations which are of interest to you will be far more engaging and will keep you motivated. You’ll be able to actually pick up on the rhythm of the speech, understand how native speakers construct their sentences, and acquire the vocabulary.
It’s very important to choose resources that are right for your level, because if the percentage of unknown words is too high it can be difficult for your brain to figure out what they mean. If you can understand at least 70% of the words being used in speech, your brain will fill the gaps in more effectively.
Some people have the confidence to repeat the words and sounds they learn from listening to other people speaking. They like to practice through speech. However, others are afraid to converse until they have a good enough level of vocabulary and grammar. They are afraid of making mistakes. However, it’s important to just start saying things even if you are making errors. It’s essential to get used to creating sounds which might sound strange and uncomfortable. Don’t worry about not being correct. Native speakers always appreciate when you make the effort.
So what about the grammar? My native language is Polish, and when I was learning English I focused so much on the grammar and writing that I wasn’t able to understand what people were saying to me. It took me years to reach fluency. According to the latest research, focusing on grammar might help you speak more correctly but the results aren’t as drastic as you might think. Spending the same amount of time listening will help you learn the language much faster.
I took a completely different approach with Spanish. Before starting to learn the language, I set myself the target of being able to speak it with confidence within a year. Most people thought it was rather ambitious, but I do like a challenge! I wanted to be able to hold a conversation quickly. I started studying the science behind learning a language in more depth and I quickly discovered that “total immersion” was the way to go. I downloaded loads of apps, dictionaries and podcasts; I changed my iPhone menu to Spanish and started my journey.
Practice and patience makes perfect
In the beginning I didn’t understand anything at all. It felt overwhelming. Luckily, I found a lot of resources for beginners. I started using Duolingo and Babbel and listening to podcasts. I always used binaural tones during learning to help me focus and memorise. I enjoyed the daily progress. I immersed myself in the language and spent a few hours a day mainly on listening during transition times: driving, cooking, running… any spare moment I had. I listened to Spanish music, translated the lyrics and even tried singing. I’m glad there was nobody in the room!
After just three months I was able to hold a basic conversation in a restaurant. It motivated me even more. Once I’d developed some basic knowledge I got myself an online teacher to practice my conversational skills. I had 2-4 hours per week of pure conversation, which helped build my confidence and eliminate errors. The important thing was to speak to my teacher about topics I was interested in so I always looked forward to my lessons. Within a year I was fully conversational in Spanish.
One thing you need to learn is patience. It will not happen overnight. It’s important to practice every day. Even if it’s only ten minutes, you will make progress. It’s vital though that you make daily contact with the language. If you can’t find 10 minutes in your day you might need to look at your diary and make some changes.
According to the latest scientific research, one of the most effective learning methods is spaced repetition. It’s better to revise words or phrases every day for five days than five times on a single day. You can use flashcards for this.
Spaced repetition is based on the theory of the ‘forgetting curve’. If you don’t review the material at intervals and try to cram it in one go, you will soon forget it and won’t be able to use it when you try to have a conversation. Your mind will just go blank. There are some great apps for this that you can just pick up whenever you have a spare moment in the day.
Also, if you want to memorise languages faster, learn before going to bed. It will slow down the rate of memory deterioration.
It is possible to communicate in a foreign language with confidence within a year. You just need to use the right methods. Don’t be afraid to mix and match different strategies to see what works for you.
If you’ve decided to study a language, well done. Learning a language will make you happier, improve your mental health, increase your brain capacity and memory, and it’s even been found beneficial in helping to delay brain disorders such as dementia by five years!
You will feel good about yourself when you make small daily progress. And more importantly, you will be able to communicate with people and explore new cultures on a much deeper level.
– Written by Anna Bastek: multi-award winning entrepreneur, inspirational speaker, owner of Wolfestone, VoiceBox and Robertson Languages International, Welsh Government Dynamo Role Model, Ironman triathlete, traveller.