Sunday, 15 August 2010

Language Learning Experiences

I am 36 years old now and, I have had many different language learning experiences in my life. Some were more fulfilling and enjoyable than others.
At secondary school, I did German for one year, but studied French and Latin for four years. The german class was great fun and the teacher concentrated a lot on pronunciation. I can still say a few sentences with good pronunciation now, but I never got to grips with german grammar and my vocabulary was very small. The French and Latin were very different. In both cases, we learned in a traditional 'grammar-translation' method. Consequently, I developed a large vocabulary, understood grammar and could read, write and translate both languages up to an (Upper)-Intermediate level. With Latin being a 'dead' language, this was absolutely fine, but in French, the lack of speaking activity meant that when I visited France on holiday I could hardly string two words together.
A few years after school, I studied in Denmark for six months. Most people were able to speak English, but the majority of college business was carried out in Danish. By listening and watching and repeating, I picked up a little vocabulary and pronunciation skill. One of the Danish students took pity on us Scots and arranged informal classes where she taught us some useful questions and answers. By the end of my stay, I could understand newspaper stories, listen to conversations and understand information notices etc. Speaking remained very difficult because of unfamiliar sounds in Danish. A few years later, I returned to Denmark and stayed for 10 months. This time, I went to formal Danish lessons in a language school, but it was absolutely awful. The teacher faced the board all the time and drew up tables of verb declensions. I learned almost nothing in that classroom. There was no focus on pronunciation or authentic dialect and usage.
The last language experience I would like to mention is Italian. Three months before our honeymoon in Italy, I bought an audio CD published by the BBC. It was conversational/practical language for beginners. I listened to the CD in my car as I drove to work every day, and faithfully repeated the words and phrases. I did not look at or read the accompanying booklet until I had used the CD at least twenty times. When I looked at the book, I was able to notice spelling and grammar patterns, but the great thing was I could already 'speak Italian'. Admittedly, my vocabulary was narrow and I could only cover simple topics, but I had the confidence to speak to taxi drivers, shopkeepers, waiters and hotel staff during our holiday.
In conclusion, in my experience, listening/repeating and focussing on authentic dialect and pronunciation are the keys to successful language learning. Building vocabulary and analysing grammar are also essential, but must accompany (not replace) listening and speaking.

I would love to hear your stories of language learning: the good the bad and the ugly.


  1. I studied French at school and university. I spent a year in France, first working at EuroDisney (where I spoke hardly any French) and then in a school in a small rural town (where I used French all the time and really developed quickly). It made me see that hearing the language used around me was the best way to learn...

    I've attended Spanish classes as an adult and enjoyed it, making links with French and learning at a slow steady pace. I won't get far with no real incentive to learn...

    When I first started teaching in Bradford I went on a short basic Urdu course. I thought at the time that I was pretty good with languages, but the challenge of a new alphabet and changing forms of letters when joined completely blew my mind! But, I can say a few sentences in Urdu now and they often come in handy as an ice breaker....

    My keys to doing well with a language are a lot of exposure to it and a strong reason to learn.

  2. I started learning Spanish at age 10, in a formal class, where the teacher was demonstrating new methods to other teachers. We students were outnumbered by the other teachers watching the lesson. (It was during the summer on a university campus; my parents volunteered me and my brother as two of the students.)
    At the core, the lessons were memorizing short dialogs and then understanding the dialogs. We learned to ask and answer simple, basic questions and then the variations on them.
    -Are you thirsty?
    -Yes, I'd like to drink some water.
    We learned vocabulary to insert, such as juice, orange juice, coca-cola, etc. We learned what kinds of liquids would be appropriate in hispanic locations to ask for.
    My brother had learned the word "cerveza" (beer) from my father, so when it was his turn to answer the question, he said he wanted beer. (He was 7 years old.) The teacher was outraged, and yet it was evidence to me that my brother understood what he was saying.
    Later, when I was in high school, a different teacher had "Spanish Club" every Friday, and we were to discuss topics of interest to us in Spanish. Of course that meant we had to learn new words to talk about how we didn't like some rule from the school and such. She also emphasized learning the songs in Spanish that were culturally important. I think songs are a great way to practice pronounciation and meaning, and I can still sing all the verses to Alla en el Rancho Grande and Guadalajara and Guantanamera and Granada.
    Today, I have a great Spanish accent and can respond to and participate in typical conversations. I went on and studied Spanish with possibly every other teaching method, even in university courses, but I am still very thankful that my teacher in the class modeling new teaching methods started this way, with having us internalize the basic conversational patterns.

    Five years ago, I had short notice that I was going to Sweden in eight weeks. I got two CDs, one for my car and one for my kitchen. I managed to "find" eight hours a day to listen to the two CDs, between driving, fixing meals, washing dishes, etc. I never picked up the books, but I listened to and repeated after the sentences. When I got on the plane from Chicago to Stockholm and a man wouldn't move from the aisle, I said, "Excuse me" in Swedish, and he moved! What a feeling of accomplishment! I could speak short phrases and sound acceptable, though I found everyone under the age of 80 spoke English there.
    I think that for many languages, teachers could require students to listen to a nightly newscast in the new language as a way to hear and be immersed in the language (with proper grammar and phrasing) and then after a while to add "foreign" films in that language. (Films have more slang, so they are harder to follow, but give a great way to motivate to listen.) These are powerful ways to build familiarity with the sounds and expressions and vocabulary.
    A few years ago, I watched a telenovela (soap opera) with my children when they were in high school Spanish. Every night for an hour, for three weeks, we were part of this adventure. We turned on closed captioning to see the words and to look up the ones we didn't know during the commercials in the first week. In the second week, we had closed captioning for the first 30 minutes and then turned it off for the second 30 minutes. In the last week, we found we knew all the vocabulary words they were using, so we turned off the closed captioning completely. That was an investment of 15 hours and it was amazing the words and phrases we learned. (We had fun talking about some of the silliness of the teen romance in the storyline too.) The slang was limited, so we were able to follow the story, and we all felt quite accomplished at the end of the three weeks!

  3. thank-you to both above for taking the time to relate your stories. I will definitely be using these to spark discussions about effective learning with my new students next week.

  4. I'm not sure if this is what you are looking for, but just today, I was in a class of fellow pre-service teachers. We had been assigned a chapter written by Jonothan Kozol that had the word "Negro" in the title. A native Chinese speaker pulled me aside to ask if that was the proper word to use. I explained that the article the chapter was based on was written in 1967. At the time, that may have been the most respectful word, but now, it is more appropriate to us African American or black.

    Then I realized she may also be confused about the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) as the phrase "colored people" is also completely outdated and no longer appropriate, even though it is used in a major civil rights organization's name. It quickly became confusing though, since "people of color" is a prevalent term now, particularly in academic and social justice movements and it is so close to the phrase "colored people". She then asked if "people of color" referred only to black people, so we had to talk about about how it actually refers to all non-white people, which seems strange on its face as we were discussing it in a ENL context.

  5. Growing up in Ireland, we all had to learn Irish when we started primary school. We had to ask to go to the toilet in Irish and were told to close the door, sit down, and to be quiet, in Irish. I remember starting off all stories I had to write in Irish with 'I got up early. I washed my face, went downstairs and had my breakfast..." even into high school! There was never any clear reason for me to learn Irish other than it was a required part of the curriculum. Nobody I knew spoke only Irish. I didn't aspire to a job where Irish was required. I didn't put much effort into learning it. And so, despite the best, but rather dubious, efforts of our Irish teacher, I learned very little.

    In high school, I also learned French - again, with not much reason to do so, initially. But then, one day in French class my teacher named three or four of my friends as being the ones who were good at French, but didn't include me. I didn't like being left out. Surely, I was as good as them! From that moment, I worked at French just, I think, so I could be recognised as part of the same group as my friends. The result of this work was that I was soon better than the rest of the class and, rather than being part of the group, I was being singled out. It was me - not knowing what I wanted to do after high school - who the teacher advised to do a year as an au pair to improve my French. So, I set off, confident that I was fairly good at French, only to be met - after a couple of boat trips and about five trains - with a language I couldn't understand or communicate in! My first exposure to 'real' french was quite a shock. Several, slow, dictionary-aided conversations later, I was able to get by. I could talk to the family I lived with but after a while, I felt my French wasn't improving any further. I started to read the books on the shelves. The novels and the plays. This, I feel, gave my language the final push I needed to finally feel fluent.

    A few years later, I moved to Belgium - the flemish part. I started learning Dutch with a self-study set of tapes and books and then took classes at a language school which was part of the university. Now, I was learning the language in a place where it was all around me, my children started school and all their friends spoke the language, the news and papers were in that language. I was fully motivated to learn. The main difficulty to be overcome here was that so many people spoke such good English that often, particularly in the beginning, it was much easier to use English. Many times I had some strange conversations where I was trying to insist on using my still hesitant Dutch and I was being answered in much more fluent English! We could also get the BBC TV and radio and so it was often easier just to listen to that rather than work at understanding Dutch radio.

    I won't go into any further detail, but what I've learned from my language learning experiences, is that you have to want to learn the language. It has to mean something to you - emotionally or practically. And, most importantly, you have to strive to learn it. It won't come easily. You can't just attend classes and expect to become fluent. You have to put in the work. Have conversations with people even when it's not easy to do so. Listen to as much as you can and read as much as you can!