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.