Monday, 16 October 2017

Why You Don't Speak the Foreign Language You Learnt at School

and why it shouldn't stop you from learning it now

‘I don't speak French,’ you tell your friend. ‘I can say a couple of words and phrases but that's it. I studied it for 10 years at school but somehow I don't speak the language’.

So, you feel that if you couldn't learn to speak a foreign language in 10 years, surely learning a language is not something worth taking up and adding to your arm long list of commitments of a busy adult. Who would want to waste another 10 years without seeing any substantial result? Why invest your precious time and focus your attention already spread thin on something futile?

But what if I told you that you don’t speak the foreign language you learnt at school because you were not actually learning this martyr of a foreign language for 10 years? What if I told you that you were just being taught?

Learning vs Being Taught

Let me explain the difference between learning and being taught using cat food analogy. Imagine you have a cat and as a responsible loving owner, you feed him his cat food regularly. One day, when you work from home, you leave some breakfast leftovers on the table before rushing to your study to take a conference call. While you are busy working, your Fluffy Fluffington gobbles the sausage leftovers, helps himself from your glass of milk and saunters into your study purring smugly before curling itself shamelessly on your lap.

Now, why do you think this cat is more excited about some leftovers and not so much about its highly nutritious balanced and delicious cat food? Firstly, eating only cat food all the time is boring and, secondly, the cat knows that it will be given its cat food at some point, so again, it’s boring. With the sausage, there is this fresh new taste as well as the taste of adventure and action: the whiskered thief carefully planned the escapade, assessed the risk of being caught, calculated the time needed for looting while anticipating the taste of the succulent booty in its mouth all the time.

When you were taught a foreign language at school as a kid you were given that cat food, same boring cat food you were guaranteed to get. Most likely there was the same textbook you hated or the same activities you didn't really want to take part in or the same teacher you didn't get along with. You were not in charge and couldn't change much, so just chewed the cat food you were given. And you didn't worry about not getting this cat food: an apocalypse needed to happen to get rid of school.

When you learn a foreign language yourself as a busy adult, it’s a different story. It is that sausage that you choose yourself, work on getting and enjoy much more. Don't like the textbook you have? Into the bin. There are others to try. Don't like speaking? To the bookstore. There are self-study books to buy. Don't get along with your tutor? To preply. There are others to contact.

And there is no guarantee that you will have time to study as planned, your kids might get unwell, your job might get crazy or your spouse might kick up a tantrum and demand your undivided attention. The sausage might be gone before you know it.

I am actually not saying that being taught is always boring and I am pretty sure the cat enjoys its cat food too. What I am saying is that the sausage off the table has a much more exciting taste, a taste of conscious choice.

Conscious Choice

When you select the content for your language study based on your own interests and what’s going on in your life, when you manage to find time to fit your language study around your other commitments, when you do more of what you like whether it's reading, listening, writing or speaking, conscious choice, when learning a foreign language, is a game changer in terms of end results.

Choosing content. If you are interested in traveling, for example, and are getting ready for your next destination, why not read about this place in your target foreign language? I am pretty sure you don’t exactly have a guidebook in this language lying around, but you can just google it using the relevant words in your foreign language. Once you are back, you can speak about your travel adventures and the sights you did in your target language with your language partner or tutor.

When you choose the content for language learning yourself, you are more likely to enjoy it and are actively involved with it. These chances are even higher if this content is relevant to you personally.

Choosing time. It is not an easy task for you as a busy adult to find time for your language study. It's often really hard to find any slot whatsoever, where you could squeeze in some French (German, Spanish, etc.) So, once you have managed to find this slot in your day (or your week) this time slot is sacred. After all, it is not easy to get yourself into the habit of getting up half an hour earlier to do some reading in your target language or to convince your colleagues at work that you are not avoiding them during lunchtime when you go back to your desk to do some grammar exercises or to talk your spouse into looking after the kids every evening while you are having your Skype lessons.

All these difficulties with finding or freeing up time make you treasure the little time you have for your language study and you are more likely to stay focused and use this time more efficiently.

Choosing activities. Doing more of what you like is a dream come true. When learning your foreign language at school, were you not happy because at each and every lesson your teacher asked you to voice your opinion on some topic in the language you were learning? Or were you bored to death by grammar exercises and were itching to just chat in your target language? Well, guess what? It’s you who decides now, so you get those grammar self-study books or ditch grammar exercises completely and keep chatting away with your language partners. Whatever works best for you, you are the boss!

Doing something you like is quadrillion times more effective than doing something you don't like. You need to try to have all four core language skills covered of course but it is your choice on what activities you would like to spend more of your time.

3 Mistakes to Avoid

When restarting learning a foreign language you studied at school, there are 3 mistakes you need to avoid. Making any of these mistakes can stall the whole process so you need to recognise them before your language journey even starts.

Mistake # 1

The first mistake is treating your language study as something you have done before and turning it into revision. If you dig out your old textbooks (you still have them, you hoarder?) and start revising, you risk losing motivation as it’s certainly not motivating to feel you have forgotten so much of what you knew before and cannot even introduce yourself properly in this language now. Besides, let’s face it, school textbooks for teens are not really exciting for a thirty-something-year-old.

Things that interested and motivated you earlier might not interest and motivate you anymore. And things that seemed boring are probably exactly the ones that make you tick now. In other words, you have changed, so why would you want to treat your foreign language study as something that should be the same?

For example, at school you had those super boring texts about all those famous people (and I don’t mean celebrities by that) and historical events, while all you could think of was that party or that date and your makeup and outfit decisions. Now that you yourself are making history (you do vote, don’t you?) you are more likely to enjoy this kind of texts and even consider reading on some news in your target language (of course, once you have upped your level to at least intermediate).

Don't get me wrong by the way, I am not saying that learning a foreign language you used to study at school is the same as learning a language you have never learnt before. Of course, you have forgotten a lot but once you start reviving this corpse of a foreign language of yours, you will start remembering words, grammar rules and even phrases you didn't even know you knew. Human brain is an incredible thing indeed!

So, revive not revise.

Mistake # 2

The second mistake to avoid is studying the language exactly the same way you were taught at school. Have you even asked yourself why your teacher just loved all those grammar exercises? Or why your teacher avoided grammar completely? Or why your teacher never spoke the language they were teaching so your listening experience was very limited? Possible answers are: mainly grammar because grammar was easier to teach and assess with a class of 30 unruly teens; no grammar, because the main task was to teach pupils to communicate in the foreign language and grammar got neglected; teacher not speaking much in the foreign language because, well, perhaps they were just not fluent themselves.

Besides, at your age (I'm not saying you are old!) you do have a wealth of experience to guide you through the learning process, including the knowledge of what learning activities help you learn best (it's usually the ones you enjoy doing most).

For example, if you learn better while listening rather than reading and it’s writing that helps you activate your passive vocabulary and not speaking, you are free to choose to listen and write more as you are the one who decides now not a teacher who has a class full of different pupils, curriculum to follow and education standards to adhere to.

So, formulate not replicate.

Mistake # 3

The third mistake you might make is shying away from new ways of learning a foreign language just because you are so used to the traditional ones (I am guilty of this one myself). Say, for example, you have never tried Skype lessons or language learning websites or spaced repetition software. All those are there to make your language learning easier and save you time.

With Skype it’s easier to organise lessons and find a teacher, as you have a bigger worldwide pool of teachers. And you save time on commute as you don’t have to get to the venue where the lessons are held. With language learning websites it’s easier to find the learning materials you need and download them instantly or complete the tasks online saving time on having them shipped to your house or getting them from a bookstore. With spaced repetition software it’s easier to learn new words while saving time on both organising your regular study of new vocabulary and the learning itself.

Saving time and effort when using all these new ways of language learning is vital for you as a busy adult. You don't have as much time for studying a language as you did when you were at school and yet you might want to see results faster this time (certainly before 10 years go by). Seeing results will keep you motivated. Lack of time is not the end of the world and certainly not the reason to abandon the idea of learning a language, but you do need to use the time you have more efficiently especially if you want to progress at a pace faster than that of a snail.

For example, at school you could afford not to learn a lot of new words as you were not required to understand much beyond texts you had in your textbook. When learning by yourself, even though you have less time, you might want to grow your vocabulary faster so that you could start using the materials that are not adapted for the learners of this language because (let’s face it) they are a bit boring and there are less of them at hand while you have loads of materials for native speakers on the Internet.

With new words it's spaced repetition software that will help you learn more vocabulary while spending less time on it. is one of the tools, for example. Wherever you have Internet connection you can use any five-minute slots to revise your new words. And you don't have to plan your revision and remember to do the exercises, it is organised automatically for you: your progress for each block of vocabulary is tracked with reminders landing in your inbox prompting you to revise.

Once you have grown your vocabulary sufficiently and upped your foreign language level, you can switch the language of some of your downtime activities from your native to your target foreign which will add more time to your daily language study without you having to sacrifice anything for it. You can watch movies with subtitles, listen to songs with lyrics or just read memes in this language on Facebook, for example.

So, innovate do not stagnate.

Happy learning!

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