Something I apparently wrote for my students about learning languages

38I don’t remember using or even writing this but I obviously did at some point because it’s here in my My Documents folder on my computer and it’s exactly what I think about learning languages. Hopefully it will be of use to someone.

Up to a certain point, it’s easy to learn a language. Okay, of course you’re sometimes tongue-tied when you don’t know the word, and it can be very embarrassing when you use the wrong one, or completely miss the point of what someone has just said – plus obviously it’s frustrating when things you read and listen to are simply beyond your current level of understanding. However, in all these situations you can go away and think about what went wrong, and work hard on acquiring the words you need and learning how to put them in the right order when talking to the appropriate people at the appropriate time. Then, hey presto, you’ll be able to understand about 90% of what you read and hear, and people will be able to understand you pretty much all the time.

And then what? Your language skills are now good enough for you to be able to make friends with people, read what you want to read, do a job, study a new subject, and so on. You’ve finished! Except, er, you haven’t. Not even nearly. Slowly you discover that despite all your hard work and dedication, your careful acquisition of skills, knowledge and the confidence to put them to good use, despite all your careful study of grammar and your acquisition of all the vocabulary you could possibly need, there are still occasions on which you think: I don’t get this. Or: I wish I had exactly the right words in order to say what I want to say. You feel frustrated. Is there some secret classroom in which people are learning all this stuff, and if so how where do you sign up for the course?!

So what do you do? Well, if you’re lucky, you might find a job which stretches your skills and challenges you to learn new things. Or you might have a hobby which stimulates you to acquire lots of nuanced vocabulary expressing very specific things which you don’t need even know how to say in your own language, along with the complex grammar which allows you to express all sorts of very particular meanings. Or maybe you’re lucky enough to be living in a country in which the language is widely spoken, in which case you have the opportunity to engage with the local culture: hang out with the locals, follow the local news, become a fully-paid up member of this other society, which will mean learning all sorts of new things, many of which, as I mentioned earlier, you wouldn’t know how to express in your own language. You’ll make lots of friends with whom you never speak your own language, and discover new things with and through them. You’ll be using the language as a medium to explore and engage with the wider world, in addition to just your ‘target’ culture.

Does all of this mean that your language skills will inevitably improve? Well, yes, it does. Your vocabulary will expand immeasurably, meaning that you will be able to understand even more of what you see and hear. Some things may get stuck, of course. Most probably you will have developed your own grammar in the language, finding shortcuts which simply seem to make more sense than all those fiddly structural elements which you can never quite see the purpose of. You might be one of those people who finds it easier to use grammar accurately when you write rather than when you speak. In any case, given that you are using the language in order to carry out increasing number of complex and demanding tasks, whether at work or play, the only criticism that anyone might make of your language is that you ‘have a bit of an accent’, which is what people say when they encounter non-standard syntax and word grammar which, although it expresses things in a slightly different way, does the job pretty well pretty much all the time.

But what about that other accent, all those sounds that never come out quite like when the locals say them? What if people ever find out that you’re (shock horror) a foreigner?! Well, your accent might disappear eventually. It might not. Research has discovered countless times that the key issue here is identification with the target language community. If you happen to be learning English, then problem solved: the English language speaking community is one of which you are already a member. Depending on where you live and who you live with, you might end up speaking standard English with a Scottish accent, a South African one, or even a Brazilian accent. Which would clearly be no bad thing, especially if you yourself happen to be Brazilian. The most important thing is that you sound like yourself – after, wasn’t wanting to express yourself the very reason you started out learning a language in the first place?

So what can you do while you’re waiting for all these things to fall into place? Well, if you’re worried about your grammar, try to pay careful attention to how you speak and how your grammar is different from how other people around you express the same thoughts. The same goes for your vocabulary and pronunciation, obviously. Try to copy those around you, and see what works for you and what doesn’t. Don’t copy everybody, of course, otherwise you might end up sounding like someone three times older and two times posher than you. Identify people who you want to speak more like, and copy them. If you’re mixing with people and using the language in a variety of situations this will happen naturally, of course. But it certainly helps to give it a bit of a push if you’re in a hurry.

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