There are lots of people out there who have spent a life trying to learn a new language. Of course, English is usually the first choice that people have when it comes to learning a language, and people spend a long time doing it. For a large part of native English speakers it’s indeed impossible to imagine the amount of effort that goes into even being able to master and speak the simplest of phrases. As a language teacher, I also understand completely how much students torture themselves at times just to be able to say the most basic of things, but is it always necessary?
Lets take the saying “No pain, no gain”. Anyone who thinks that they can get anything without working at it is, of course, mistaken. There are those students who think that when they pay for language lessons, the physical act of separating themselves from the money is the hardest and most painful and that once that’s over with they can just kick back and let the knowledge flow and be absorbed. Fortunately, these people are few and far between and most realise that word needs to be done to get somewhere. Saying this however, it’s not a simple matter of saying “the more I study, the more I learn”. What we do needs to be qualitative and justifiable.
Whatever personal reasons someone has for language learning, we should remember that the goal is communication – to understand others and make yourself in return understandable. This should be what you’re doing in your class and if you’re not you should change classes or incorporate this into any learning routine. The important thing to remember is that learning doesn’t begin and end in the classroom.
Let’s look at a few things we can do:
If you’re a student
1. Always only use the language you’re learning in class. You pay money for it and invest precious time in it – get the most out of it!
2. Take advantage of any opportunity to speak to people. Where I currently live in Sevastopol I can count the number of foreigners on two hands. Tourists don’t come here often and if they do, they often have no idea where they’re going and have problems finding people to ask. I tell all of my students to just go and chat to foreigners they see in English and ask if they enjoy Sevastopol and need a hand. This practice is invaluable.
Alternatively, for people learning Russian in Sevastopol, I regularly recommend going up to people and asking the time or for directions. Does it matter if you already know? Of course not, they don’t know what you’re doing and you’ll never see them again. When learning abroad, you’re not just limited to learning a classroom: hundreds of people you see every day are potential teachers!
3. Meet people online to speak to I regularly do language exchanges with people I meet solely for this purpose over Skype. If you don’t have any foreigners to speak to where you live, then find like minded people on the internet. I use http://www.italki.com and recommend it to everyone. It’s important to remember thought only to talk to native speakers (for example, if you’re studying English, only talk to Brits, Americans, Australians etc…) The aim is to improve your language from competent speakers, not to talk to those who are also learning and may know the language worse than you!
4. Don’t sit at home learning grammar rules for the sake of it if you don’t enjoy it. I am absolutely obsessed with grammar and enjoy nothing better than reading the grammar of an obscure language before bed. Others are however not like this, and experience shows time and time again that just because people learn grammar, it doesn’t mean they use it. More often than not, they spend hours working and getting frustrated when nothing comes of it! This is pain without the gain. Use your time more effectively by speaking to people.
5. Never stop speaking. Ever. Being afraid to speak hinders your progress because you’re not using the language. We all know the expression “we learn from our mistakes” and exists in some form or other in most languages. Put it into practice and speak and make mistakes. Learn from them and move on. Not doing this holds you back.
If you’re a teacher
1. Make your students use only their target language in class, which means don’t allow translations. They won’t always be in a situation where they can fall back on their native language, and stopping them doing it in class empowers them in the future. This can be implemented with a few simple phrases:
“What’s the English for…?”
“What do you call the thing / person which…?”
Remember, native speaks of any language are often confused and can’t remember words, so there’s no shame in asking.
2. Don’t set homework for the sake of it, make it useful. It doesn’t need to be a series of grammar exercises, but can learning the words to a song (works great for practicing rhythm and intonation) or watch a series and report back to the class.
3. Be patient, understanding and encouraging. The goal is to make your students speak, not make them afraid to do it. Encourage mistakes and let them make them, as long as it means they talk. You need to treat them as individuals – some handle correction well, others don’t. Learn what works best with who.