No Lessons Required: How An American Girl Learnt a New Language (Hint: It's Called "British")

Hey everyone, today's I'm very excited to welcome a second guest post from Alice Morell. She writes about the world of music over at  http://mymusicbox.org, and you can also find her on Twitter. But today, Alice is on Fluent to share her own foreign language experience, which might be a little different from what you'd imagine.

Over to Alice..

I'd spent a fair share of my free time over my teenage years studying the English culture, being especially engrossed in its literature and the romanticism of the Victorian Era. What can I say—though I quite love literature and many other forms of art and expression, this particular time and place has always been outstandingly magical to me. While this gave me some introduction to what I was about to experience, the reality of it was to completely blow me away. As I got off the plane at one of the busiest airports in the world, London Heathrow Airport, my head swam with images of Big Ben and the Palace Gardens, imagining what it would be like to have memories of being in those places. Little did I know it was going to be the differences in our use of English that would be the most surprising memories I’d make, and the thing that let me know that though we shared a language, I wasn't in Kansas anymore.

As I stood in the baggage claim with the other students from my class, listen to them talk excitedly about what they wanted to see and do first in England, I had a conversation that encompassed my first bit of culture shock.  A man had just gotten off the same plane, and we had been chatting amicably about our trips.  Things had seemed relatively normal until his suitcase came by. Scooping it up off the conveyor belt, he waved to me and said “Well! Was great meeting you, now I'm off to knock up my girlfriend!”

As you might imagine, this set us all laughing among ourselves, and even our teacher had to laugh. “He means he's going to go visit her, 'knocking up' just means to knock at their door to wake them. Now get your minds out of the gutter!”

Asking For The "Non-Swimming" Baths

The next thing I encountered about the oddities of language involved the word 'chips'; this one, however, was thankfully quite a bit less embarrassing.  I had envisioned having Fish and Chips while here in London, a decidedly simple but popular food, and a classic staple of Britishness.  Little did I know I was going to wind up with a plate of deep-fried fish and French fries!  They call potato chips “crisps” there, and that's what I was actually after.  But the fries weren't unwelcome. Come on, I was raised in the U.S.

Fish and Fries

Fish and Fries

We had arrived in the middle of the summer, and on a particular hot day were asked if “us birds would like to go the bath”.  After a momentary shocked laugh at their forwardness, we once again were alerted that the language caught us “baths” in England are American swimming pools, and “birds” are young women like we ourselves were.  That one I actually thought made a lot of sense, it being close to our “chicks”.

I also got a disapproving look from a severe older waitress at a restaurant when I asked if they had biscuits, apparently they agree with mothers at home that cookies aren't breakfast food.  They don't have anything like what we call biscuits at home. 

In England, if you ask for biscuits, this is what you’ll get.

In England, if you ask for biscuits, this is what you’ll get.

After having breakfast I asked one of our new British mates (which means friend rather than partner) where the bathroom was, and he directed me to the bog, but not before he gave me some grief about how they didn't have bathtubs in a restaurant restroom, just closets (Which is what we typically think of as a standard bathroom, with just a toilet).  I in turn told him that in America we were civilized and used toilets, rather than still going out to to a swamp or a wardrobe to do our business.  So much confusion was just trying to relieve myself! 

The other point of confusion in conversation had to do with our education, where colleges in the UK is applied to a type of institution similar to our high schools.  When I started talking about the Theater Conservatory at our college back home, they seemed quite confused about our theater classes being held in a greenhouse, as that is what the word “conservatory” means there.  I had to explain that we use the term to describe places that teach music, among other things like drama.

A “conservatory” in Great Britain.

A “conservatory” in Great Britain.

It was a great experience, and I made some wonderful friends while I was there.  While I occasionally talk about how awe-inspiring the tourist sites were, it's the laughs and fun that was had just trying to figure out what we were trying to say to each other that will forever stick in my memory and be what I tell the funniest stories about. 

 

Thanks for reading this article on Fluent - The Language Learning Blog. Don't forget - if you sign up to our newsletter, you will receive a free Guide to the Best Language Learning Resources!

And if you're into more articles about the quirks of British vs American English, I strongly recommend you check out the separated by a common language blog by Lynne Murphy.

How to Hack Language Like a Lumberjack (or: What's Your Hacking Hobby?)

As a linguist it's not part of my job to criticize and begrudge the evolving use of language. When words like "selfie" enter the dictionary and half the country of Britain starts calling things awesome, I'm right there. Both teaching and describing language are more about being aware of the words that we use every day and documenting how people communicate. And today I wanted to dive into the deeper meaning of a word that seems to have completely transformed its meaning over recent years. It's language-related, and learning-related too. And to me, it's become about mindset. I often find myself rolling my eyes at this one, but read on to find out more about the original meaning of the word that won't go away: hacking.

From Rough Cuts to Life Tips

Here's what the original meaning of the word hack would have looked like:

Logger

Back in the 20th century, hacking wasn't much more than making tough cuts into wood or meat to take it apart. The word's meaning started its transformation in the 1960s at MIT, first describing different study styles and later taking on the "computer hacker" meaning we all think of these days. As a German speaker, the word "Hack(fleisch)" also evokes a relation to the English "hash"..in the food context), not what you might have been thinking!

The figurative meaning is about disruption and about destroying existing structures. You go in with rough power and take something apart to gain access to what's underneath. In computing, this is how hacking (strictly speaking "password hacking") came to mean cutting through the defences of a network to get at the information protected within.

These days though, it's clear that the idea of hacking has struck a chord with so many people that the word has entered common usage for many of us. You can "hack" anything, with a vague association of "making it easier without too much effort".

The leading examples of stuff that can be hacked seem to be IKEA, life and..language! Here are just a few references

  • To start with the obvious, at least for readers of Fluent, there is the Language Hacking Guide, an ebook by Benny Lewis all about quick ways to learn and use languages
  • There is IKEA Hacking, a practice of taking your tools to flatpack furniture from IKEA in order to make it into the furniture of your dreams
  • Travel Hacking promises to open up the world of travel for people without making them spend a lot of money through the use of airmiles and credit cards.
  • And you may have also seen websites like Lifehacker, sharing tips of varying usefulness about any aspect of making living a little bit easier (here's a classic unnecessary "hack")

Here is a diagram from Google Trends showing how the last three years in particular have been the time of the hacks. In addition to the four leading terms, I did try to add some minor terms as well such as "career hacking", "diet hacking" and "future hacking", but those pale in comparison next to these big things that might need to be hacked:

So, About the Language Hacking Context

The original definition of the term "hack" is an inelegant but effective solution to a specific computing problem.

With this definition in mind, the idea of language hacking will appeal to learners who want to cut time spent studying and maximize time spent talking. We all love bridging a gap with the least effort required. Where the idea of "hacking" in the language context can make sense is when it comes to getting out of books and classroom. I particularly like the idea of making the "language hack" a subversion of what you remember from your own language lessons in school. This is not about repeating pitch-perfect phrases in order to hit a grade, but about going out and making a mistake in order to learn. The thing you're hacking is not the learning method, but the mindset.

While "language hacking" certainly doesn't mean that you'll start uncovering magic secrets of language learning, the attention-grabbing title gives you an idea of taking the unconventional approach. Learning by doing and following an individual path in learning, that's a super valuable message. Maybe it should be called "study hacking", since you're not actually doing much to the language itself.

What Do You Hack?

Personally, I have always thought that the word "hack" is plain ugly. I can't help associating it with axes, pain and brutality, so you're unlikely to see any Fluent Hacking products coming any time soon. And yes, here we can see the stereotypical masculine associations again, right? "Hacking" originates in the tech world (which we know is totally a man's world, even in the 21st century!) and is a word used to demonstrate power and force. The side of me that enjoys the idea of subverting and playing with existing rules rejoices at every life, language and travel hack that I see out there. In other words, I don't like "hacking", but I love creativity.

Some other perspectives: * The Faux Hackers who Hacked the Word Hacking on Vasco * Where Does the Word Hacking Come From? on English Stackexchange

What about you? Ever hacked a language?

Field Report: Three Strategies You'll Wish You Knew When You Hit a Wall Learning a Foreign Language

Boy, have I got a useful guest post for you today! Cher Hale's language of choice is Italian - she's best described as a relationship counsellor between humans and the Italian language. Once they’ve fallen in love and the honeymoon period ends, she helps them stay committed until they’re conversational. You can read her vocabulary speed-dates, grammatical musings, and cultural cocktail party facts at The Iceberg Project or on Twitter @cherhale.

In today's post, Cher is lending us a hand to help with the inevitable frustration that comes with the language learning journey.

I sat at my desk and stared at the screen.

The Chinese characters seemed to taunt me as I wrote their literal meaning in English to grasp why one character went after the verb here and after the subject in so many other cases. 

After five minutes, I sighed, rolled my eyes at the Mandarin language, and moved on. 

Four months prior I would’ve let frustration take over.

In fact, when I was learning Italian, frustration was the reason why I stopped lessons, and if it weren’t for my commitment to The Iceberg Project, I would not have reached the level where I’m at now.

With Mandarin I find myself running into the same frustration, but instead of wanting to quit, I feel more at ease and motivated to tackle the language again.

What inspired that difference?

What did I learn in six months that changed my view of frustration?

 When I’m not learning Mandarin or writing for the Italian site, I’m usually reading an academic paper (or watching Doctor Who) – most notably from the Modern Language Journal. On one of my most recent linguistic explorations, I stumbled across a linguist named Stephen Krashen from the University of Southern California.

He talks about the Comprehension Hypothesis, which suggests “we acquire language and develop literacy when we understand what we hear and what we read” (Krashen, 2014).

This means that what comes in – books, audio, and lessons – are more important than what goes out – speaking and writing. 

There is more to this theory, so if you’re interested, read this interview from Language Mastery.

3 Ways to Reduce Frustration

According to Krashen, other polyglots and my experience, there a few key ways to reduce frustration.

1)  Understand that you don’t learn grammar concepts, phrases, or vocabulary until you’re ready to learn them.

This point comes from Krashen, and it’s interesting to note how representative this point is of life.

How many times have you gone through difficult situations and only learned the lesson after the third time?

The lesson was there and had been waiting for you all along. You only needed to develop to a certain level to absorb it.

So when it comes to grammar, know that you won’t learn certain concepts until you’re ready.

You can try hard to memorize usages and nitpicky rules, but studies suggest you need to be at a certain level first.

Like the famous polyglot, Kató Lomb, paraphrased from the original German:

One learns grammar from language, not language from grammar.

 (Original German: “Man lernt Grammatik aus der Sprache, nicht Sprache aus der Grammatik.” – Toussaint and Langenscheidt)

 While this might sound depressing (because you can’t game the system and memorize everything), it’s actually liberating.

What this means for you: When you encounter a difficult concept or don’t understand something, seek an answer. If it’s still not connecting, LET IT GO.

You might not understand it today, but I guarantee that as you continue learning, it and one hundred other invisible things, will become visible. It will be frustrating, but you’ll be more at ease when you let yourself off the hook after honouring that this is how our minds work.

2)  Drop boring textbooks, and pick up content that interests you. 

Some might argue with me, but I think you can use interesting, relevant content in your target language no matter what level you’re at.

For example, Lomb, the polyglot mentioned earlier, used a Russian novel to learn Russian. She never went to a class and learned rules. She used what she had – a compelling novel – and worked through it. 

What this means for you: Find a book, a television show, a magazine, or even memes online that you’re interested in to integrate into your learning schedule.

 Don’t have a schedule or know what to do each day? Read this: Four Easy Techniques for Using Foreign Language Every Day

You can also learn techniques for how to read books here : How to Read in a Foreign Language

For tips on how to watch movies and shows effectively, go here : Are You Wasting Your Time Watching Foreign Language Movies?

My final point is that the more background knowledge you have on a topic, the easier the content will be to acquire, so use content you’re familiar with AND enjoy.

3)  Stop EVERYTHING, and be honest with what is and what is not working.

Humans are creatures of habit – both good and bad.

Out of routine, we use a technique to learn and keep doing it even though we recognize we’re not learning from it anymore.

 Then we get confused because we know we’re supposed to be learning everyday, but we’re not sure what we should be doing that actually works.

 At this point, many of us fall off the wagon…but that doesn’t have to be you.

 What this means for you: Look candidly at the techniques you’re using.

 Questions to ask are:

  • Am I using a material that I hate or find boring?
  • Am I studying at a time when I’m unfocused or tired?
  • Am I still using a technique from when I was a beginner that is no longer serving me as an intermediate learner?

Then, take out a sheet of paper and make three columns.

My worksheet for what works and what doesn't!

My worksheet for what works and what doesn't!

Column I: What I l love doing to learn in (target language)

Colum II: What I dread doing

Column III: What I want to try doing

  • Write 4-5 items per column.
  • Look at column II and either find creative ways to make them fun or let them go.
  • Make plans for trying the activities listed in column III.

This can be tough if we think that memorizing 10 words a day is “supposed” to help, but give it a try. Letting go of things you hate or find boring will reduce frustration and invite more joy into the process.

 The strategies people claim have been effective for them may not be effective for you. Try them out, and if they haven’t proved themselves within a month, wave goodbye.

 Remember, in this process you are the most important person, so make the best decisions for you.

Now, I want to hear from you.

Are you struggling with frustrations that these suggestions didn’t cover?

Have you found other strategies that helped?

Let me know in the comments below!

Thanks for reading this article on Fluent, the Language Learning Blog. If you are feeling stuck right now, why not subscribe to Fluent and check out our language book shop.

Announcing How I'm Working to Combine My Three Passions

Today's blog post is an announcement, an open letter and something from the heart for everyone who follows the Fluent blog. I'm hoping to start a new chapter in my professional story. I will be announcing a few changes to Fluent Language, and introducing you to my new venture.

First of all, I want to give you the quick history of how far Fluent has come since its start in 2012. When I first launched this website, my first steps into offering lessons (without a teaching certificate!), I was absolutely delighted at finding the blogging platform I have. I was not setting out to take over the world, but at the same time I totally was. My first articles went straight to the meat and were all about making it clear what I want to stand for. Along the journey, you readers have come along and found those values with me. I've got amazing language students from all over the world, and have worked from my tablet and laptop while I was on the road. And then I self-published the Fluent Guides. Not bad for a girl from Mülheim, right?

Finding My Purpose

Every project and every business is a journey that changes on a regular basis. And for me, chatting straight to you in the 50 Calls Project has been the start of something amazing.

As a one-woman business, I believe that finding my best purpose and putting your AND my happiness first is very important. For me, this is all about combining my two passions. One of them, you already know: Language learning! Languages! Making the world multilingual! But what's the second passion, you ask?

It's all about what's underneath that language passion. My big passion in life is communication. It's why I love marketing, why I get inspired when I see a bilingual road sign and where I draw my energy from. Talking to people makes me happy. So in my business, I want to combine communication and service to individuals that I really believe in.

The third passion that I have is all about inspiring, encouraging and promoting others. I love teaching, coaching and mentoring because it allows me to make others succeed.

Compass for Online Teachers

I already mentioned how many Fluent readers I have had the pleasure of serving as part of the free 50 Calls Project. I've found that my own story of how I started Fluent and how much I believe in following my path has resonated with many other tutors. Many of you dream of trying out online business -- becoming authors, bloggers, teaching online and combining your passion with a real income.

That's not crazy. It's possible, it's amazing and it requires a bit of a helping hand.

Online teaching is a set part of our future. It's going to change the world of work and learning. And independents are leading the way, so this is why my next service will not be for language learners, but for anyone who wants their own Fluent.

I will launch new programme in October. The title is COMPASS and the information is at www.fluentlanguage.co.uk/teachers. It will be perfect for anyone who finds him- or herself where I was a few years ago, unhappy in my work and wishing I could do things my way. You don't have to become a German teacher. This is all about showing you how to stand out in a busy marketplace, find the students you are right for, and making a living on your own terms. I am giving this my all for the next three months and if you're on the programme we will brainstorm, find solutions, students and new independence together.

While I go and work hard in the website mines for creating the first ever Kerstinhammes.com presence, you will find that Fluent is going a bit quieter. This wonderful Fluent community is a fantastic boost to me and it will not go away, so look out for a great bunch of posts and thoughts. They might be different to what you know, but with the usual thoughtful perspectives intact.

Here's the Important Thing

If you are starting a teaching business and struggling with being independent, working from anywhere, saving time and earning more, then you have to join us, because THIS IS FOR YOU! I have a special list for Compass candidates.

Simply visit the quick email registration page and sign up. You can find out lots more information about Compass here.

Thank you for being along for the ride.

Letters to Kerstin: German Book Recommendations and Spanish for Beginners

Recently, I've received a few messages from friends and readers asking me to recommend a few books to them. I imagine book fever is with you after enjoying the Fluent Guides (right?) so I'm more than happy to oblige. In fact, I would love to answer more of your questions here on the blog. If you have a question, submit it to jenny@fluentlanguage.co.uk and note that it's for the blog - I will select the questions and reply to you soon.

fluent language mailbag

German Books - Not Grammar Books!

Dear Kerstin

What books would you recomend in German?  I do not mean Grammar books. I find that most Germans do not even understand Duden, and only the most educated follow what he says.  I would ike something to help me understand the language, and history and mentality for better communication.  I studied literature and I find that story telling is great for teaching and learning.

I did buy a grammar book for school kids with excercises and so forth, but I haven't got up the nerve to use it yet...

Thank you,
Kevin

Hey Kevin,

every learner is different and I cannot of course predict what would work best for you - it depends if you are after stories, a textbook or a good grammar guide. The stories that I like are of course André Klein’s and also the stuff from Deutsch XXL by Deutsche Welle. I use “Deutsche Grammatik” by Lingolía Verlag for teaching grammar and Menschen by Hueber Verlag for teaching support like examples, stories and exercises. I do make up a lot of it by myself too.

But in terms of books to read, my favourite authors to read in German are Arnaldur Indridasson (icelandic crime novels translated by the amazing Coletta Bürling), Gisa Klönne (Cologne crime novels) and Günter Grass (a bit more literature focused with longer sentences).

One final piece of advice: Don’t be scared of getting better at German. It’s that whole “taking risks makes us stronger” thing.

Good luck! Kerstin

Spanish for Beginners - Going Travelling

My friend Sarah is a total travel nut and recently asked me for recommendations of the best home-based Spanish courses. Here's what I recommended.

Spanish in 10 Minutes a day, a deceptively simple-looking book with a friendly approach and materials. I used this series for my first step in Russian and really raked in the compliments once I joined a group class! If you're more of an auditory learner and want access to language learning on the go, then you might also love Michel Thomas. His method is based on audiobooks and feeling like you're listening in to a class. For a Londoner like Sarah, this might be perfect to while away the time sat on commuter trains.

Thanks for reading this article on Fluent, the Language Learning Blog. If you are feeling stuck right now, why not subscribe to Fluent and check out our language book shop.

New Podcast! Randy Glover on Rosetta Stone, Starting at 57 and Why You Should Not Give Up

The new Fluent Language Podcast is out now. We are on episode 6, and I have got something unusual for you. I'm interviewing one of my own students - not a language tutor, a study guru or a 16 language outlier, but instead a busy and dedicated learner who started at 57 and gets better every month. We also reviewed the new version of Rosetta Stone, and there is A LOT in there for you.

Now on Stitcher

If you're using Stitcher, you can now find the Creative Language Learning Podcast on there too. Help us out by giving it some stars! Here's an easy link to Stitcher's website.


What Language Teachers Think About Learning 15 Languages

If you're on my mailing list you'll have heard from me a week ago ago to announce my appearance on Preston FM Radio. Since a few of you were unable to catch my interview and were asking for a podcast link, I'm very happy to say that the station manager has now uploaded our Chat City chat and you can listen here:

In the interview, we mentioned "UCLAN", which is the university I went to - University of Central Lancashire in Preston.

The host was actually a former language teacher himself, so we had a very interesting conversation. We discussed the question of whether it might be possible to actually become fluent in 15 languages, and what fluency means.

And just in case you didn't know what my family is up to in Germany, now you'll hear all about it (check them out here).

What did you make of the interview? Would you move to a place like Preston to experience a slice of "real England", or do you prefer the glamour of London?

How to Stop Worrying About your Language Talent [Infographic]

Today it occurred to me that we have not had an infographic on Fluent for a while, and I fancy sharing another good one with you. I do collect cool infographics related to language learning on my Pinterest boards, but every now and then it's cool to do a deep dive.

Before I jump into the points I'll be making, I just want to point out that my views on aptitude, attitude and training are not accepted by all. Linguists do often maintain that some natural aptitude for language learning exists. In fact, the military has apparently even started testing for it. I am personally not in the camp of people who want to promote a message of "There is a chance you have no talent for this project" simply because becoming the best ever language learner is not the point. If you do want to be an army quality translator in 6 months or become a finished product in a minimal amount of time, it might be that you aren't cut out for it. Let me tell you a story: I am not cut out for fitness. I grew up overweight, heck, I am not exactly slim now. But I can swim a mile, run 10k and do an hour of tough exercise these days. And I love it. My aptitude does not matter when it comes to enriching my life.

So cut out the target of perfection, and think about whether your practice is meaningful and right for you. Language learning aptitude may account for how quickly you pick up a language, perhaps even whether your speaking voice ends up beautiful and accent-free ten years into the future, but it will not account for not even trying.

There Is No Such Thing As A Polyglot Gene

Click to Enlarge

Today's chosen infographic is this illustration of Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000 hour rule. When I first read his book Outliers, this principle was absolutely fascinating to me. I had never even questioned the idea that some people are just naturally born for being great at what they do. We are often confronted with terms that reinforce this whole idea even more, for example "child prodigy".

But Gladwell came out with some data (in the realm of pop science, of course) investigating high achievers from a different angle, and found that practice is mightier than talent in most cases.

How Can You Overcome The "No Talent" Fallacy

One of the most common misconceptions about language learning that I encounter is this persistent idea that learning another language is a skill that is open to an exclusive group of people. The English blame their whole nation for being "rubbish at language learning." The active language learners on the internet look up to "polyglots" who are awarded rock star status. The real language learning masters though are invisible and just get on with it. Click to Tweet This

If you want to make real progress and become one of those people that other people consider talented, the secret is to practice. Gladwell says that there is even a number of hours you can put on that practice: It is 10,000. The hours add up with every second we spend deliberately practicing - and that means focus, repetition and engagement.

Watching Youtube is Not Practice

According to this infographic, you can see that watching an expert perform the task you want to master is not something that really helps you improve. Neither is mindless repetition. Just like you can see in educational settings, it's pointless to demonstrate.

Here are some interesting questions to get you thinking:

  • Will 100 hours of Duolingo give you real progress or make you feel frustrated enough to believe that you "have no talent"?
  • Is accountability the most important aspect of 10,000 hours of practice?
  • How many hours can we get into 6 months?
  • How many language learners are aware that practice in the second foreign language will require so much less work than practice in the first foreign language?

I would love to hear what you think. No matter what it is, here is the bottom line: You are NOT missing a talent for language learning. You are NOT making progress more slowly than others. Even The Beatles were not born as great musicians. Neither was Mozart.

Get back to basics. Practice deliberately, embrace the learner status and remember what you came to language learning for.

The Importance of Learning Skills

In my experience I have seen students succeed the most when their systems and learning styles were set up very well. Students in full-time education are in a learning habit, they take better notes and revise by habit which gives them an advantage. In fact, this was part of the reasoning behind how I wrote The Vocab Cookbook: It's designed to help language learners understand a good vocabulary learning process and apply it easily. The idea is to form habits that are easy for you, not creating extra burdens. Does it work for you?

Thanks for reading this article on Fluent, the Language Learning Blog. If you are feeling stuck right now, why not subscribe to Fluent and check out our language book shop.

Speak More Language After the Weekend: Bank Holiday Deal

Activity suggestion for a Bank Holiday with Fluent Guides

Activity suggestion for a Bank Holiday with Fluent Guides

Another week has finished, and we are approaching the end of summer. Here in Britain, this means the dawn of a Bank Holiday. Bank Holidays are Mondays that you can spend in bed, or out exploring, or cooped up in the hobby shed.

If you're not British, you could of course try staying in bed all Sunday too!

Imagine studying languages in bed all day. Imagine using the time effectively to get started with a new notebook. Cuddling up on the couch with a new book...

Well. That can be done. From today to Monday, I'm holding a big sale on the Fluent Guides combo pack. If you missed out on Pre-Sale pricing the first time round, here's a chance to get the full package for only £20. Read on your Kindle, laptop, smartphone...listen to the lovely audiobook on a walk...you can do this your way. 

Yes, that's just 3 days. On Tuesday, we're going back to standard pricing so grab the sale rate before it goes.

As for me, I'm probably going to spend the bank holiday putting in the hours for my wedding and doing my Russian homework. Ooof!

Should You Study Russian and German At University?

It has been one year since the last occasion of A-Level results coming out in the UK. If you're not familiar with the system in this country, here's a quick summary. A-Level exams are the school leaving exams that determine a student's future path at university. The courses are chosen by subject and after age 16 none are compulsory, so students choose whichever subject they feel most passionate about. Last year, my guest blogger Tom Pandolfino wrote a wonderful article about what it is like to be taking these super important exams. Today Tom's back to tell you what happened next.

Russian and German at University: What Happened Next

As I start to write this blog post in my hostel room in Stuttgart as the rain comes crashing down, I have some time to reflect on my first year at university. In terms of both, studying and my free time away from it.

So, languages at university; my perspective...well, it’s intriguing.

Prior to embarking upon the wild yet tremendous journey that is university, I would have already described myself as a language learner who doesn’t "comply with the rules". What do I even mean by "rules"? Don’t worry. I shall explain.

By "rules", I mean a very traditional way of learning languages. The way the curriculum works for languages in schools in the UK is quite traditional. You learn a lot of grammar and rules and are tested upon that with not much emphasis on using the language itself. This is at least how I feel looking back on my time in school learning foreign languages. In school and at university, everyone tends to have stark differences in terms of learning attitudes. This is what the system doesn’t always quite recognise. By system I mean the curriculum for foreign languages in schools in the UK and institutions such as universities.

Making Mistakes Is a Good Thing

Naturally, people have different ways of learning, above all in regards to foreign language learning in the UK. For example, in my case I learn and enjoy learning the most through speaking and listening. But more importantly, by making mistakes because it is crucial and it is indeed a very good thing! It indicates areas of weakness and it allows for positive correction so that you can rectify your errors and try not to make the same ones again.

The school system unfortunately doesn’t acknowledge the power and importance of mistakes in foreign language learning, which is a great shame. It always appeared to me that the curriculum needlessly punishes young learners. For example, I remember having to learn grammar points for exams that I never fully grasped until later on. I was fortunate to have some fantastic teachers especially during my French and German A levels who took on a much better approach to language learning, based on acquisition and fun as opposed to regurgitation and constant grammar tables.

Languages? Why, You Must Be A Freak Or A Genius!

In the UK there appears to be a bizarre perception that "we just can’t simply learn foreign languages". Well, it’s rubbish. (Note from the editor: READ THIS TWICE OMG IT IS SO TRUE!!!!) Many people are always shocked at the response to when they ask me as to what I study at university. When they hear ‘German and Russian’, people in the UK are taken back and I am soon flooded with many questions and responses:

  • Why those two languages?,
  • What would you like to do after university then? ‘Why Russian?
  • I wish I could do languages, but in school I couldn’t. It was far too hard.

Personally, I do not mind any of these types of questions or responses that people give me. But it is this last one that really irritates me. I find it frustrating not that people have found languages or more specifically learning a language hard. But due to their poor experience of language learning in the system, it puts them off the subject for life. It is often due to their poor experience and perhaps lack of success in languages in school that has allowed for a false perception to manifest into the idea that language learning is impossible. This seems to a common occurrence with many individuals in the UK.

In school, the curriculum is such that concepts like verbs, cases, nouns, pronouns, the subjunctive etc. are just thrown at you. You are taught the tools of the language, the theory behind it. You are never quite taught to communicate or to truly apply them. These items of grammar are of course vitally important, but what is the use when you don’t understand what a case even is, or how the subjunctive should be applied in certain circumstances...

Is University Better Than School?

So what does my view on the school system thus far have to do with university anyway?

Well, in all honesty, to me they appear fairly similar. Yet at university, there is more of a focus on immersion in the languages that you study. You are strongly encouraged and advised to find out what works for you. For example, there have been many times when my lecturers have said that we really ought to listen to podcasts, TV, music and so on in the specific target language. This means that for many hours in the day we are absorbing the language in to our minds. Even though this may be passive learning, it still works.

If, for example, you imagine a sponge in a sink full of water; the sponge will still absorb the water, regardless even if you don’t squeeze it. So if it is taken into consideration that about 95% of my time spent in lectures and seminars is completely in German or Russian, and I do my passive work, I make progress. But at university there is a huge difference...the onus is completely down to you to do not only the work but also to be responsible for the immersion. I feel that they want us to create is a ‘foreign reality’.

My experience thus far at university leads me to believe that universities understand the fact that language learning is in fact ultimately down to you. Of course the seminars, lectures and lab sessions are important and useful. But if you don’t do any learning away from the classroom, you simply won’t learn enough. They seem to have cracked the mysterious language learning code...you have to learn a language yourself, it cannot be forced upon someone.

So that leads to two questions...

What is The Point of Studying Languages at University..?

So far even after just one year of studying at university, I feel that the freedom of learning that is given to you combined with the intensity allows you to progress very quickly and efficiently. But what I have found more important is that studying at university allows development of much more critical skills in terms of how you think and how to evaluate issues.

But What About Keeping Motivation..?

Just to put it out there, I am not a language learning veteran like some other guys on the internet who speak a whole plethora of languages (some of whom are just incredible: Richard Simcott, Benny Lewis, Olly Richards, Conor Clyne and Amir Ordabayev). But I have been learning languages seriously for about the past three and a half years with good success. The biggest hurdle for me is keeping up my motivation. I find that if I work a lot for a consistent period of time, I run the risk of burning out and losing my momentum completely. So I try to work in bursts of a couple of weeks. That means I try my best to work consistently for two weeks and then do more passive activities and make my learning less intense.

University has ultimately reinforced my belief that languages cannot just be forced upon people so that they learn. It is a long process, a journey which should hopefully be fun and somewhat memorable.

Tom Pandolfino is a student who has just completed the first year of studying Russian and German at University. As you can tell, he is experiencing so much success. In addition to being a language learner, Tom is also an accomplished musician and member of Blues Hawk. Check them out on Facebook - the next big thing in old school blues.

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