Why Language Learning cannot be natural and easy, or: This is my Truth. Tell me Yours.

Sorry about the Manic Street Preacher inspired post title there. A version of this post was first published on the great Fair Languages blog.

Okay, this might be a controversial post but I want to tell you what I believe and don’t believe about language learning. This is a big market. The available products go way beyond dictionaries and verb tables, and language learners pick from a big range of courses in books, on CD, DVD and online.

Not convinced by superclaims here.

Not convinced by superclaims here.

The choice is a great thing. The advertising budgets, maybe not.

Just as I don’t believe that there is a cut-off age or DNA pattern for linguistic talent, I want to be skeptical about “too good to be true” claims too. In the time since I have started offering language lessons as a private tutor, I have seen an awful lot of ads. The claims were intimidating. They talk about being “fluent within weeks” or learning “naturally, like a child”. I can’t possibly guarantee anyone that! But making you magically fluent in a foreign language is not my philosophy.

Here’s what I don’t believe in

Language learning is never entirely natural, or surely not more natural than cooking or writing. You have got to learn it because you’re not born with it.

Is it ever “effortless”? Well, I don’t know. I realise that learning Spanish was so much easier for me than learning French, but that was because the rules are similar and because I had made an effort before. You make that effort at least once, but most likely hundreds of times. What the Brits so beautifully call “getting your head ’round something” is an effort, and I remain to be convinced about how learning a whole new set of rules for communication is meant to come without an effort.

And about learning like a child, I think that claim gets me up on the soapbox every time. If you’re over…what, twelve?..you’re not a child. How are you learning like a child? There are patterns and stories that you have started seeing in the world in your maturing process. You understand the world in a different way, so you will need more rules and make sense of them in your own way. Stop thinking about childlike learning as the ultimate method of acquiring a language, and start using what you’ve got!

But here’s what’s true to me

I do believe that language learning can be fun. The whole point of it is partly to have fun, and come on, opening the door to another culture has got to make you smile! No? Not even when Henning Wehn pulls faces?

Image Credit: Morguefile

Image Credit: Morguefile

It can also be fast, if you are willing to put your mind to it. The claim of becoming a comfortable speaker of a brand new language in less than half a year is not crazy, but you will have to work hard to get there. It’s not comfortable, it will push your limits and challenge anyone wanting to take it on. A friend recently told me about the “Insanity Workout” – there is a language learning equivalent, but don’t expect it to hurt less. And don’t put yourself under too much pressure. Progress is good, but it is not the pace that matters because you are learning for life (hopefully).

Language learning can even be free – of course it can, although if you want to pay for help you’re better off looking for value, not freebies. Above all, I believe that language learning is worthwhile and enriching, and that it’s worth making the effort and spending the money as well – if it’s well spent.

Follow these simple rules, and you will be safe:

  1. Find your medium and learning style
    Some learners love listening to CDs and Podcasts on the drive to work, others like writing everything down by hand. It’s not even an age thing – I’m on the cusp of digital nativeness, but when it comes to learning a language I often notice that words don’t stick if I see them on a screen only. I have to write things down and have that engagement with a body movement. Others learn much better from hearing and repeating phrases and words. What are your own experiences of finding your learning style?
  2. Try out freebies and see what sticks
    Most kind private tutors will offer you a free or cheap trial lesson, and many apps offer you free trials as well. These don’t mean there is a hidden obligation to buy – they mean that the provider is so confident in their product that they think you’ll be convinced. But we realise the truth of point 1). We are all different and what is simple and comfortable for one person might be a difficulty for the next. So make “try before you buy” your mantra, even in addition to reading real users’ reviews online.
  3. Invest when it’s right
    This is like investing in a gym membership or any other plan that requires commitment. Yes, I do notice how many sports and diet comparisons I use. You will need skepticism about over-positive claims, a bit of consideration and the commitment to keep returning to the service in order to get that value for money. But once you’ve found something that works for you, go forth and experience success. Good luck!