Learning Languages

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I’ve always considered the acquisition of another language to be one of the most valuable and rewarding ways to spend our free time, yet simultaneously one of the most time-consuming, not to mention incredibly difficult, things to learn about. I think it was Goethe who once mentioned that ‘Those who know nothing of foreign languages know nothing of their own,’ and I can’t help but believe in how extraordinarily accurate this aphorism is.

I started speaking German, on a regular basis, at the age of eleven years old. It was, of course, because of the compulsory study of a foreign language in England whilst studying for my GCSEs. I must admit that I’d always wanted to learn a language and was excited to do so when the opportunity final arose at ‘big school’. And so my love affair with German began.

For reasons unknown to me, I was able to seamlessly adopt the grammatical ins-and-outs of the language, focusing on masculine, feminine and neutral determiners with ease, whilst also picking up the basics about when my birthday was and where I lived, etc. (I still remember these by the way – ‘Ich lebe in England’ and ‘Mein Geburtstag ist am ersten November’). I remember having conversations with my peers, in German, and how this always allowed me to practise my speaking and listening skills, offering the cohort opportunities to correct and support (and sometimes laugh at) each other. For my speaking exam I was encouraged to use images to prompt me in the pronunciation of the language, focusing on the phonetics rather than the accuracy of written languages and, again, I can remember this opening my eyes and exciting me: I understood the language, and using prompts made it so accessible and relatable. It is worth remembering that at the age of eleven, right up to the age of sixteen, I was an academic sponge: absorbing practically all of the information I could, soaking up and holding onto anything deemed important enough for an exam.

Fast forward six years and we have a totally different story. When trying to self-teach myself Spanish and Italian for family holidays I had transformed, or rather deformed, from the all-absorbing sponge of knowledge to the scourer of uselessness: I tried learning phrases and grammar only to forget them the following day; language passing through the wiry cells of my mind. ‘But why?’ I’d often think, ‘Why can’t I get this? Why can’t I absorb this?’ It’s only now, four-to-five years later that I understand.

Like all learning, we need a combination of approaches for information to really stick with us. Students/Teachers/People are nothing if not totally malleable, but it’s how we are shaped that makes the difference. I underestimated the role of my German teacher at school: bringing the language to life; creating scenarios and events for us to consider; speaking in nothing but that language for entire lessons. For me, we really require personal interaction and a mixture of different approaches to really learn: independent learning is fine, but it must be considered as part of the approach and not in place of good old fashioned teaching.

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