According to research, carried out by the British Council, figures show that just a quarter of UK adults can now hold even a basic conversation with someone in a language other than English. If you don’t find this statistic shocking you have my blessing to stop reading here because you probably won’t be interested in my tips for learning a second language. If, on the other hand, like me, you find this fact completely unacceptable please do read on.
Whether you are amongst the 25% who speak more than just our native English or the 75% who don’t, it cannot be overlooked that there are many benefits to learning a language whatever your age. Benefits include reducing the risk of the onset of dementia, improving multitasking skills and therefore productivity, improving wellbeing through exposure to other cultures, enhancing self-confidence and even improving our English grammar! It’s a no brainer as far as I can see – in actual fact learning a language develops a bigger brain according to recent medical study.
When discussing foreign language capabilities it always brings a smile to my face when people say to me, “…..yes, but it’s easy for you to speak other languages because you have a flair for languages. I have tried and just can’t learn a language!”
Perhaps if they knew that having spent more than 25 years of my life studying and working overseas to expand my language repertoire; this so-called “flair for languages” might have less to do with natural capability and a lot more to do with hard graft, application and commitment.
But whatever the approach I firmly believe that ANYONE CAN LEARN A FOREIGN LANGUAGE. There, I have said it, and what’s more I truly believe it. It won’t happen overnight but give it time and commitment and you will fall in love with language learning like I did all those years ago and I am still learning new language skills every day.
To back up my bold proclamation I have listed my top tips to help you achieve your foreign language aspirations and most importantly to enjoy the process.
1. Don’t be so “British” about learning and practising your language. What do I mean by that? Whilst running the risk of being controversially stereotypical about us Brits – we are quite a self-conscious bunch when it comes to having a go at speaking another language, especially as we get older. Picture the scene – you are on holiday in sun drenched Rome and seated in a beautiful piazza about to order lunch. A familiar argument then ensues about who is going to order (or rather who isn’t). As Brits we worry so much about not offending the waiter as well as not making a fool of ourselves if we mess up the order in our attempts to speak Italian. Many of us simply order in English (and unusually loudly for some strange reason) as it’s easier – but where is the fun in that?. Stop being so British! Give it a go, if you get it wrong the waiter will help you and afterwards you will feel the afterglow of having communicated in a language that isn’t your native tongue.
I have made so many embarrassing, language and pronunciation errors over the years: – in Russian the words for aniseed and anus are similar, in German the words for humid and homosexual are similar, in French the words for warm and “up for it” are the same but used in a different way. Yes I have had my share of humiliating situations. However, once you accept from the outset that you will make mistakes then you are free to give the language a go. You just have to take it in your stride and overlook the bemused stares from waiters/hotel receptionists/taxi drivers and shopkeepers etc and persevere despite your blushes.
2. Know your style of learning – I am not a personal development expert, but it’s well documented that we all have a preferred way to learn things which suits us individually. For some learning a language this might be listening and repeating, for others just reading and absorbing suits their learning requirements. By contrast, others need to be totally immersed and participative during the learning process. Whatever method of learning connects you with the new language theme being taught, it is vital to ensure that it is being communicated to you in a way that resonates with you personally.
3. Select an enjoyable and viable method of tuition – it sounds obvious doesn’t it, but if for example you work shifts, have sole childcare responsibilities or travel overseas a lot, signing up to a 3-term German evening class course not only is a waste of your hard earned cash, but also will gradually demotivate you when you don’t see the progress you expected. I cast my mind back to Monday night Spanish evening classes in Sutton Coldfield in 2003. More often than not after a rubbish first day back at work after the weekend my companion and I ended up in the Horse and Jockey pub next door to the school where our classes took place to drown our sorrows despite having paid all of our course fees up front. In the end we realised it was a poor choice of tuition method – but the wine was good in the pub!
We are so lucky in the 21st century to have instant access to so many resources around us to help us learn languages compared to the restrictions of group evening classes of only 10 years ago. At the click of a button you can find numerous apps, YouTube recordings , have 1to1 private tuition over Skype or face to face, follow blogs, e-books, podcasts, digital radio etc etc.
One of the best ways to identify the best method of tuition for you personally is to think about your learning style, your budget, your lifestyle and your language aspirations. For business language learning also consider any specific deadlines such as exhibitions, conferences, client meetings or product launches for which you need to achieve a certain level of fluency and work backwards from there in your choices.
4. Set yourself goals – this is a great way to stay motivated and enjoy the process of learning. If you are going overseas on holiday or business perhaps after an initial block of ten lessons you want to be able to check into your hotel, reserve a table at a restaurant and book tickets to an event all in the local language. When you return home to the UK then set some more new goals. Unlike other subjects we learnt at school, measuring fluency in languages can be difficult aside from academic exam grades. Continuously setting and achieving personalised goals is a great way to measure and realize progress.
One of my students last year undertook initial German language training for a major convention in Munich where her VIP client was going to be attending. I taught her the basics of introductions, greetings and pleasantries followed by typical conversations at exhibitions and conferences. Whilst of course not completely fluent at the event, her client was extremely impressed with her progress and the business relationship strengthened enormously. She just had a go and enjoyed the experience.
5. Practise, practise, practise – listening to language cds in the car once a week or undertaking one hour of face to face tuition a week is not enough to progress as much as you could. In between learning sessions apply what you have learnt to real life situations, do homework to test yourself in what you have learnt. A private tutor will give you valuable feedback on homework, focus on your strengths and weaknesses and highlight where any mistakes are being made and how best to avoid them in future. They can create a personalised programme for you incorporating your interests, hobbies and planned overseas travel activities. Alongside this, listen to the language on digital radio, you-tube, digital tv channels. You don’t always need to make notes just let the language wash over you sometimes and tune in. It is surprising how much you will passively absorb and understand.
6. Keep it simple – there is always the temptation to try to run before we can walk with any new skill and language learning is no different. By keeping things simple you can make yourself understood whilst increasing your confidence and practising your pronunciation and comprehension. Don’t worry that the sentence structure may seem a bit child-like. Over time, and without you realising it, your communications will become more sophisticated and fluent but give it time and keep it simple to start with.
7. If you don’t understand – ask! Another symptom of “Britishness” is that we prefer not to make a fuss so if we don’t fully understand what is being said we smile and pretend we know what is going on. In certain circumstances this is fine – if the waiter brings out sparkling water instead of still it isn’t a major issue. However, in a business situation, when you are building up trust and understanding, don’t be afraid to ask the speaker to paraphrase or repeat what they have said more slowly so that you completely understand the meaning, sentiment and context whilst continuing to build up your language skills.
8. Listen and imitate – when we were children learning to speak English we just listened to what those around us were saying and tried our best to copy. Learning a foreign language is no different. When being asked a question in a second language, pick up cues and vocabulary from the question as well as the body language of the person. It is common sense really, but for some reason the older we get, the less attuned we seem to be to new methods of communication. Don’t overthink it just get stuck in.
9. Masculine, feminine and neuter – what! We are so lucky with English that our nouns are not gender-specific. What I mean by that is unlike most other languages we have only 1 word for the definite article ie “the”. In German and Russian there are 3 genders, in French and Italian there are just 2 and so on. So, for the native English speaker this can seem quite a challenge not only to learn a whole raft of new vocabulary, but alongside this for nouns you have to learn the gender too. In some instances, the ending of the word may give clues as to the likely gender of the nouns but there is no shortcut to this – you simply have to learn the gender for every noun and through practise, practise, practise it will become familiar and more natural over time. But don’t worry if you get it wrong the context of what you are saying will overcome any grammatical errors.
10. Enjoy – Yes you need to put in the hours and yes you need to keep practising but you will get so much back. Learning a foreign language is not only beneficial to your mental health by creating new neural pathways when you use the language, but it also has major benefits to our wellbeing socially. It enables us to discover foreign countries on a deeper and more integrated level. The culture of a country is suddenly so much more than a website image or overview. Give it a go and encourage your kids to as well and don’t be surprised if the kids are better than you.
I hope that you have enjoyed this latest blog. If you are inspired to take up a new language, to help you get started I am running a competition offering 5 free hours of 1to1 Skype tuition in conversational French or German to one lucky entrant.
To enter, please answer the following questions
1. Can you name 2 key benefits of learning a foreign language?
2. How many genders are there for nouns in German?
Your answers and contact details should be submitted to firstname.lastname@example.org by April 2nd.
The winning entry will be selected at random from all correct entries on April 3rd.
Good luck, viel Glück, bonne chance, in bocca al lupo, buena suerte, удачи